Harvard-educated former attorney sentenced to 40 years in prison for bizarre Vallejo kidnapping

It had been nearly two years since Denise Huskins had been in the same room as the man who kidnapped her in the early morning darkness.

Standing at a podium in a Sacramento courthouse, she faced him. Then she turned her words against the man — a Harvard-educated former attorney — who had bound, drugged and raped her twice.

“Now we meet face to face, eye to eye,” Huskins told Matthew Muller. “I’m Denise Huskins, the woman behind the blindfold.”

Huskins’ family and friends grew teary eyed as she described her pain after Muller kidnapped her on March 23, 2015, and after the Vallejo Police Department, at one point, publicly portrayed the case as a hoax.

In an emotional scene, Huskins asked that Muller be sentenced to life in prison.

“I know, without doubt or hesitation, that as long as he walks free, there will be more victims,” she said.

At the sentencing, Muller’s defense attorney argued for a 30-year sentence, citing his client’s struggles with mental illness.

“I’m sick with shame,” Muller said, adding that he would accept whatever sentence was imposed.

His parents sat with their younger son and their family and friends, as they waited in silence for U.S. District Court Judge Troy L. Nunley to hand down his sentence:

Forty years in prison.

The kidnapping took place before dawn as Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, slept in the master bedroom of his home on Mare Island. The couple awoke to find a stranger standing in the room.

Using a stun gun and a water pistol made to look like a gun, Muller ordered the couple to lie still while he bound and blindfolded them and gave them a sleep-inducing liquid, prosecutors said. A recorded message played over headsets, threatening electric shock if the couple did not comply with his orders.

Muller placed Huskins in the trunk of Quinn’s 2000 Toyota Camry and moved her to the trunk of another car before driving her to his family’s South Lake Tahoe home.

Huskins would later tell authorities she had been secured on a bed with a zip tie and a bike lock and blindfolded with a pair of blacked-out swim goggles. She was drugged repeatedly and sexually assaulted twice, she said.

While she was held, Muller called Quinn’s phone and sent emails demanding a ransom amount totaling $17,000.

During that time, authorities interrogated Quinn for hours, theorizing that he might have had something to do with his girlfriend’s disappearance.

Quinn objected and provided blood samples to prove he was drugged, and gave the FBI and police the passwords to his email accounts and his cellphone.

His father, Joseph Quinn, said he told police that his son had never even been in a fight in his life. But worry set in when he and his wife heard police read their son his Miranda rights.

“I started having chest pain,” Joseph Quinn said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We expected them to parade him out being arrested.”

Quinn was never arrested — and two days after her kidnapping, on March 25, Muller dropped Huskins off more than 400 miles away from Vallejo in Huntington Beach.

As relief set over her family, Vallejo police grew suspicious, questioning Huskins’ return and the fact that she reappeared carrying an overnight bag and wearing sunglasses.

Huskins “did not act like a kidnapping victim,” retired Vallejo police Capt. James O’Connell later said in a sworn statement.

Police offered the couple immunity for whichever would give up the other one first, their families said.

At about 9:30 that night, less than 24 hours after Huskins had reappeared, Vallejo police held a news conference, calling the case a “wild goose chase” and a waste of police resources.

“Today, there is no evidence to support the claims that this was a stranger abduction or an abduction at all,” Vallejo Police Lt. Kenny Park said in a statement at the time. “Given the facts that have been presented thus far, this event appears to be an orchestrated event and not a crime.”

Vallejo police posted the statement to its Facebook page, where it remains today, with dozens of people criticizing Quinn and Huskins. News outlets likened Huskins to the lead character in the novel “Gone Girl.”

“I knew what happened was real. What would be her motive to fake something like that? That’s not her,” her father, Mike Huskins, said in an interview from his Huntington Beach home. “I never doubted her story, never. But Vallejo did. They doubted it.”

A day after police had accused the couple of orchestrating the abduction, a person claiming to be the kidnapper sent an email to a local newspaper.

But the real confirmation came when the FBI announced that Muller was Huskins’ kidnapper. Evidence gathered from a June 5, 2015, home-invasion robbery helped authorities link Muller to the kidnapping.

The next month, Quinn and Huskins each received identical letters of apology from the Vallejo police chief — stating that the department’s comments had “proved to be unnecessarily harsh and offensive.”

“It is now clear that there was a kidnapping on March 23, 2015, that it was not a hoax or orchestrated event and that VPD conclusions were incorrect,” Police Chief Andrew Bidou said in the letters.

Huskins and Quinn have filed a federal lawsuit, saying because of the police department’s allegations that her kidnapping was untrue, they were forced to move out of the town, where they had worked as physical therapists. Their reputations were tarnished, they said.

“In retrospect, it almost makes sense that he should have stayed home, paid the kidnappers and then reported it,” Joseph Quinn said. “You go to the police for help and this is what you get? You get treated like this? They got victimized twice.”

At the sentencing, Quinn and Huskins shared a kiss before he rose to speak. Quinn recalled Muller telling him that it would be 48 hours and the couple would be able to move on with their lives.

It has been more than 17,000 hours since then, Quinn said.

“When does the 48 hours end?” he asked.

How many times would he have to wake up Denise from a nightmare, he wondered. How many times would she have to wake him from one.

Huskins’ voice had an edge of anger as she spoke about Muller, whom she referred to as “the voice.” When she recalled the sexual assault, she broke down in tears, prompting Quinn to hug and stand beside her.

Huskins said she sleeps with a hammer by the bed.

Both Quinn and Huskins said they still believe more than one person was involved in the kidnapping.

As the victims spoke, Muller’s parents sat in silence.

In a lengthy interview last year from her Orangevale home, Joyce Zarback and her ex-husband said their son seemed on track in life — a decorated U.S. Marine who graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College and went on to Harvard Law School.

In 2009, Muller confided in his parents that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder the year before, they said. That year, he had a psychotic break.

After that, he cycled in and out of jobs.

He was eventually disbarred in January 2015 after he was found to have failed to perform competent legal services for a client in an immigration case, according to records.

His parents never learned the full extent of his struggles until he was put in jail and wrote them letters explaining it all, they said.

“He was able to maintain when he wanted to such sanity or facade of sanity,” his mother said, “so that it was really hard to see that he was going through all of this.”

“The what ifs are just endless,” Zarback added. “I keep thinking, what could we have done, what should we have done, how could we have done this differently? Matt was not receptive to anything so it was pretty difficult. He’s an adult.”

His father grew teary-eyed as he spoke about visiting in his son in jail. Sometimes, he said, he wakes up in the middle of the night thinking it’s all a dream.

Muller could still face sexual assault charges in state court.

As his parents shared their pain, they also reflected on the people their son had hurt.

“All the pain and everything we’ve gone through, on the other side, the amount of pain he’s caused others — the victims,” Joyce Zarback said. “We feel equally just horrified by what’s he done and what pain this has caused them.”

Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Twitter: @Brittny_Mejia

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UPDATES:

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.

3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the sentencing.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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