Revised from DISGUISE OF SANITY Pepperbox Books © Michael Cartel
Willie Steelman (l.) and Doug Gretzler WIDE WORLD PHOTOS
The people in the following story are genuine and the events are real, but some of the names of the individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.
Fictitious names will be set in italic type (E.G. Ann Dornan) the first time each appears.
The doorbell rang several times before Laura Carlson heard the noise. She had been asleep just three hours but went to the door before the racket woke up her host’s two children. At the front porch were some teenagers searching for Mark Lang. Laura cleared her head enough to remember that Mark was the boyfriend of last night’s babysitter, Debbie Earl. Carlson went through the still dark house, surprised when she found the children’s room empty. Laura Carlson was the guest of Walter and Joanne Parkin, and now the only room left unsearched was their master bedroom. She walked slowly through the hall, stopping at the open bedroom door. There was little light from the window but she could see the outline of the Parkin children, Bob and Lisa on the bed.
Laura remained at the door for a moment, following a deep, dark stain widen as it led to the children, their heads surrounded by sheets glossy with blood. Carlson ran to the Hallway, screaming as she met the teenagers at the door. There was another blood trail seeping from the bedroom closet holding the bodies of Walter and Joanne, Debbie Earl, Mark Lang and three others who just happened to be in the house last night.
With less than 300 residents, the San Joaquin County sheriff detectives were never called to tiny Victor, California, just south of Sacramento. Few crimes at all took place in the farming village, where everyone knew their neighbors. All certainly knew Wally and Joanne Parkin who ran the grocery store, knew that they gave credit to anybody locally and were cheritable to others who had trouble managing money.
There was evidence of robbery at the murder house, but not much was taken, and what possible reason for the slaughter? All nine victims had been killed execution-style, bound and shot through the head, some more than once. Although no evidence was left by the killer, the rope knots used in the binding were most unusual.
In checking the operational method, a report came back form Arizona that matched the same killing technique used in murders there a month before. Wanted in connection with the Arizona slayings were Douglas Edward Gretzler and William Luther Steelman.
Growing up in a above-middleclass life in Bronx of New York, Doug Gretzler was overwhelmed with a father who bulled him while praising his older brother. The brother killed himself when Douglas was 15 and his bullying father blamed him, saying that he wished that it was Douglas who had died instead. Gretzler had been a recreational drug user, but now fell into serious addiction. At 23, Doug Gretzler had been an angry transient since leaving life months before in the Bronx of New York, but stayed high (if and when he could afford it) to hide his various rages, but while acquiring a collection of traffic offenses, he never crossed into serious crime.
Then he met 28-year old William Steelman, who was, if anything, more bizarre than Gretzler. They were what each were looking for. Steelman was a tough-talking coward who needed a willing participant to assist in his plans and Gretzler wanted a steady supply of heavy drugs to remain emotionally numb. Like many other murder pairs, they formed a composite personality that found it easy to perform recreational killings.
Steelman grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in Lodi, California and was always in some kind of trouble. Confined as a mental patient in the Stockton State Hospital, he escaped in 1968, committed more crimes, eventually got caught and convicted for forgery, then given probation. A woman met Steelman and saw something positive in Willie that no one had previously observed. She married him and soon discovered that perhaps she had been mistaken. From the peculiar relationship Steelman abruptly left his wife in early October, ending up in Denver where he met Gretzler traveling the opposite direction nine days later. The two strange men found nothing odd about each other and took off for Arizona, where the murder spree began.
Gretzler agreed to be the trigger man as long as Steelman kept him high on various drugs, especially meth. At this moment, Gretzler had done nothing illegal, aside from his drug love, on or off the books.
Like a sadistic kid testing himself by torturing small animals before attacking humans, Willy and Doug first rob a couple of $25, then actually return twenty of it back to them. Later that day the pair rob a hitchhiker of $20, a ring and his clothes but leave him alive, tied in an orchard.
Two days later (October 15), the men enter Phoenix, rob a woman of just enough cash to stay in a motel for the night. Next morning Steelman and Gretzler kidnap two pals, Michael Adshade and Ken Unrein to drive them to California. Over the border, Steelman orders Gretzler to commit their first murders, stabbing and strangling Adshade and Unrein in a backwater.
Willy and Doug drive the victim’s van until it dies around Petaluma but are given a ride by a thoughtful man and women. For their consideration, the man is locked in the trunk of his car and the woman is raped. Willy and Doug steal another car in a garage where they leave the kidnapped couple, bound, imprisoned but alive.
Gretzler and Steelman drive back to Phoenix to visit the mobile home of a couple who Adshade and Unrein had said hid a lot of money, far more than the few dollars they have been traveling a thousand miles to gather. They pick up a hitchhiker to help them find the trailer park in Mesa, then drive to ghostly Superstition Mountain to shoot the hitchhiker with a shotgun that they’ve recently stolen.
At the Mesa mobile home they casually murder the two residents, not finding their big score but salvage the trip by stealing the victim’s car. At this point the killers are only interested in having just enough money to stay high while going from easy-to-breach houses to hapless hitchhikers.
They somehow manage to lose their stolen car and take a bus to Tucson where they find themselves on the bum again and have to stay in a flop house. Here Willy makes deals to exchange dope, but his surface tough-guy act gets him and Doug beaten and robbed of their shotgun. Later they steal a .22 pistol and get back to work making enough money to get themselves high.
Young Gilbert Sierra gives beaten-up but grateful Willy and Doug a ride where they promptly lock him in his trunk for his kindness. Out in the desert they murder Sierra. They steal another car, load up on dope from Sierra’s money and get the hell out of town.
Finding themselves Hitchhiking again, Willy and Doug are given a ride by a student from the University, Vincent Armstrong, a former Tucson cop. Gretzler takes the wheel and Armstrong, knowing he is going to die, jumps from the moving car and actually lives to tell about it. To Tucson detectives that is.
Willy and Doug drive Armstrong’s blue Firebird through the newly opened Villa Paraiso apartments in Tucson. When Steelman sees a man washing his car, he and Gretzler swiftly stick a gun in his face and force him back to his condominium. He is former Marine Captain Michael Sandberg and tells his wife Patricia to cooperate so that the burglars will leave them in peace. Tied up in different rooms, Steelman grabs what little of value he can find while Gretzler fires one bullet into Michael’s brain and four into Patricia’s. The men sleep soundly in a fancy motor hotel that night thanks to the Sandberg’s credit card.
Detectives discover Armstrong’s hijacked car in the Villa Paraiso garage, but still know nothing about the Sandberg murders.
Incredibly, Willy and Doug are stopped by cops at the California line, but are given a pass when looking over Michael Sandberg’s license. Gretzler had forced Patricia Sandberg to dye his hair perhaps similar to her husband’s color and a cut that made him appear less like a drug addict.
Back in California, the men travel past Modesto, through Steelman’s hometown of Lodi and eventually arrive in Victor late on the night of November 7.
Wally and Joanne Parkin left their home to go bowling when Debbie Earl came by to babysit their children. Later, Richard and Wanda Earl, Debbie’s parents arrived. Then her brother Rick and her boyfriend Mark Land visit.
Returning from bowling, the Parkins stopped at their food market and found Gretzler and Steelman demanding money. Then they wanted to be taken to the Parkin’s home. Believing that the men only wanted cash, Walter led them into the front door to their two children and fve friends. Herding the group into the living room, they tied the family head and foot with nylon cord and tightened with several knots, six clusters on some. With the nine people safely controlled and gagged in a walk-in closet, Willie leisurely begins firing bullets into their heads.
Richard Earl did not die easily and took five shots, his daughter Debbie only died after hit with four shots.
The two children hid under the bed covers. And waited terrified as the gunshots fired finally stopped. Then they were murdered.
Arriving barely after the killers left, Laura Carlson walked directly to her room and fell asleep, not knowing that just a few yards away nine people she cared for had been murdered.
Leaving no fingerprints or witnesses, the two men drove to Sacramento thinking that police would still be looking only in Arizona for them. The unusual knots, however followed them 40 miles north.
A SWAT team surrounded the area and blasted Steelman with bullhorns to surrender, then they talked a local radio station announcer on the air to persuade him to give up. After cops determined that Steelman was either unaffected by the disc jockey or not listening to the radio, they fired tear gas into his hotel window. Soon, a young female came out of the door and threw Steelman’s pistol on the ground, then Willie, whining and wheezing, followed her. Both men were in custody 90 minutes apart, just 30 hours after deputies had entered the house in Victor.
While being interviewed by detectives, Gretzler was especially cocky about the killings. As the years wore on his attitude would change considerably.
Lawmen in Arizona and three counties in California were certain the pair had committed 18 murders in less than a month. Meanwhile, Willy’s estranged wife promptly filed for divorce when she finally located her husband, not hearing from him since he left rather suddenly last month to Denver.
Gretzler pleaded guilty to nine counts of homicide when the case came to a non-jury trial. Steelman plead nothing, submitting the grand jury testimony to the judge. Both were found guilty of the nine murders in the Parkin house massacre. Neither Gretzler not Steelman explained why they killed other than to eliminate witnesses. But they went out of their way to kill everyone when they entered the house in Victor, or when then got inside any home.
California the year before had dismantled the death penalty statute, but the presiding judge recommended no parole possibility. Of course that was only a recommendation, and like the Manson gang, they would be eligible for release every seven years.
However, Gretzler and Steelman also murdered in Arizona, where they were currently handing out death sentences to first degree mass murderers. And a few weeks after the California convictions, they were sent southeast where the presiding judge Chris Papas said the pair could most certainly get the death sentence in his state.
With their intention to break into private residences and murder entire families, everyone became vulnerable to Gretzler and Steelman’s madness, making them especially dangerous. Most agreed that the two men were beyond human feelings, beyond help, and Arizona was determined not to let them out of their jurisdiction, alive.
In late 1975, Gretzler and Steelman, through separate trials in Arizona are sentenced to death for the Michael and Patricia Sandberg murders.
Doug Gretzler reportedly stayed high on smuggled drugs while on death row until 1992 when he actually dried out and confronted what he had done. He was reportedly contacted by a member of the Richard Earl family who wanted to know how Gretzler could have done such an un-human act. After much correspondence, Gretzler allegedly told Earl’s relative in a face to face confrontation that after sobering up from the drugs all he thought about awake and asleep, were the murders he was responsible for.
On Aug. 7, 1986, Willie (There’s something dead inside me) Steelman did everyone a favor by dying early (likely 12 years before the hangman would have executed the death order) at 41 from liver disease.
On June 3, 1998, after some 22 years in the death house, Doug Gretzler was executed by the State of Arizona through lethal injection at age 47. “From the bottom of my soul,” Gretzler said prior to the needle, “I’m so deeply sorry and have been for years for murdering Michael and Patricia Sandberg.” He stopped, then composed himself. “Though being executed for that crime, I apologize to all 17 victims and their families.”
Sent after his death, Gretzler reportedly (said he) wrote private letters to all the relatives of the murdered. See Comments at the bottom of this page regarding the Gretzler letter issue.
Outside the prison, an anti-death penalty group protested the execution with black arm bands and placards. A spokesperson later said, “It’s to honor the person scheduled to be executed.”
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