The suspect at the center of a kidnap case out of Vallejo, California, is a smart, determined trumpet player who graduated from Harvard law school – the place where he likely began suffering from bipolar disorder, according to documents, friends, family and his lawyer.
Matthew Muller’s mental illness will be most likely used as his defense strategy, said his Sacramento-based lawyer, Thomas Johnson. And he's had his share of legal troubles, including the time he was accused of sleeping in a law office and stealing client information. He's also been linked by police to home invasions in Dublin and possibly the Peninsula.
But the 38-year-old didn’t always suffer from mental illness, which he told federal agents is “Gulf War Illness,” even though he served in the Marines years after the Gulf War.
In interviews with NBC Bay Area, Johnson and his former college roommate, Alex Volberding, who is working at a law firm in San Francisco this summer, described Muller, of Orangeville, California, as someone who stood out in college because of his drive and wit. These are among the first accounts that highlight a different side of the accused kidnapper since his arrest was announced by the FBI on Monday.
“He was a very, very hard worker,” said Volberding, a UCLA law student who also attended Pomona College with Muller from 1999 to 2003. “He approached college in a very regimented manner, unlike most of our classmates, myself included.”
Volberding said he saw no signs of criminality during his years at Pomona College. Not only was Muller a good student, he was in top physical condition, running five miles a day before class started. He thought that one day Muller would be "sitting behind a desk in an elected capacity, not sitting in a jail cell."
“This news comes as a total surprise,” he said. “Any abnormality he might have shown in college was his drive.”
Muller is charged with kidnapping Denise Huskins and boyfriend Aaron Quinn from Vallejo in March. Their case became of national public interest when police didn’t believe their story, calling it a hoax. The details of the kidnap were extraordinary, involving drugs, ransom, duct tape, wet suits, swim goggles and anonymous emails to newspapers.
Quinn was let go and Huskins dropped off two days after she was abducted near her family’s home in Huntington Beach. A home invasion in Dublin in June led police, and then the FBI, to Muller, through evidence in his car, including goggles with a long blond hair attached.
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Muller, who is in Santa Rita Jail facing the Dublin charges, has not yet been moved to federal court in Sacramento to face his kidnap case. He will enter a not guilty plea when he arrives in about two to three weeks, Johnson said.
Johnson said the evidence that will be presented in court will likely show that Muller’s bipolar disorder began while he was in Harvard, where he earned a law degree and was a research assistant. The evidence will also show that Muller had been prescribed medication to control his manic-depressive states, Johnson said.
“A component of the defense is going to be a progressive debilitating illness,” Johnson said, adding that Muller did not show any signs of mental illness before graduate school.
Muller had always been a good student, according to Johnson, who culled his information by meeting his client’s family and friends. When he attended Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks near Sacramento, Muller took classes in the high achiever’s program. His GPA was over a 3.8, Johnson said, “and that was falling short of his academic potential.”
Muller’s stepfather declined to speak with NBC Bay Area, deferring all calls to his lawyer. Johnson said that Muller grew up with his parents, who divorced sometime after high school. He has a brother and a sister, Johnson said. He described Muller as someone who loved music and studying, who didn’t have a wide circle of friends.
Right out of high school, Muller joined the Marines. He wasn’t in combat. But he was stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, at Camp Pendleton, at the Naval School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia, and at the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan. Muller also served in the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in El Toro through his stint that lasted from Oct. 2, 1995, to Aug. 8, 1999. Pentagon records show he rose to the level of sergeant and played the trumpet — something he did in high school, too. He also won the National Defense Service Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, the Good Conduct Medal and the Nave—Marine Corps Achievement Medal. His discharge records were not immediately available.
After the Marines, Muller enrolled at Pomona College. Johnson said he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in economics and public policy analysis.
He did very well at Harvard, too, Johnson said, adding that he couldn’t detail exactly when his client’s mental state began to deteriorate, or how it played out.
Another former classmate, Noah Helpern, went to both undergraduate and graduate schools with Muller. "Despite going to both Pomona and Harvard with him I didn't know him especially well," Helperen wrote in an email. "Certainly never observed any mental illness; just a lot of intelligence and drive."
But some of Muller’s problems are documented in legal filings in federal and state court.
In 2011, an immigration law firm he was working for, Reeves & Associates, sued Muller for allegedly sleeping in their offices and stealing client information and passwords, with the hunch that he wanted to start his own firm. Surveillance video even showed Muller “late at night walking into a room [at the firm] with a couch carrying a sleeping bag,” the suit claims, and then later, allegedly stealing software, passwords, training guides and the boss’s archived emails.
Muller ended up resigning from the firm and the suit was settled.
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Lawyer Kerry McInerney Freeman said in an email that she was "not authorized" to comment about the case, or share the video.
Muller also worked for a year as an associate in the San Francisco office of immigration attorney firm Kerosky, Purves & Bogue. He left in 2012 for reasons that haven’t been disclosed.
In 2013, the California Bar Association suspended Muller’s license and began disciplinary proceedings that led to his disbarment, according to documents. A court in January issued a default judgment, saying Muller failed to refund $1,250 to a client and had told a client that he had filed necessary immigration papers when he had not.
In addition to the Dublin home invasion and kidnap charges, Palo Alto and Mountain View police suspect he may be linked to 2009 robberies in their cities, too, though they haven’t made any arrests.
And in emails to the San Francisco Chronicle during the kidnap saga, someone who purported to be behind the abduction of the Vallejo couple also boldly stated he or she was part of a wide car thief ring in the Bay Area, stealing cars to make some quick money. The emails sent to the newspaper described the ring as "a sort of Ocean's Eleven, gentlemen criminals who only took stuff that was insured from people who could afford it."
On Tuesday, federal search warrants obtained by NBC Bay Area show that the FBI seized drones, black night vision goggles, an empty zip tie bag and a blood pressure cuff, among other items.
If any of these accusations are true, Johnson said that it’s very likely his client’s mental state played a part. “With a bipolar disorder, the pendulum swing can be tremendous: from feeling grandiose to not being able to put your two feet on the floor.”
NBC Bay Area's Mark Matthews contributed to that report.