SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A disbarred Harvard University-trained attorney is trying to avoid a life prison sentence with a plea bargain in a kidnapping so elaborate and bizarre that police in California initially dismissed it as a hoax.
Matthew Muller pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Sacramento, acknowledging he used computer-generated voices, blackened swim goggles, liquid sleeping medication and numerous props in the abduction of Denise Huskins last year from the Vallejo home she shared with boyfriend Aaron Quinn.
Under the plea deal, federal prosecutors agreed to seek no more than 40 years in prison, but Muller's attorney, Thomas Johnson, said he fears U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley will impose a life term when Muller is sentenced on Jan. 19.
"We're trying to find a way to get Mr. Muller to be rehabilitated and allow him to return and lead a productive life," Johnson said in an interview outside the courtroom. "I think that Mr. Muller has tremendous potential. ... There was another side of Mr. Muller that was the side that allowed him to commit these crimes."
Johnson said the 39-year-old Muller has been diagnosed as manic and depressive.
During the kidnapping Muller put blackened swim goggles over the eyes of Huskins and Quinn and headphones over their ears to play a recorded warning that Huskins' face would be cut or she would be hurt with an electric shock if they didn't comply, according to court documents.
In addition, authorities found that Muller had made a computer recording designed to simulate people whispering in an apparent attempt to make it seem as though he had accomplices.
Huskins and Quinn remain convinced that there were other people involved, Quinn's mother, Marianne Quinn, said outside court.
She also criticized Vallejo police for botching the initial investigation and said Muller's mental illness isn't an excuse for what happened.
"He also is a psychopath," she said.
The kidnapping drew comparisons to the movie "Gone Girl," in which a woman goes missing and then lies about being kidnapped when she reappears.
Investigators dropped their theory that it was a hoax when Muller was later arrested in an attempted robbery at another San Francisco Bay Area home. Authorities said they found a cellphone that they traced to Muller, and a subsequent search of a car and home turned up evidence, including a computer Muller stole from Quinn, that linked him to the abduction.
Muller held Huskins in South Lake Tahoe and sent an email to a newspaper reporter with an audio file of her voice as proof she was alive, prosecutors said. Another email contained pictures of items used in the kidnapping, including a black spray-painted water pistol with a flashlight and laser pen attached.
Federal prosecutors said Thursday that Muller sought $8,500 from two separate accounts, for a total of just $17,000 that was never paid.
Huskins turned up safe two days later and 400 miles away in her hometown of Huntington Beach, where she says she was dropped off.
Muller told a reporter in a jailhouse interview after his arrest that Huskins' kidnapping was not random, according to his plea agreement. The agreement did not elaborate, and Johnson and prosecutors did not disclose a possible motive.
"Muller committed a serious and violent crime that terrorized the victims in this case," Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in a statement after Muller's guilty plea.
Huskins and Quinn appeared later Thursday at a news conference in San Francisco. One of their attorneys, Douglas Rappaport, said his clients were happy that they didn't have to "publicly relive the humiliation and shame they went through" by testifying at a trial.
Rappaport also called on Nunley to sentence Muller to life behind bars.
"This is not a man whose fancy law degree or background should give him a pass," he said.
Muller was admitted to practice law in California in 2011, and his state bar profile says he attended Harvard Law School.
He lost his law license last year over allegations that he took a $1,250 advance from a client then failed to file a green card application for the person's son.