It happened early one bright August morning in the most unlikely of places, amid the beach homes, surf shops and vegetarian restaurants of small, sleepy Leucadia. Gary King--surfer, carpenter, lifelong North County resident--was out getting some air after an all-night party. He was drunk and despondent over a recent break-up with his girlfriend.
For a reason no one will ever know, King, 23, entered a salvage yard on Old Highway 101 owned by Eugene Chappee. Chappee--World War II veteran, local resident since 1945, father of two--spotted King and decided to make a citizens’ arrest for trespassing.
A chase ensued. Minutes later, after leaping fences, crossing backyards and briefly losing King in the maze of narrow streets atop the steep Leucadia bluffs, Chappee, 63, got his man and put him in a headlock. King died of asphyxiation in his grip.
There are two stories here. In the first, the version initially spotlighted in local news reports, a semi-retired military veteran who walks with a limp triumphs over a strapping, young would-be burglar in a heroic and laudable effort to protect his property. The death seems a regrettable but justifiable accident.
In the second story, one offered by King’s family and friends, an overzealous man plagued by thefts through the years and convinced that every stranger is out to rip him off overreacts and chokes an intoxicated young trespasser to death. The assailant, they maintain, used unreasonable force and should pay for his crime.
On Jan. 15, these two versions will collide in North County Superior Court when Eugene Chappee faces involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the Aug. 9 strangulation death of Gary King. It is a case that has stunned the mellow coastal community of Leucadia, where King grew up and attended school, and Chappee has lived, raised a family and operated a business.
It is also a case that nearly slipped into the legal abyss. After a routine investigation, sheriff’s homicide detectives concluded that the death was “accidental homicide” and did not merit prosecution. Initially, the district attorney agreed and declined to file charges against Chappee.
But King’s parents, believing the case was dismissed too hastily and unwilling to accept the fact that their son deserved to die for crossing another man’s property, protested and asked the district attorney to reconsider.
To substantiate their claim, the Kings hired an attorney and a private investigator, who interviewed witnesses, examined the scene of the death and helped unveil information that persuaded North County’s Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Philip Walden to take a second look at the case.
On Nov. 27, charges were filed against Chappee, who was said to have used “excessive force” in attempting to restrain King. He pleaded innocent at his arraignment earlier this month. If convicted, he could face four years in prison.
“The D.A. was misled by sheriff’s deputies who just figured this one was cut and dried and didn’t look very deep,” said Harvey King, Gary’s father. “The initial sheriff’s report was that the death took place in Chappee’s yard. That is what the D.A. believed until we showed him that my son was actually killed three blocks away. The D.A. just didn’t have all the facts.”
Walden confirmed that the sheriff’s “report made it sound like the death was right next to Mr. Chappee’s residence. Once I obtained aerial photographs . . . it was apparent it actually occurred some distance away.”
Walden said he was also told by a sheriff’s detective that “the family originally agreed it was an accident and did not desire prosecution.” Harvey King denies ever expressing such feelings and notes that he protested vigorously when investigators suggested it was “an open and shut case.”
But dwarfing all the legal wrangling is the tragedy of Gary King’s death--three blocks from the Neptune Avenue home in which he was raised--13 days before his 24th birthday.
“It is a very sad and very tragic case,” Walden said. “And it is also a very difficult one to prosecute because Mr. Chappee is not your classic criminal. He was in his home and in effect he was defending his property and thought that what he was doing was right. Unfortunately, it ended in a very tragic death.”
Chappee’s Encinitas attorney, Thorpe Nolan, said he also sympathizes with the Kings: “Of course the family is upset at losing a loved one, but when the facts come out at the trial they will clearly show this was an accident and there was no malicious intent.”
There were 400 people at Gary King’s funeral. His parents weren’t surprised; Gary was always “Mr. Sociability.”
“He loved to water-ski, surf, snow ski--do anything that was active and involved people,” recalled Harvey King, who lives with his wife, Lanora, in Cardiff and owns a small electronics sales company in San Diego. “After his death, we got 25 letters from friends, his old teachers, his dentist, people he had touched who were shocked and knew that Gary wasn’t a burglar or a doper or anything.”
King was also a gentle person with a hearty sense of humor who “never had so much as a fistfight in school and would turn a cheek rather than create a problem,” his father said. “He was a well-liked guy who lived on the beach and loved life.”
Although he was between construction jobs at the time of his death, King had money in the bank and a brand new four-wheel-drive truck; he had no reason, his friends say, to be in the salvage yard.
On Aug. 9, King was depressed. His girlfriend of two years had moved out a week earlier and “he was really bummed out,” said Brian McCarver, who had known King since elementary school. “It was really out of character for him, and we were having a few beers trying to cheer him up.”
McCarver last saw his friend at 2 a.m. when he left King’s house. Five hours later, King encountered Chappee.
Chappee is a familiar figure in North County. A former mechanic who has owned salvage yards throughout the area, Chappee moved to Leucadia after serving overseas with the Army in World War II.
Today, he and his wife, Margaret, live in a pink stucco house that overlooks the wrecking yard King is said to have entered. Their property, sandwiched between a liquor store and a Mexican restaurant along the busy coast highway, is surrounded by a metal fence 6 to 8 feet high and secured with locked metal gates bearing “No Trespassing” signs. Cars with flat tires and other ailments line the edge of the road near the property.
For years, Chappee ran a towing service and hauled abandoned or damaged cars for the county Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies. He sold that business in 1977 but continues to rent storage space in his yard to the California Highway Patrol, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies that impound vehicles, his attorney said.
Chappee declined to be interviewed. But his wife insisted that King’s death was a mistake, that her husband is not a violent man: “He may talk loud and big, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He never even spanked our kids. I had to do that.”
Neither Chappee nor the family knew King. His wife said their daughter recently got out an old school yearbook to see what he looked like.
This is not the first time Chappee’s name has been in the news. Earlier this year, the City of Carlsbad concluded a lengthy battle to close Chappee’s salvage yard in the southwestern corner of that community. City officials said they considered the yard--which held rusting auto bodies piled as high as 40 feet--an eyesore.
“Under our zoning, junkyards aren’t a permitted use, but in 1972 we agreed to give Mr. Chappee a permit to operate for 10 years,” said Carlsbad City Atty. Vincent Biondo. “At the end of 10 years, he refused to leave . . . so we went to court. It took three more years and three more court appearances to get him out.”
But owners of businesses adjacent to the Chappee place call him a good, vigilant neighbor, a man who keeps to himself. Angel Salazar, who has owned La Especial Norte restaurant for eight years, said Chappee has called him at home numerous times with reports of “suspicious noises” at Salazar’s business.
“He is very careful, very watchful, nervous about strangers,” Salazar said. “You have to be alert around here. When my alarm system went off, he came over to check it out. When he heard noises in my place, he called. There was no problem, but I’m glad he called.”
Lee Salem, owner of the liquor store immediately south of the salvage yard, also has received calls at home from Chappee. Once, his neighbor’s summons helped prevent a burglar who had broken into the store from making off with cash, Salem said.
Carlsbad artist Gary Grotey said he has had a somewhat different exposure to Chappee’s crime preventive behavior. Fifteen years ago, Grotey said, he was walking home from a party around midnight and, unfamiliar with the territory, took a shortcut that led him across the rear of Chappee’s property.
“Suddenly, I heard dogs barking and I knew I should get out of there,” Grotey recalled. He said Chappee confronted him beside the highway, accused him of attempted burglary and said he planned to hold Grotey “for questioning.”
“I tried to explain that I wasn’t there to do him any harm or take anything off his property but he would hear none of it,” Grotey said. “I started to leave, he made a move for me, and I ran like hell home. He chased me all the way but never got his hands on me.”
Grotey said he had “all but forgotten” the incident until he saw newspaper accounts of King’s death, which prompted him to call Victor and tell him about his encounter with Chappee.
Victor said he forwarded Grotey’s account to the district attorney. Chappee refused to comment.
According to sheriff’s homicide Detective Roger Bohren, Chappee awoke at 7 a.m. on Aug. 9 to find King inside his salvage yard. Believing him a burglar, Chappee set out after King while his wife telephoned sheriff’s deputies.
The Kings’ attorney, Steve Victor, said two witnesses saw the men struggling in the driveway of a Neptune Avenue home, about three blocks from Chappee’s place.
“One person saw Chappee on Gary’s back, holding his neck, and advised him to let Gary come up for air because he was turning blue,” Victor said. Then Chappee released his grip, “But by then it was too late,” the attorney said.
The coroner’s report said King died of strangulation. Toxicology tests showed that King was legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.16%, and that there was a trace of cocaine in his body.
Detective Bohren said his investigation led him to conclude that the death was an “accidental homicide” because there was an absence of “criminal intent.” Bohren forwarded the case to the district attorney, and prosecutors agreed with his assessment.
That spurred the Kings into action.
“I was initially told by sheriffs that Gary was in the wrecking yard, struggling with a man, who choked him and killed him, thinking him a burglar,” Harvey King said. “When I got up the courage to visit the site where Gary died and saw it was over two blocks from the yard, I realized something was wrong.”
King said he believes sheriff investigators’ attitude toward his son’s case was one of “the old man they knew kills a young drunk kid he makes out as a criminal. Some folks might feel it was justified . . . If it had been the other way around, they would have had the young guy thrown in jail.”
Anxious to “get truth out,” the Kings hired an attorney and launched their own investigation. The fruit of their efforts--which included interviews with witnesses, paramedics and acquaintances of Chappee’s--was presented to Walden along with a request that the district attorney re-examine the case.
Walden said several factors, including his realization that the death took place blocks from the salvage yard, persuaded him to charge Chappee with involuntary manslaughter.
“I was initially led to believe the family did not want to prosecute, and that position was not inconsistent with the facts of the case,” Walden said. “I discovered later that information was not accurate, that there had been a failure in communication (between the Kings and sheriff detectives).”
Further, Walden said, “We found out there was cocaine in the kid’s system and . . . that he was intoxicated and to some extent unable to defend himself. In that condition, he would not have been so difficult to apprehend or detain.”
Chappee’s attorney is “absolutely confident” of a victory for his client in court. Nolan said that he intends to argue that Chappee, a man plagued by thefts in the past, had a legitimate right to defend his property and that King’s death was “purely accidental.”
In addition, Nolan plans to challenge the cause of death: “I intend to have the coroner explain his findings very thoroughly.” He would not elaborate.
Margaret Chappee, too, can’t believe her husband’s hands ended the life of Gary King; she contends he may have choked on his chewing gum. Nonetheless, she said, the episode “has messed everything up. I’m real upset. My husband lies awake in the morning and worries about it.”
Meanwhile, the Kings say they are pleased that their son’s death will finally be scrutinized in court--and thankful that they had the money and initiative to conduct their own investigation. A fair hearing, they say, is all they ever wanted.
“We just want to get to the bottom of this,” Harvey King said, “because if someone is committing a misdemeanor, you can’t just kill them.
“If someone comes into your home with a gun, then blow them away, no questions asked . . . . But to aggressively pursue a trespasser for two blocks and then, knowing he is intoxicated, attack him? I don’t think that’s justified.”