“Where Sadness Breathes” by Jack Earl is available from Amazon.com.
The crimes and the tragic endings
The crime spree lasted 17 days in the fall of 1973, according to police reports Jack Earl compiled in his research.
“They were riding a wave of drugs and paranoia,” said Earl of Willie Steelman and Doug Gretzler’s spree. “Willie insisted they had to keep running and leave no witnesses. But what they were running from wasn’t clear.”
Steelman was born and raised in Lodi to a family of farm hands. He got involved with drugs, couldn’t hold a job and skipped town. Gretzler was from New York City, and left his wife and child to drive across the country.
Steelman and Gretzler first met in Denver at a mutual friend’s house and began a grisly road trip. They first headed to Phoenix, and met up with Ken Unrein and Mike Marsh. They stayed with a couple named Yahfah Hacohen and Bob Robbins. Steelman, Gretzler, Unrein and Marsh got in a car and drove to California, then headed north. Gretzler and Steelman killed Unrein and Marsh, dumping their bodies south of Modesto.
The pair made a stop in Lodi for drugs, then headed to Sonoma County. There, they kidnapped Jim Fulkerson and Eileen Hallock, then drove them to Mountain View and abandoned them.
Steelman and Gretzler stole a car, then drove to Monterey, where they picked up hitchhiker Steve Loughran. Now with three in the car, they made their way back to Phoenix. Hacohen and Robbins welcomed their friends back into their trailer, where they all partied for a few days. Then Loughran was stuffed into a sleeping bag and killed, and Robbins and Hacohen were dispatched on that same night. Steelman and Gretzler traveled to Tucson, and met Gilbert Sierra. Steelman and Gretzler took Sierra to the desert and killed him.
The next day, the duo were hitchhiking and decided they needed another car. Vince Armstrong was driving by and picked them up, then realized the two were trouble. Before he was forced to drive out of town, Armstrong dove out of the moving car and bolted away.
Later that night, the pair tied up and killed Sandberg and his wife, Patricia. They took the Sandbergs’ car and drove to Lodi with the intention of robbing United Market, owned by Wally and Joane Parkin.
On Nov. 6, the pair arrived at the Parkin house at the corner of Orchard and Dustin roads in Victor to find Debbie and Ricky Earl baby-sitting Bobby and Lisa Parkin. The men took all four children hostage. Debbie Earl called her father in fear, and Richard Earl came over minutes later. He was soon joined by his wife, Wanda Earl, and Debbie Earl’s boyfriend, Mark Lang. When Wally and Joanne Parkin returned home, they too were taken hostage by Steelman and Gretzler. Steelman forced Wally Parkin to take him to United Market for money. The youngest children, Bobby and Lisa Parkin, were put to bed in their parents’ room. The adults were tied up and thrown in a large closet. Within hours, Gretzler would use 26 bullets to kill them.
Finally, the killers took what little money they had stolen and drove to Sacramento, where they holed up in a hotel for a day or two.
But law enforcement caught up with the pair on Nov. 8. Gretzler was arrested in the Clunie Hotel, while Steelman was arrested in the nearby home of a girlfriend.
Willie Steelman and Doug Gretzler faced multiple charges in California and Arizona. Both were ultimately extradited to Arizona because Vince Armstrong was a witness for the kidnapping charge, and because capital punishment was used in that state.
Gretzler was eventually found guilty of the murders of Michael and Patricia Sandberg, and sentenced to Arizona’s death row. He lingered there for 25 years, the longest stay at the time, until he was executed in a gas chamber in 1998. It was the nation’s first daylight execution.
Steelman was sentenced to two consecutive death penalties, in case an appeal overturned one of them. A judge added 80 to 95 years for the other convictions, including robbery and kidnapping. Steelman died of liver failure in 1986 while awaiting execution.