A disbarred Harvard-trained attorney was sentenced to 40 years in prison Thursday for a kidnapping so elaborate and bizarre that police in California initially dismissed it as a hoax.
It was the sentence federal prosecutors sought for Matthew Muller, who pleaded guilty in September to holding a Bay Area woman for ransom. They realized that Denise Huskins was telling the truth about her March 2015 abduction only after Muller was implicated in a different crime.
On Thursday, Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn faced Muller in the Sacramento courtroom. Huskins spoke to her abductor directly.
"I am the woman behind the mask, the woman you raped and tortured," she said, sobbing.
Quinn’s mother said the couple had hoped for a life sentence.
"Life would have been a little bit better for Denise and Aaron because they would have never had to worry about this ever again," Marianne Quinn said.
Huskins' mother also was at the sentencing. She called her daughter incredibly brave: "She is a beautiful human being."
Muller, 39, could have received life in prison by U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley, but prosecutors agreed to recommend 40 years in exchange for his guilty plea.
"Public safety requires that he be imprisoned until he is old and weak,'' wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Dean Segal, calling the crime "depraved and egregious.''
Defense attorney Thomas Johnson wanted a 30-year sentence, saying his client has been diagnosed as manic and depressive and can be rehabilitated with proper treatment for what he called "a truly debilitating mental illness.''
Muller mostly looked ahead emotionless but briefly addressed the court, saying he is "sick with shame." A Muller family spokesperson said it’s been shocking to hear what the former Marine and Harvard Law School graduate did.
"He is on his meds," Steve Reed said. "He is in a controlled environment, and to some degree, he is very happy he is in a controlled environment."
Federal prosecutors say Muller used a remote-controlled drone to spy on his victims before he broke into the Vallejo home Huskins shared with Quinn, tied up the couple and made them drink a sleep-inducing liquid. They were blindfolded while Muller played a pre-recorded message that made it seem as if there was more than one kidnapper.
He put Huskins in the trunk of his car, drove her to his home in South Lake Tahoe and held her there for two days before eventually releasing her in her hometown of Huntington Beach.
He claimed in emails to a San Francisco reporter that Huskins was abducted by a team of elite criminals who were practicing their kidnapping tactics.
After Huskins reappeared, Vallejo police called the kidnapping a hoax and erroneously likened it to the movie "Gone Girl,'' in which a woman goes missing and then lies about being kidnapped when she reappears.
Investigators dropped that theory after Muller was later arrested in an attempted robbery at another 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, which linked him to the abduction.
Vallejo police have since apologized. Huskins is suing the city and two police officers, accusing them of defamation and inflicting emotional distress.
Muller, a former Marine, 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 in 2015 in an unrelated incident.
"He will be dangerous for the rest of his life,'' Quinn wrote in advance of Muller's sentencing.