Crime - Sacto 911

Parents of UC Davis student struggle to understand murder-suicide

Candles were placed in a patio in front of Gladys Valley Hall, part of UC Davis’ veterinary teaching compound, at the vigil Saturday night for Whitney Engler.
Candles were placed in a patio in front of Gladys Valley Hall, part of UC Davis’ veterinary teaching compound, at the vigil Saturday night for Whitney Engler.

The parents of a UC Davis veterinary student struggled Saturday to understand how a platonic relationship and a short-term rental arrangement ended with their daughter being the victim in a murder-suicide.

While Davis police have not publicly revealed who pulled the trigger, the parents of Whitney Engler said Saturday that officials told them their daughter was the victim.

The Englers said they are perplexed about what could have led to their daughter’s death.

“It’s mystifying,” Dennis Engler said by phone from San Diego. “Nothing I’ve learned leads to even a hint of an explanation, which might never be forthcoming.”

Engler, 27, and Joseph Hein, 23, were found dead early Friday on the second floor of a west Davis duplex, seven hours after police surrounded the home following a mysterious 911 call.

The caller stated that two people – a man and a woman – were dead from gunshot wounds, according to authorities. Officials believed the call may have been a hoax so they waited until 1:30 a.m. Friday to enter the building after sending tear gas through the residence.

Dennis Engler said his daughter was not in a romantic relationship with Hein and that the pair had developed a friendship through cycling. He noted that she did not own any weapons.

Hein’s family owns the Freewheeler Bicycle Center in downtown Davis. The family declined comment Saturday, saying only they were grieving.

On his Facebook profile, Hein posted several pictures of a black, semi-automatic rifle last year. In December, Hein posted a picture of a card that read, “Here lies Joseph Hein, 1991-2015, devoted friend, lover of __________.”

Lawrence Palinkas, a professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California, said, “The pictures certainly indicate that this individual had already imagined himself no longer living.” Palinkas is an expert on the risk factors for mental illness.

Police have withheld the name of the 911 caller, but said the individual had registered weapons. That fact forced officers to proceed with caution Thursday night, according to Lt. Thomas Waltz, a Davis Police Department spokesman.

Waltz said Saturday more details will emerge after the autopsies are performed. They are scheduled for Monday, according to the Yolo County Coroner’s Office.

Engler’s friends held a vigil in her memory Saturday night at UC Davis, where she was expected to graduate in May. More than 200 people gathered on the patio of Gladys Valley Hall, part of the university’s veterinary teaching compound. Most of them were students, many were in tears, all of them holding small candles. A few hundered small cups holding candles were placed on the ground, outlining a walkway to the patio.

“I’m here to support my friends and colleagues at the school and make sure Whitney is remembered in a positive way, because she really was such a wonderful person,” said Caitlan Koontz, Engler’s friend and fellow veterinary student, before the vigil which she helped organize.

“It’s been a rough two days, but we’re hanging in there,” said co-organizer Anjolie Daryani, Engler’s friend who is also a veterinary student, before the vigil. “It’s been really hard. This is our family.”

Karen Nikos Rose, UC Davis associate director of communications, also attended the ceremony.

“We are very saddened by this horrible tragedy and we hope it’s resolved quickly so people can have closure,” she said.

Engler owned 20 finches, two parrots, three cats and a service dog named Rosie. Friends are searching for one cat and Rosie, who fled during the police siege. All the birds and two of the cats are being cared for in the university veterinarian hospital.

“The students are very focused on finding Rosie the dog. It would be a nice memory for Whitney if they could find the dog,” Rose said. Anyone with information about Rosie is asked to call (530) 574-7970.

According to her father, Engler moved in with Hein around December because her previous home was too crowded. Dennis Engler said the arrangement was simple: his daughter would cook in exchange for free rent for five months.

“I know nothing about him other than he had bigger space for Whitney and her things,” Dennis Engler said of Hein. “I had absolutely no reason to worry beforehand.”

Virginia Bigler-Engler, the mother, said her daughter had planned to come home that evening to San Diego, driving overnight from Davis. She was expected to remain home for a month while she studied for the medical boards and interviewed for jobs.

“Life was coming together for her,” Bigler-Engler said. “She had wanted to be a vet her entire life.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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