After a kidnapped Denise Huskins turned up in Huntington Beach in March 2015, police in Vallejo cast her disappearance as a hoax, saying it appeared to be part of an "orchestrated event."
On Thursday, a Harvard-educated attorney pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, closing a chapter in a bizarre case that turned its harsh glare first on the victim and then on the Northern California police department.
Matthew Muller, 39, of South Lake Tahoe previously pleaded not guilty to a kidnapping charge for the March 23, 2015, incident. He abducted Denise Huskins for two days and demanded a $15,000 ransom for her, prosecutors said. Muller faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to acting U.S. Atty. Phillip A. Talbert.
"Muller committed a serious and violent crime that terrorized the victims in this case," Talbert said in a statement. "He violated the sanctity of their home and caused fear and panic for all those affected by the kidnapping."
Muller's attorney, Tom Johnson, spoke of how the case affected many, including Aaron Quinn, Huskins' boyfriend, who was questioned in her disappearance.
"It's a day that is also difficult not just for that family [Muller family], but also for the Huskins family, the Quinn family, because today recognized that that happened. That she was in fact kidnapped," Johnson said.
Federal prosecutors asked the judge to review Muller's plea change after finding evidence that Muller has had mental health problems and is medicated, according to court documents. Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley to investigate Muller's mental condition. In a sworn federal affidavit last year, Muller told investigators that he suffered from psychosis and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008.
Muller is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 19.
During the proceeding, the judge asked Muller what kind of medications he was currently taking. Muller said he received mood stabilizers, antidepressants and an antipsychotic. But he said he understood what was going on. When the judge asked how he pleaded, Muller said: "Guilty, your honor."
As part of the plea, the government agreed not to ask the court to sentence Muller to more than 40 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Muller is accused of entering Huskins and her boyfriend's home on Mare Island and drugging them. Using a stun gun and firearm, he ordered the couple to lie down as he blindfolded them and gave them a sleep-inducing liquid, prosecutors said. Muller issued his commands via prerecorded messages and threatened to use electric shock if the pair didn't comply.
Quinn was given a muscle relaxant and Nyquil and warned that he was being watched, according to the affidavit. His eyes were covered with swim goggles, and headphones were placed over his ears. Muller then placed Huskins in the trunk of the couple's car and drove to his South Lake Tahoe home, where he kept her there "under his control for two days," blindfolded and bound, prosecutors said.
As police investigated Huskins' disappearance, Quinn voluntarily provided blood samples. He also provided passwords so that authorities could check his email activity.
While he was holding Huskins captive, Muller sent Quinn emails demanding ransom, which was never paid, prosecutors said. He also sent emails to a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, alleging that the abduction was committed by an elite group of criminals who were trying to perfect their "kidnapping-for-ransom tactics."
The anonymous emailer wrote: "The Mare Island kidnapping was a training mission to test means and methods that would be used on higher net worth targets… We fancied ourselves a sort of Ocean's Eleven, gentlemen criminals who only took stuff that was insured from people who could afford it."
Two days later, Huskins was dropped off at her family's home in Huntington Beach.
Evidence gathered from a June 5, 2015, home-invasion robbery helped authorities link Muller to the kidnapping.
Muller was once an immigration attorney at a San Francisco law firm and a decorated Marine. He was disbarred in 2015 after he filed for bankruptcy, and was accused of failing to refund a client $1,250 when a court decided he had failed to competently represent the client.
Authorities arranged a flight for Huskins to Northern California to interview her. But she did not get on the plane, and Vallejo police grew suspicious. The couple's attorneys insisted the kidnapping was real. Four months later, the FBI announced that Muller was Huskins' kidnapper.
Huskins and Quinn have filed a federal lawsuit, saying because of the Police Department's allegations that her kidnapping was bogus, they were forced to move out of town and their reputations were tarnished. In July, the Police Department said in court documents that the kidnapping "instilled great fear within the Vallejo community" and asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
In court documents, retired Police Capt. James O'Connell said Huskins, who emerged wearing sunglasses and carrying luggage, "did not act like a kidnapping victim."
As she walked out of the courtroom, Quinn's mother said she was pleased with the plea agreement, calling it "stronger than I expected," though she said her son and Huskins still believe there was more than one kidnapper.
She had sharp words for Vallejo police, saying, "There won't be real justice until the people who botched up this investigation are held accountable."
Steve Reed, who said he has known Muller since he was a baby, described the strain on Muller's parents.
"They are people that have given in the community all these years… Good, solid people. Good citizens, proud of their son," he said. "And then something like this comes out of the blue… Their whole life is upside down. I think there's going to be a sense of relief when it's over."
1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from family and friends.
12:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the case.
Sept. 29, 11 a.m.: This article was updated with Matthew Muller pleading guilty.