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Forest Service spokesman, his wife killed in apparent murder-suicide

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Through raging wildfires, insect infestations and environmental battles, Matt Mathes had for the last two decades been the voice of the U.S. Forest Service in California.

But even close colleagues knew little of his home life other than his fondness for dogs and erudite appreciation of fine wine and cultured cinema.

Mathes, 54, left them grappling for answers Monday after news arrived that he and his wife, 52-year-old Karen Pang Mathes, were found dead from gunshot wounds in what police described as an apparent murder-suicide. The couple’s two dogs were also shot and killed.

In a handwritten suicide note found at the couple’s home in the Bay Area town of American Canyon, Mathes laid out how their property was to be dispersed after death, and included a copy of his will, investigators said.

He also spelled out the rationale for his life’s final act, citing his wife’s chronic illness. He was halfway through a two-week vacation after serving for months on end as wildfires charred Southern California in October and burned near Lake Tahoe early in the summer.

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Neighbors on the street where Mathes lived for nearly two decades said they had had little contact with him other than the occasional nod when he walked by with his dogs.

“It sounds like he was a pretty nice guy,” said American Canyon Police Chief Brian Banducci. “It seems he loved his wife and couldn’t live without her.”

Police said dispatchers received a call shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday from a man believed to be Mathes saying his wife was sick and wanted to die. He told the dispatcher he was going to kill his wife, his dogs and himself.

A SWAT team called to the scene found Mathes’ body on the floor of the bedroom. Nearby, his wife lay dead in the bed, authorities said. The bodies of the two dogs were nearby. Police found two handguns in the house, as well as the suicide note.

Capt. Gene Lyerla of the Napa County coroner’s office declined to go into specifics about the wife’s illness other than to say that it was chronic but not terminal. Colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific-Southwest Region headquarters in Vallejo said they had never met Mathes’ wife, nor even heard she had a debilitating illness.

“I knew he was married, but honestly until today I didn’t even know her name,” said Jason Kirchner, who worked in the cubicle next to Mathes’.

Kirchner said he saw nothing to indicate that Mathes was growing troubled. He worked diligently and exhaustedly, as always, his cubicle lined with tiny notes taped to the wall.

Janice Gauthier, the region’s communications director and Mathes’ boss, called him a consummate professional -- a bright, energetic and principled man with a penchant for backing the underdog.

He lent a hand to new workers and pushed for increased diversity in the ranks, she said.

“Matthew was an intellectual,” she said. “He was a real thinking person, very well-read, very cultured.”

He grew up in the South as well as New York, then spent a year in the Air Force Academy, leaving in part because his eyesight prohibited him from becoming a pilot, Gauthier said.

He received a journalism degree in Florida and worked briefly as a reporter before landing a job with the Forest Service, working up the ladder in Colorado and Washington, D.C., before arriving in California.

Gauthier said Mathes was “the voice of the Forest Service” in a state where 20% of all land is national forest.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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