Matthew Muller pleaded guilty Thursday morning to the 2015 kidnapping of Denise Huskins from her Vallejo home, ending the prospect of a drawn-out legal fight and giving Muller’s family hope that the Harvard-trained lawyer and former Marine may someday win release from prison.
The bizarre case at one point received national attention.
Muller, 39, agreed to the guilty plea after prosecutors signaled they would not press for the maximum sentence – life without the possibility of parole – and would give defense attorney Tom Johnson the opportunity to argue for a lesser stretch in federal prison.
“Mr. Muller took responsibility for what he did,” Johnson said Thursday after court, adding that the guilty plea was Muller’s way of shielding Huskins from having to testify.
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“Mr. Muller wanted to resolve the case,” Johnson said. “He did not want to have a trial where Ms. Huskins would testify. Mr. Muller was trying to show that he was accepting responsibility, and we feel that this is the way that will someday open a door for his return to society.”
When that will be is not certain. U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley set sentencing for Muller for Jan. 19, and he is not bound by the deal reached between Johnson and prosecutors.
A kidnap conviction could result in a life sentence for Muller, and Johnson said “we are very concerned about that.” He added that he expects to take an entire day at sentencing to present evidence and witnesses to seek a lesser sentence, although Johnson said he had not yet decided what that would be.
Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn – who was home with her when Muller broke into their home, drugged and bound them and abducted Huskins – were not present Thursday. But their attorney, Douglas L. Rappaport, said at a news conference in San Francisco – where the couple stood alongside him holding hands but not speaking – that both plan to speak at sentencing.
“That’s their reason for not speaking now,” Rappaport said in a session that was livestreamed over the internet by Bay Area media. “They want the judge to hear them and the world to hear them and what they went through.”
Aaron Quinn’s mother, Marianne Quinn, told reporters after the hearing that the case was “a tragedy for all of us,” including the Muller family.
She also complained about the way law enforcement initially handled the case, from the declaration by Vallejo police that the kidnap was a hoax to the failure of the Solano County District Attorney’s Office to file its own charges. Quinn said she wants charges for the fact that her son was drugged and tied up, and for the kidnap and sexual assaults of Huskins.
“This whole incident was botched from the beginning by the Vallejo police and the FBI,” she said. “It could have been stopped the first night if police had just done their jobs.”
Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams has said she has met with Huskins and Quinn in the past, but told The Sacramento Bee in June that she could not proceed yet because federal prosecutors still had all the evidence. She added that once the federal case against Muller is complete her office still could file charges. The plea agreement with federal prosecutors does not preclude such an action.
Prosecutors had warned in filings beforehand that Muller may have mental health issues and that Nunley should take care to ensure his “inquiry be as comprehensive as possible and include questioning about the specific names and dosage amounts of any medication the defendant has taken in the preceding week.”
Muller, who is being held in the Sacramento County jail, is a former Orangevale resident whose family members still live in the area and have attended his court hearings. He is a former Marine and Harvard-trained attorney who practiced immigration law in San Francisco. Family friend Steve Reed, a former Sacramento police officer and Muller family friend, said after court that Muller is remorseful.
“I’ve known Matt since he was born; (this is) totally out of his character, what took place,” Reed said. Since Muller has been in custody, Reed said, doctors have been able to get him on medications that have made him “a totally different person” than the man who abducted Huskins.
In court, Muller told the judge that he is being treated with mood stabilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotic medications.
Speaking in a strong, calm voice like the lawyer he once was, Muller told the judge that he understood the nature of the proceedings, and Nunley said he was satisfied that Muller understood “quite clearly” what was happening.
When Nunley asked him how he pleaded to the single count of kidnapping, Muller replied, “Guilty, your honor.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal noted in court that the plea agreement calls for the federal government not to seek other charges against Muller for any previous crimes, and that he won’t seek a sentence of more than 40 years.
But Segal, himself a Harvard-trained attorney, added that if Muller ever is released he must undergo the most intensive supervision, surveillance and monitoring available through technology at that time.
The bizarre case has attracted national attention, and a battery of television cameras crowded around people close to the families of Muller and the victims after Thursday’s hearing.
Vallejo police initially cast doubt on whether Huskins had been abducted and instead questioned Quinn about whether he had killed her. Investigators were skeptical because Quinn said he had been drugged and bound and warned by the kidnapper not to call authorities because he was being watched on a hidden camera.
Adding to the police skepticism was the fact that Huskins turned up two days later near her parents’ home in Huntington Beach, a development that led them to label the case a hoax.
Later, evidence would show that Huskins had been abducted and sexually assaulted twice, then released.
Vallejo police apologized to Huskins and Quinn, both now 31, but the couple have since filed lawsuits against the department.
Matthew Muller’s plea agreement