Man, located after he left phone at robbery, now pleads guilty to kidnapping | Ars Technica
The man accused of masterminding an elaborate tech-fueled kidnapping scheme in Vallejo, California, has pleaded guilty.
Thomas Johnson—the attorney representing Matthew Muller, who is himself a former United States Marine and disbarred lawyer—had previously put forward a novel legal theory during a federal court hearing in Sacramento earlier this year.
Johnson argued unsuccessfully that, because his client had not, in fact, abandoned a Samsung Galaxy phone following a separate June 2015 burglary in Dublin, California, Muller did have a privacy interest in the phone. When law enforcement used the handset to call 911 to determine its number, they eventually located its owner. Muller was arrested days later. (In this case, the judge didn’t buy Johnson’s argument—the search was not considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.)
As Ars reported previously, while executing that arrest, authorities found materials related to a separate kidnapping reported earlier in the year. The kidnapping case was wild and harrowing. A Vallejo woman and her boyfriend were bound with zip-ties and made to wear blackened swimming goggles. The man was instructed to send $15,000 to secure her release, while she was eventually driven to her hometown in Southern California and released two days later. As the Sacramento Bee reported, investigators believed the kidnapping story that the couple told them was a hoax—until the victims spoke out in public and the kidnappers contacted the Vallejo Police Department to insist the story was authentic.
Muller eventually pleaded guilty to the burglary, but, until recently, he had denied any role in the kidnapping of Aaron Quinn and Denise Huskins of Vallejo.
According to the plea agreement:
On June 8, 2015, Dublin Police Services of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department searched Muller’s South Lake Tahoe residence and his stolen white Mustang. They were investigating a similar, separate nighttime residential burglary committed on June 5, 2015 in Dublin. The Dublin investigators seized items described by the Victims and depicted in the email attachments. They seized taped-over swim goggles that still had a blonde hair stuck to them. They seized a water pistol with a laser pointer taped to it. They seized computers. They seized zip ties. One of the computers Muller had stolen from Quinn. The GPS history of the stolen Mustang contained as a user-input destination the place in Huntington Beach where Huskins was dropped off. Officers seized a military-style mesh vest. In its pockets, they found the blacked-out swim goggles, a portable speaker, and duct tape.
On June 30, 2015, the FBI conducted a second search of Muller’s South Lake Tahoe residence. They also searched Muller’s biological parents’ respective residences, a Vallejo storage locker, and the electronic devices seized by the Dublin investigators.
In South Lake Tahoe, FBI photographed the room where Huskins had been held. It matched the photo attached to one of the anonymized emails. They also found a blonde hair under the bed and seized a piece of cardboard that matched the one used to black out the window in the room photograph. In the Vallejo storage locker, FBI found aerial surveillance drones consistent with the narrative in one the anonymized emails.
After the Thursday court hearing, Johnson told reporters that his client “took responsibility” for his actions and that his client took the plea deal so that Huskins would not have to testify.
“Mr. Muller was trying to show that he was accepting responsibility, and we feel that this is the way that will someday open a door for his return to society,” he said, according to the Bee.
The Bee also noted that prosecutors will not seek a sentence of more than 40 years—but had Muller gone to trial, and been convicted, he could have faced a life sentence.
US District Judge Troy Nunley has set Muller’s sentencing for January 19, 2017.