Matthew Daniel Muller served in the Marines in Afghanistan, graduated from two of the most prestigious universities in the country and was a research assistant at Harvard Law School before starting to practice law back home in California.
Somewhere along the way, however, life went terribly awry for the 38-year-old Orangevale man, who faces disbarment and bankruptcy and now sits in an Alameda County jail as the suspect in at least two kidnap plots.
Depending on whom you believe, Muller may be the mastermind of a sophisticated kidnap ring that used a drone, high-tech computer software and surveillance techniques in preparation for a huge score that would set him up for life.
Or, as his own lawyer says, he may be so severely deranged that he lapses into “manic phases, psychosis and grandiose thinking.”
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“He was summa cum laude at Pomona College, then went to Harvard Law School,” Sacramento defense attorney Tom Johnson said Monday, after federal authorities unsealed court documents involving Muller that read like a pulp fiction thriller. “It’s been a slow ride down.”
Muller is suspected in at least two kidnap attempts, including a celebrated case in which Vallejo police initially declared that a woman faked her own abduction in March.
On Monday, the FBI issued a statement making clear that authorities now believe the woman, Denise Huskins, was a kidnapping victim and that Muller may have been involved in similar cases.
Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, have maintained their innocence since Quinn, 30, called Vallejo police at 1:53 p.m. on March 23 and recounted a bizarre tale of the pair being awakened at gunpoint and tied up in their Mare Island home in the early morning hours, then forcibly drugged.
Huskins, 29, was driven away by the alleged kidnapper and later dropped off in Huntington Beach. Vallejo police immediately were skeptical about whether she had been taken against her will, announcing at a press conference that the department had “wasted all these resources on basically nothing.”
A 56-page criminal complaint unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento labels the incident a kidnapping and ties Muller to it and a similar incident in Dublin last month in which someone broke into a couple’s home in the middle of the night and tried to tie them up.
The husband fought the intruder, who subsequently fled and left behind a cellphone that authorities used to locate Muller, court documents state.
In both cases, the assailant woke the sleeping couples by aiming a flashlight at them and trying to subdue them with plastic zip ties used as handcuffs.
In the Vallejo case, Quinn reported being awakened by a bright light, heard a noise that was similar to the deploying of a Taser and the voice of a man who demanded that both victims lie facedown on the bed.
Huskins was ordered to bind her boyfriend with zip ties. Both were drugged and told to enter the bedroom closet.
The complaint says Quinn’s eyes were covered with tape-covered swim goggles and, once in the closet, headphones were placed over his ears that played a message that provided instructions and indicated the break-in was being performed by professionals to collect debts.
According to court documents, the intruder then obtained financial account numbers and passwords from Quinn. The intruder also got information from the residence’s Wi-Fi router, the boyfriend’s laptop and Internet accounts.
Quinn was placed on the couch and told he was being watched via a camera. He eventually fell asleep and, when he awoke later, freed himself and saw that Huskins, his laptop and his car were gone.
His cellphone contained a voice mail message with a $15,000 ransom demand and instructions to tell anyone who asked how the funds would be used to say the money was to purchase a ski boat, court documents say.
Huskins was released two days later in Huntington Beach, leading police to label the incident a hoax and sparking an indignant denial from Huskins’ attorney.
Quinn and Huskins appeared with their lawyers at a news conference Monday afternoon. The couple did not speak, but their attorneys said the police department’s dismissal of the alleged crime as a hoax had deeply affected both of them and made it difficult as they searched for work. At one point during the news conference, Huskins’ lip trembled and her eyes welled up.
“Mr. Muller could spend the rest of his life in prison and it’s not going to resolve the issue,” said Daniel Russo, Quinn’s attorney, who appeared with Douglas Rappaport, who represents Huskins.
The lawyers said the couple could not speak publicly in order to preserve the case against Muller. The lawyers also declined to provide any personal information about their clients.
Russo said he remains convinced more than one person was involved in the kidnapping. “I think it’s reasonable to think there are more people involved and running loose,” he said.
The lawyers said they don’t know why Quinn and Huskins were targeted. “To our knowledge there was absolutely no connection whatsoever (with Muller), and that’s what makes this particularly frightening,” Rappaport said.
Included in the court documents unsealed Monday were emails sent by someone claiming to represent “the group that kidnapped” Huskins and describing in great and outlandish detail the nuts and bolts of their operation.
The emails, sent to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry K. Lee, described the group as “more than 2 and fewer than 8 in number,” including college graduates who started out running an auto theft ring on Mare Island.
The emails claim the group graduated from car thefts to kidnapping, and that Huskins’ abduction was a trial run before they moved on to wealthy victims.
“We fancied ourselves a sort of ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ gentlemen criminals who only took stuff that was insured from people who could afford it,” one email says.
Another sent March 28 went on for 20, single-spaced pages and alternately defended Huskins as a legitimate kidnapping victim and described the Robin Hood-like credo her captors supposedly abide by of not harming victims or taking anything from people who could not afford to lose the loot.
The email also boasted of the group’s sophistication and their high-tech methods.
“We had ip surveillance, game cameras, a full electronic perimeter, you name it,” that email states. “Even a drone. A multi-thousand-dollar custom drone, not a kid’s toy.”
The email describes the group’s “countermeasures” to avoid detection, including wearing full-body wetsuits to avoid leaving behind DNA, and said the suits could also come in handy in case of “a swimming escape if the island were sealed off.”
“I will pause to note how fantastical all of this sounds,” the email notes at one point. “Because even I can’t help but think that as I write.”
The writer claimed the “weapons” pointed at Huskins and Quinn were spray-painted squirt guns with laser pointers and flashlights attached, and assured that “if you do manage to pull me out of a hole someday, good job, well played. I’m not going to hurt anybody.”
“May God have mercy on us,” one email says. “We expect none from you.”
The last email was received on March 31, and the case appeared to have ground to a halt until last month, when Vallejo police called the FBI and said they were working a home invasion in Dublin that was similar to the victims’ account of the Huskins abduction.
That June 5 intrusion took place at 3:34 a.m. and ended when the suspect fled after the husband fought back and was hit in the head with a flashlight. Authorities found a cellphone at the home that they later traced to Muller’s mother’s home in Orangevale on Mississippi Bar Drive.
She told investigators that her son said he had lost his phone, and she said that he spends most of his time at the family’s South Lake Tahoe home on Genoa Avenue.
Investigators found a Ford Mustang near that home that had been reported stolen from a Vallejo street on Jan. 3. One of the earlier emails mentions the car, court documents state.
At 7:15 a.m. on June 8, Alameda County sheriff’s detectives executed a search warrant and found Muller at the South Lake Tahoe home, along with a laptop that belonged to Quinn.
The detectives also found two-way radios, a Super Soaker water gun painted black with a flashlight and laser pointer taped to it, and swim goggles covered in tape, including a pair that had a long blond hair stuck to the tape. Huskins has long blond hair, court documents note.
They also found zip ties and a Huntington Beach address in the Mustang’s navigation system that matched the location where Huskins was dropped off in March.
After his arrest, Muller told investigators he served in the Marines from 1995 through 1999 and “suffered from Gulf War illness, problems with psychosis, and in 2008 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.” Records show Muller has been troubled for some time.
The FBI noted Monday in a prepared statement that the investigation is continuing.
No one answered the door at Muller’s Orangevale residence Monday.
Court papers note that Muller “was a subject” in a 2009 investigation in Palo Alto involving burglary, criminal threats, robbery and attempted sexual assault. No one was arrested in that investigation.
Muller is also the target of disbarment proceedings, partly for failing to reimburse an “unearned fee” and refusing to respond to the accusation when called upon to do so by the State Bar Court, according to bar documents on its website. Johnson, Muller’s attorney, said his client had stopped showing up for appearances in court. Johnson said his client had a general civil practice, but “utterly failed at it.”
Muller petitioned for bankruptcy protection last year, listing assets of less than $50,000 and liabilities of between $100,000 and $500,000 that he ascribed mostly to consumer debt.
He currently is being held in lieu of $380,000 bail in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail on seven felony counts charging him in the Dublin home invasion with robbery and burglary.
Johnson said Muller’s mental state will play a large role in how any prosecution unfolds.
“Matt Muller suffers from significant, ongoing and at times debilitating mental health issues,” he said. “We will determine how those issues may bear on his defense to kidnapping in federal court.”