Dan Walters

April 14, 2013

Critic's notebook: 'Where Sadness Breathes' tells of horrific 1973 spree

A fire had ravaged a nut-processing plant the night before, so as the one-man Stockton bureau of the Sacramento Union, I was focused that chilly November 1973 morning on chasing down the details.

A fire had ravaged a nut-processing plant the night before, so as the one-man Stockton bureau of the Sacramento Union, I was focused that chilly November 1973 morning on chasing down the details.

Very soon, however, the nut plant fire would be forgotten, because the bodies of nine people, including two children, had been found in the bedroom of a house in the bucolic countryside east of Lodi.

They – the two children lying in a bed and seven adults and teenagers in a walk-in closet – had been tied up and methodically shot to death.

The owners of the house, the four-member Parkin family, were among the victims. The others were the Parkins' neighbors from down the road, four members of the Earl family, plus the boyfriend of the Earls' teenage daughter, Debbie.

San Joaquin County sheriff's deputies were stumped by the horrific carnage they found in the bedroom. All they knew was that the Parkins had left their two young children in Debbie's care while they went bowling the night before and that her boyfriend had driven to the Parkin home to visit Debbie. His car was found parked outside the home.

The Parkins owned a small grocery store in the nearby hamlet of Victor – a store that served as an informal bank and a social gathering place as well as a purveyor of groceries – and were very well known and popular.

The Union was a morning paper and its two competitors, The Sacramento Bee and the Stockton Record, were afternoon papers, so the bodies' discovery broke on their cycle. I worked the story all day and got a break – professionally speaking – when San Joaquin County Sheriff Mike Canlis announced late that afternoon that he had a potential suspect, a local petty criminal named Willie Luther Steelman, for whom a warrant had just been issued for a double homicide in an Arizona mobile home.

As he released a mug shot of Steelman, Canlis admitted that it was just a hunch – but it was enough to provide a fresh lead for the front page of the Union the next day. And when the paper hit the streets, a clerk in a downtown Sacramento hotel recognized Steelman as one of two men who had checked into the hotel the day before and called police.

Detectives arrested Douglas Gretzler when he returned to the hotel, and he told them where to find Steelman, who was visiting a young woman the two had met. After a brief standoff, Steelman surrendered and the two were packed off to Stockton to face murder charges.

Thanks to inside information from one of the investigators, a couple of days later I was able to write that the two had confessed to murdering 17 people in 17 days on a crime spree that began with the couple in the Arizona mobile home. They had gone from Arizona to California, back to Arizona and then back to California during that period. When caught, they were driving a car they had stolen from two college students in Tucson, Ariz., – a couple they had killed just to get the car.

It was one of the worst mass-murder sprees in American history, with the Lodi massacre eerily reminiscent of the "In Cold Blood" killings of a Kansas family that had become a best-selling book by Truman Capote and later a movie. Steelman and Gretzler had gone to the Parkin home hoping to clean out the grocery store safe and, in fact, had gotten about $3,000 from the store before committing the murders.

Despite the scope of the 1973 crimes – which included robberies, rapes and kidnappings – they received only passing attention from the media, perhaps because they were quickly solved and Steelman and Gretzler were quickly packed off to Arizona, where the death penalty was still in force.

But the Lodi massacre burned into the consciousness of Jack Earl, who was a young adult when his relatives were killed. He kept wondering how it was that people he knew well and loved happened to be murdered that night.

It became, by his own admission, an obsession, and he set out on a decades-long odyssey to find out as much as he could about Steelman and Gretzler, and why they did what they did.

He tracked down every detail about their lives before the murder spree (they met by chance in Colorado), minutely traced what one newspaper headline called "A Trail of Death" and even became acquainted with Gretzler as the killer awaited execution on Arizona's death row. (Steelman died of cancer before he could be executed.)

They didn't exactly become friends, but Earl, who now lives in Oregon, and Gretzler formed a bond during their long talks as Gretzler apologized and tried to explain what happened and why – so much so that Gretzler invited Earl to be a witness at his 1998 execution, 25 years after the murders, and Earl expressed a sense of forgiveness, which Gretzler said he didn't deserve.

As he reconstructed the Steelman-Gretzler murder spree, Earl began writing a book. When he couldn't find a publisher, Earl, a printer by trade, decided to publish "Where Sadness Breathes" himself. At more than 600 pages, it's stunning in its detail and compelling in its prose.

It's not only a story about Steelman and Gretzler, but about the lives of the 17 people they murdered and, ultimately, a story about Earl – how his obsession changed his life and his relationships with other members of his family.

After many conversations with Earl when he tapped my memory and a small trove of documents I'd kept about the case, I think publication of his book is an end unto itself. He finally was able to answer, as much as he can, the questions that filled his head the day he learned his relatives had been murdered.

And maybe he can find peace.

Where Sadness Breathes by Jack Earl

Self-published, $22.95, 600 pages, available on amazon.com

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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