‘This Wasn’t His First Time’

A kidnapping deemed a hoax, the newbie detective who cracked the case, and the Harvard-trained lawyer whose mental unraveling set the whole story in motion.

Illustration by Juan Bernabeu / courtesy of The Atavist Magazine

Katia Savchuk |  The Atavist Magazine | April 2022 | 17 minutes (4,588 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 126, “A Crime Beyond Belief.”

1.

The Atavist, our sister publication, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

Just after seven in the morning on June 9, 2015, Misty Carausu joined a group of police officers lining up outside a dark green cabin with white trim. The blinds inside were drawn. Jeffrey pines cast thick shadows across the driveway. The air was still but for the scrape of boots on asphalt and the occasional call of a bird.

Carausu, 35, was at least a head shorter than the other officers, and the only woman. She wore iridescent eye shadow and pearl earrings along with a tactical vest. As she gripped her gun, she felt as if she’d stepped into one of the true-crime documentaries she binge-watched at night. It was Carausu’s first day as a detective.

En route to the scene, she’d been filled in on the case. Around 3:30 a.m. the previous Friday, a 52-year-old nurse named Lynn Yen, who lived at the edge of Dublin, the suburb east of San Francisco where Carausu worked, had called 911. Minutes earlier, Lynn and her 60-year-old husband, Chung, woke to a flashlight and a laser shining in their faces. A masked man dressed in black stood at the foot of their bed. “We have your daughter, and she’s safe,” the man said. Kelly, 22, had been in her bedroom across the hall.

Using what Lynn described as a “calm, soft voice,” the intruder told the couple to turn over and put their hands behind their backs. Then he announced that he would tie them up. When Chung felt the man touch him, he took a swing. Lynn grabbed her phone from the nightstand, locked herself in the bathroom, and called for help. She told the dispatcher that she heard fighting, then her husband yell, “Honey, go get the gun,” even though they didn’t own one. A few minutes later, the intruder fled downstairs and out the back door, which opened onto miles of rolling hills and open fields.

When officers arrived at the scene, Chung had bruises on his arms and face and was bleeding from a cut above his ear—he said the intruder had hit him with a metal flashlight. A window near the back door was open, and the screen had been removed. In the couple’s bedroom, police found a black wool glove and three plastic zip ties. On a gravel path behind the house, near a cluster of foxtails, officers recovered another zip tie and a six-inch shred of black duct tape. Kelly, who was unharmed, handed a sergeant something she’d found on a hallway cabinet near her room: a cell phone she didn’t recognize.

Police later traced the phone number to the cabin Carausu and her colleagues were now preparing to enter. It sat on a residential street in South Lake Tahoe, a ski resort town 130 miles from Dublin. As the raid began, Carausu heard the cabin’s front door splinter. Officers barked “Search warrant!” as they shoved through a barricade of chairs. Carausu maneuvered around clutter on the living room floor: a set of crutches, license plates, clothing, electronics, a massage table. Empty boxes were piled against a window; open bottles of wine and cans of spray paint littered the kitchen counters.

Carausu’s job was to process evidence. She snapped photos of a black ski mask, black duct tape, and mismatched black gloves. A stun gun sat on a rocking chair. In a banker’s box she found more duct tape and gloves, along with walkie-talkies, a radar detector, zip ties, rope, and a device for making keys. In a bathroom were makeup brushes and a partly empty bottle of NyQuil. An open tube of golden brunette hair dye lay on the sink, near a disposable glove stained with the dye’s residue. In one bedroom were three more gloves, yellow crime-scene tape, and, on the bed, a spiked dog-training collar; in another was a bottle of Vaseline lotion, used paper towels, and a penis pump. “This is creepy,” Carausu recalled thinking as she stuffed items into paper bags. “Something crazy happened in here.” The police also collected flashlights, cell phones, hard drives, and several computers, including an Asus laptop that had been stashed under a mattress.

Around noon, Carausu and her colleagues drove to a tow yard to search a stolen white Mustang recovered near the cabin. Inside, they found items they thought could be linked to the Dublin break-in: two gloves matching one from the crime scene, both covered in foxtails; receipts for a flashlight, a speaker, and zip ties purchased near Dublin the night of the home invasion; burglary tools; and a metal flashlight. The back seat of the Mustang had been removed. Carausu wondered if someone had made room for a large object, such as a body.

Strangely, other clues didn’t seem connected to the Dublin crime. Among the recent destinations on the car’s GPS was an address in Huntington Beach, 400 miles south of Lake Tahoe. In the trunk, Carausu saw a blood-pressure cuff, a camouflage tarp, and a mesh vest with a wireless speaker in one of the pockets. She also found a BB gun, a dart gun, and a Nerf Super Soaker that had been painted black, with a flashlight and a laser pointer taped to the barrel. Stuffed in a large duffel bag was a blow-up doll in black clothing, rigged with wiring so that it could be made to sit or stand. The bag also contained a military-style pistol belt, its pouches crammed with two pairs of Speedo swim goggles. Carausu pulled one of them out. Black duct tape covered the lenses. Caught in the tape was a long strand of blond hair.

None of the victims in the Dublin home invasion were blond. Neither was the suspect, which Carausu knew because she’d watched officers escort him out of the cabin in handcuffs. He didn’t put up a fight when they burst through the door. He wandered out of a bedroom and obeyed commands to lie on the ground. In his late thirties, tall and fit, the man wore a black athletic shirt and jeans. He resembled Charlie Sheen, with a chiseled jawline and tousled dark hair.

“Do you know why we’re here?” a detective asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

The suspect said nothing else as officers led him to a patrol car. Before they loaded him inside, Carausu told the man to look at her camera. He stared intensely into the lens, his mouth an indecipherable line. Carausu read his name on pill bottles and mail scattered around the stolen Mustang: Matthew Muller.

 

2.

Muller grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, where homes flew American flags, wild turkeys roamed the streets, and fathers took their sons fishing for bass in Lake Natoma. His mother, Joyce, was a middle school English teacher, and his father, Monty, was a school administrator and wrestling coach. The family spent summers hiking in the Sierra Nevada, abalone diving in Bodega Bay, or relaxing at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Each Christmas they hosted a party on their cul de sac, and Monty dressed up as Santa.

Muller was a strong-willed, introverted child. Despite his father’s best efforts, he didn’t take to wrestling or football, preferring to run or ski or walk the dog alone. He played trumpet in the school band and devoured dystopian novels by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. His favorite short story, Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” was about two children who project their fantasies onto the walls of a virtual reality “nursery,” until make-believe lions come to life and eat the siblings’ parents.

Muller had a core group of friends at school, but bullies teased him about being overweight. Being picked on fueled his instinct to stick up for underdogs, an impulse he sometimes took to extremes. When his younger brother, Kent, was slow to talk, he appointed himself spokesperson to a degree that concerned their mom. “He’s never going to have a vocabulary if you keep speaking for him,” Joyce recalled thinking. Later, Muller stuffed gum in a girl’s trumpet after she taunted someone at a music competition.

During his senior year of high school, Muller learned that his father was having an affair. Monty moved in with the woman he was seeing, and he and Joyce divorced. Muller soon decided to enlist in the Marines, telling Joyce that he needed discipline and wanted to get in shape. In truth, he worried that paying for college would strain her finances.

Muller “was a round peg struggling to fit into a square hole” in the Marines, his roommate during boot camp later wrote. In the first 13 weeks, he lost more than 50 pounds. He didn’t join his platoon mates on weekend outings, instead squeezing in extra workouts. For a time he subsisted on Powerade and garlic rice. He earned the nickname Sergeant Mulder, after the FBI agent on The X-Files, because of his deadpan demeanor. Muller bristled at recruits who preyed on perceived weakness: When some bullied his roommate, Muller stood up for him.

Muller spent three years playing trumpet in the Marine Corps band at bases in California and Japan, where he also started a nonprofit to teach locals about the Internet. In 1999, he deployed to train soldiers in the Middle East. He earned several medals and a promotion before being honorably discharged.

Back home in California, Muller attended Pomona College, where he threw himself into volunteer work, which included helping homeless people secure government benefits and running an outdoors program. “More than anyone I had ever met, he strived to be noble, to be kind, to be generous,” his friend Eve Florin later wrote.

In the summer of 2001, Muller traveled to Prague for an academic program. There he met a driven young woman from Kyrgyzstan with a slight figure and long dark hair. They fell in love. (The woman declined to be interviewed. At her request, The Atavist is not using her name.) After Muller graduated from Pomona, they exchanged vows under an arch of white roses on the sun-dappled shores of Donner Lake, about 15 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

In 2003, the couple moved to Boston, where he started at Harvard Law School and she attended Boston College. Muller became involved with Harvard’s Legal Aid Bureau, where he represented low-income tenants and immigrants who were victims of domestic violence. On one occasion, a client’s husband found a business card that the bureau’s receptionist had given her and beat her so severely that her jaw had to be wired shut. Muller blamed himself. “Their crisis felt like it was part of my life too,” he said in an interview.

After earning his law degree, Muller stayed at Harvard to teach and work in the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. Dressing in suits for class, he came across as “very formal,” “intense,” and “guarded,” but also “extremely knowledgeable” and “someone who truly cared about the cause and the immigrant community,” a former student of his recalled. Muller earned near perfect ratings as a lecturer and worked with Deborah Anker, a leading scholar of immigration law, authoring papers and Supreme Court briefs. When Anker went on sabbatical, she tapped him to head the clinical program. “He was warm, caring, earnest, smart, enthusiastic, engaging, thoughtful,” Anker recalled. “He was a super good human being.”

Muller was unusually devoted to his clients, buying one a wedding gift and letting another stay at his apartment. Even when he won a case, he couldn’t shake the injustice he perceived in the world. “Part of me would be really sad, because it should not take all this effort just to make something the way it should’ve been,” he said. He likened the feeling to “going into a room and needing to straighten the picture, set it right.”

For the program’s anniversary one year, Muller tracked down dozens of alumni and framed their messages as a gift to Anker. His own note read: “Learning from you has been, and I think always will be, the highlight of my legal career.” This struck Anker as odd. “I thought he was going to be a leading immigration lawyer in America,” she said. “This is not the height of your career—this is the beginning.”

Muller scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.

It came as a shock to Muller’s parents when, in the summer of 2008, he revealed that he had bipolar disorder. Mental illness ran in Monty’s family, though they didn’t speak of it much. Muller had never mentioned any mental health problems to his parents, beyond sometimes feeling blue during the winter months, and neither had his wife.

In fact, Muller had grappled with disturbing thoughts since his time in the Marines. After receiving a series of anthrax vaccines before his Middle East mission, he struggled to get out of bed for weeks, and his performance on fitness tests plummeted. (He later attributed his symptoms to Gulf War syndrome.) For the first time, bleak thoughts took up residence in his mind: You’re not good enough, you’re the worst person in the world. He’d been considering a long career in the military, but now he decided to request a discharge.

In college, Muller fell into a cycle: Every summer and fall, he was productive and slept little; every winter and spring, he labored to finish assignments and his mood darkened. As the winter chill set in during his second year of law school, negative thoughts cut particularly deep: You’re not doing enough to help, you’re horrible, the world is terrible. For the first time, he contemplated suicide.

Over the years, Muller saw several psychiatrists. One at Harvard diagnosed him with major depression, noting that he also showed signs of mania. Muller tried medication but stopped each time because he didn’t like the side effects. He took pains to hide his condition from his parents, from his colleagues, and, as much as possible, from his wife, who moved away in 2005 to attend law school. “It felt like a weakness, something I shouldn’t be troubling other people with,” Muller said.

He especially didn’t want anyone finding out about the time a delusion took hold of him. It happened while he was working at Harvard, in an office on the fourth floor of Pound Hall, a concrete building at the edge of campus. He began to suspect that the government was tapping his phone and hacking his computer. Officials were after him, he decided, because some of his clients had been accused of having links to terrorists. Nothing specific triggered his paranoia—it began as a feeling and his mind filled in the gaps.

Muller frantically inspected wall conduits that held bundles of telephone wires and followed their trail to a server room in the basement. Through a crack between two doors, he glimpsed a mess of equipment. He scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.

***

Muller hoped that escaping New England’s winters and trading asylum law for the tamer world of patent litigation would improve his mood, so in 2009 he and his wife moved to Silicon Valley, where he started a job at a large law firm. But instead of feeling better, he again became suicidal. He agreed to get help, and a psychiatrist prescribed Wellbutrin. The antidepressant quieted Muller’s suicidal thoughts and kept him productive at his new job, but it also prevented him from sleeping.

One night, he was tossing and turning on the couch to avoid waking his wife when he heard a distant, muffled voice. Half asleep, he thought the TV had come on. He heard voices again on subsequent nights, closer and clearer this time. At first he told himself he was dreaming, but eventually he was forced to admit that the voices were there when he was awake. They were androgynous, almost robotic. They didn’t tell him what to do; instead, they kept up a running commentary, mostly about his faults.

Muller didn’t tell his family, concerned they’d think he was “dangerous crazy.” Nor did he inform his psychiatrist, fearing it would end up in his bar application. He had let his new employer assume that he wasn’t yet licensed to practice law because he needed to retake the bar exam; in fact, he had passed the exam but not yet registered with the California bar, agonizing over what to write about his mental health in the required “moral character” section of the paperwork.

In Muller’s telling, to quiet the voices and wear himself out enough to sleep, he went on long walks at night. Often he hiked to the Stanford Dish, a radio telescope along a popular trail near the Stanford University campus. Not long after midnight one Friday in late September 2009, he was returning to his car in College Terrace, a residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, when a police officer stopped him and asked to see his ID. According to Muller, when the officer inquired what he was doing there so late, he said that he was visiting a friend—he was reluctant to admit that he’d trespassed on a trail that was closed after dark. The officer reported that Muller claimed to be a visiting professor at Stanford, which police later determined was false.

Three weeks later, a Palo Alto police detective came to Muller’s apartment and left a business card with his wife. When Muller called the number, he learned that police wanted to question him about an attempted sexual assault in College Terrace. His name had come up in recent reports of suspicious persons in the area. He told the detective that he’d read about the incident in the local paper, and he agreed to meet.

According to Muller, before he could make it to the station, two detectives showed up at his law firm to question him. The encounter set him on edge. He wondered if the detectives had come to install spy equipment in his office. Recalling his recent asylum cases, he decided that they were conspiring with the Chinese government. (The Palo Alto Police Department declined to confirm that Muller was questioned at his office, citing an open investigation.)

Muller already had suspicions about a certain Honda Accord often parked near his apartment. He’d been placing pebbles behind the wheels to check whether it moved and varying his route to work to avoid being followed. Now he memorized exit routes in his office building and worked with the blinds shut. When he became convinced that his pursuers were using a laser microphone to pick up sound vibrations in his office, he decamped to the firm’s library. “It seemed like this was going to rapidly escalate. They were trying to destroy me, because they wanted to make me lose my job, isolate me, make me lose my credibility,” Muller recalled thinking. “At that point, I started getting afraid for my family.”

He felt he had no choice but to flee. Muller traded his car, which he assumed was bugged, for his mother’s SUV and stocked up on food and survival gear. A few days later, he disappeared.

 

3.

The day after the South Lake Tahoe raid, Misty Carausu arrived at her new office on the second floor of the Dublin Civic Center. At the time, the police department occupied half the building, which resembles a ring cut in half and the fragments slid apart. Carausu sat down in an empty gray cubicle in a room with drab carpeting. She hadn’t yet tacked up photos of her teenage son, whom she had at 16 and raised on her own.

Carausu didn’t plan on becoming a cop. Pretty and bubbly, with manicured nails and striking hazel eyes, she was in her mid-twenties and working as an assistant manager at a Safeway when a friend’s husband was convicted of sexually assaulting a mutual friend. She joined the force hoping to find justice for rape victims. After a decade as a deputy, Carausu, who fostered bunnies, sometimes compared herself to Judy Hopps, the idealistic rabbit who works as a cop in Disney’s Zootopia.

As she labeled evidence from the cabin, Carausu couldn’t get the blond strand of hair she’d found in the Mustang out of her mind. “This wasn’t his first time,” she told her colleagues. “We’re going to solve some crimes.” With her boss’s support, Carausu began to investigate whether they’d stumbled onto something larger than a single home invasion.

In police databases, Matthew Muller’s name yielded a hit for an unsolved 2009 break-in near Stanford. A 32-year-old woman was sleeping in her apartment in College Terrace when a strange man jumped on top of her. He appeared to be in his twenties and was white, tall, and lean. He wore a mask, black gloves, and black spandex-like clothing. The man tied her hands behind her back, bound her ankles with Velcro straps, and covered her eyes with tape. Then he gave her a choice: drink NyQuil, get shocked with a stun gun, or be injected with what he called “A-bomb.” When she opted for the NyQuil, the man confirmed with her that she wasn’t allergic to any of its ingredients before pouring the medicine down her throat.

The intruder gathered personal information and indicated he’d use it to steal her money. At times the victim heard the man whisper to someone, and she would later describe seeing a silhouette in the room, but she never heard a second voice. She reported that the man tried to rape her and she fought back. When she made up a story about having been raped in high school, he stopped, saying he didn’t want to victimize her again. Before leaving, he threatened to harm her family if she called 911, and mentioned that he had “planted evidence” to mislead authorities.

Three weeks before the attack, Carausu learned, a police officer had come across Muller walking late at night in the vicinity of the crime. Police later discovered that the College Terrace victim, a Stanford student, had attended an event that Muller organized at Harvard the previous year. Palo Alto detectives identified him as their primary suspect. But DNA recovered at the crime scene wasn’t a match. Ultimately, law enforcement didn’t find enough evidence to recommend charging Muller.

Carausu discovered that the home invasion had eerie parallels to two other unsolved crimes in Silicon Valley. Less than a month before the College Terrace incident, a 27-year-old woman in Mountain View woke around 5 a.m. to find a man on top of her. He appeared to be white and slim, about six feet tall, and wore tight black clothing and a ski mask. When she started screaming, he put his hand over her mouth and explained that he was part of a group of criminals that planned to steal her identity and wire money abroad. The man bound her hands and ankles, then placed blacked-out swim goggles over her eyes—she felt her hair catch in one of the straps. He made her drink what tasted like cough syrup before collecting personal information. At one point, he used her phone to send a message to her boss saying that she was sick. Periodically, the woman heard him talking to someone, but she never heard or saw anyone else.

Eventually, the man told her, “I have some bad news. I’m going to have to rape you.” According to an account the victim later shared with NBC’s Dateline, she begged him not to and he relented. “I can’t do this,” he muttered. “I’m sorry about this.” Throughout the encounter, the intruder was “polite,” the victim recalled. Before leaving, he advised her to get a dog for protection. The woman told Dateline that when she called the Mountain View police, they initially suggested she might have had a bad dream. Ultimately, authorities concluded that the person behind the attack had also likely committed the one in College Terrace. (In a statement for this story, the Mountain View police said, “We continue to keep this investigation open and have been and are treating it seriously.”)

The final case Carausu learned about happened three years after the other two, in November 2012. A 26-year-old woman who lived just north of the Stanford campus awoke at 2:20 a.m. to see a masked man in gloves and dark clothing at the foot of her bed. He held her down, but she screamed and fought back. Eventually, he fled. The woman later noticed that her computer had been moved and found two “bump keys,” which open any lock from a certain manufacturer, near the front door. In neither that case nor the one in Mountain View was Muller named as a suspect.

Carausu stumbled upon an additional clue when she called the owner of the stolen Mustang police had recovered in South Lake Tahoe. He turned out to be a medical student who lived on the edge of Mare Island, 40 miles northwest of Dublin. In early January 2015, he had returned from a trip to find that someone had taken his car keys from his home and driven his Mustang out of the garage. When Carausu told him that her department had arrested someone for a home invasion near where his car was found, he asked if she’d heard of the “Mare Island creeper,” a Peeping Tom.

Between August 2014 and January 2015, at least four women in the area had reported seeing a man peering through their windows or climbing on their roof. Two had just taken a shower when they spotted him. One saw him taking pictures, while another saw him descending a ladder. Two of the women lived on the same street: Kirkland Avenue.

Some of the women described the voyeur as a white man, 25 to 35, wearing a black jacket. In August 2014, according to a Facebook post later documented in a police report, a Mare Island resident who heard sounds on his roof late one night saw someone fitting a similar description flee with a ladder. The resident encountered a strange man on two other occasions: One night, the man was crouching under the resident’s window; he said he was searching for his puppy, a husky. Another night, the resident found the same man in his backyard, where he claimed to be looking for 531 Kirkland Ave.; the address didn’t exist. The student spotted the man a third time, walking a young husky and a golden retriever. According to a Facebook post, a woman who lived on Klein Avenue, a block from Kirkland, said that her neighbor had a husky and a golden retriever. The owner of the Mustang told Carausu that he’d heard the woman’s neighbor was a former lawyer who had been in the military.

Then, as suddenly as the Peeping Tom incidents started, they stopped. “It was about the same time that the Vallejo kidnapping happened,” the Mustang owner told Carausu. Why does that ring a bell? she thought.

After the Dublin home invasion and Muller’s arrest, a colleague of Carausu’s had put out an alert asking area police departments for information about similar crimes. Vallejo didn’t respond. Online, Carausu found news stories about the kidnapping, which occurred three months earlier. She noted that one of the victims had blond hair. Then she remembered why the case had caught her attention: The Vallejo police had deemed it a hoax.

Read the full story at The Atavist.