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Man Pleads Guilty To Elaborate Kidnapping Initially Deemed A Hoax By Calif. Police

Lawyer Anthony Douglas Rappaport speaks at a news conference with his clients, Denise Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn (right) in San Francisco on Thursday.
Sudhin Thanawala
Lawyer Anthony Douglas Rappaport speaks at a news conference with his clients, Denise Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn (right) in San Francisco on Thursday.

A California man pleaded guilty Thursday in a federal court to an elaborate kidnapping that law enforcement had initially branded a hoax.

In court documents, 39-year-old defendant Matthew Muller is identified as a former Marine who suffers from bipolar disorder. He is described as a Harvard-educated lawyer who was later disbarred.

"Muller calmly told U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley that he was taking antidepressant, mood-stabilizing and anti-psychotic drugs," according to The Associated Press. "His attorney, Thomas Johnson, later said Muller has been diagnosed as manic and depressive."

After the March 2015 abduction, and public statement by police that it had not happened, a San Francisco-based journalist received multiple emails from the apparent perpetrator, repeatedly insisting that victim Denise Huskins had told the truth, and providing corroborating photos and evidence. The Vallejo Police Department also received an email demanding that they issue an apology for portraying the victim "as an unstable hoaxster."

The Crime

This is how the bizarre kidnapping played out, according to court documents:

On March 23, 2015, Aaron Quinn called the Vallejo Police Department to report that his girlfriend had been kidnapped. According to court documents, he said he and Huskins were drugged "by force." The "group of assailants" then kidnapped her using his vehicle.

Matthew Muller after he was arrested on robbery and assault charges.
/ AP
Matthew Muller after he was arrested on robbery and assault charges.

When police arrived, Quinn showed them an area delineated with red duct tape. He said the "assailants" had ordered him not to leave the tape boundaries and said they would watch him through a motion-sensor camera they installed.

According to court documents, Quinn described an intricate attack. He said that an unknown number of people burst in at about 3 a.m., while he and Huskins were sleeping. An assailant blindfolded him and made him listen to prerecorded instructions on what to do next.

Quinn was informed by the message that he would be drugged. An assailant took his "vitals," possibly including blood pressure.

Quinn was told that they knew where he banked and where he grew up. He was told this was a "professional group there to collect financial debts" that intended to kidnap his female companion. He was advised he would have to pay $15,000 for her return, "and if he did not comply she would be hurt, first by electric shock, then by cutting her face."

Quinn fell asleep, according to court documents, and when he woke up his car and his girlfriend were gone. He had a new email, asking for two payments of $8,500. "If asked about the withdrawals, he was to explain that the money was to purchase a ski boat," the complaint read. Shortly after, Quinn got in touch with the police.

Quinn's car was found later than night, with no sign of his girlfriend.

The Return

On March 25, the court documents say Huskins was freed — dropped off in Huntington Beach. She told police that she had been taken to a "quiet house and placed in a bedroom." She said that she was sexually assaulted twice – though according to Reuters, Muller was "never charged with rape."

Huskins said she believed four assailants were with her there. She told the police that they "sounded well organized and had 'protocols' as if they had done this before." They decided to bring her to Huntington Beach, her hometown, away from "'the commotion of the authorities' in Vallejo." No ransom was ever paid.

Later that night, "the Vallejo Police Department's Public Information Officer Lieutenant Kenny Part made a statement to the press that the kidnapping was, in essence, not authentic," according to a court filing.

Then, in a further twist, the apparent group of assailants sent an email to Henry Lee, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, intended to clarify that Huskins was indeed kidnapped.

The email, found in the court filing, describes the "group" as a band of "professional thieves" relatively new to crime. It explains that they had recently been involved in a number of car thefts in the area – but they wanted to try something with a higher payout. The email says they wanted to try kidnapping in an operation that "was meant to be a test of methods that would be used later on a higher net worth target."

But "the operation went terribly wrong. After making the jump from property crime to this, we felt deep remorse and horribly regret our slide into criminality," the email read. They were "mortified" about their crime's impact on Huskins, and "were very impressed with the strength she showed and who she was as we passed the time talking to her."

It was the police department's disbelief that prompted this email, they said: Huskins "was absolutely kidnapped. We did it....We would rather take the chance of revealing the truth than live in a world where someone like [Huskins] is victimized again."

The email claims that they "didn't want to hurt anyone" and "fancied ourselves a sort of Ocean's Eleven, gentlemen criminals."

The Arrest

Muller was eventually taken into custody in June 2015, having been traced through a cell phone left at a separate crime scene. According a court filing, he later "admitted that he acted alone and that there was 'no gang.'"

The AP reports that Muller "could face life in prison when he is sentenced, though prosecutors have agreed as part of his guilty plea to recommend a maximum term of 40 years."

The couple has also filed a lawsuit against the Vallejo Police Department, Reuters reported, "saying police statements and actions created a 'destructive nationwide media frenzy ... and rubbed salt in the plaintiff's fresh wounds.'"

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.