When Jack Earl watched the news coverage of Doug Gretzler being arrested by Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies for killing two Lodi families in a Victor farmhouse, he was confused.
“I had the image in head of a bad guy, not a guy my age who did a bad thing. It was so shocking to me,” he said.
Gretzler was 22 when he and Willie Steelman, 28, committed a string of crimes in California and Arizona in 1973. They ultimately took the lives of 17 people. Four of them were Earl’s aunt, uncle and cousins. Media coverage was heavy at the time and in the following court proceedings, but Earl kept waiting for someone to write a book or make a movie weaving together the full story of all the crimes and the people who committed them. No one did.
So Earl began researching and writing in 1991, and self-published “Where Sadness Breathes” in 2012. The 612-page book details the lives of the killers, their victims and the varied cast of characters involved in bringing them to justice.
Early on, Earl discovered parallels between Gretzler’s life and his own. They graduated from high school in the same year, both enjoyed rock music and working on cars, and their daughters had the same names.
His goal in writing the story was to trace Gretzler and Steelman’s decisions back far enough to understand how their lives had gone one way, and Earl’s had gone another. Twenty years of work later, Earl said he is a different person.
Earl now lives in Roseburg, Ore., with his daughter, Hannah.
The book is written in the style of a true-crime novel, a string of short stories moving chronologically through each day leading up to the crimes and the trials following after. Earl said he never planned to make any money off the story. So far, he has printed only about 50 copies, which he said is fine by him.
“I have done what I had set out to do. I have written this story. I never looked at it as, ‘I’m going to make a boatload of money off of this story.’ Maybe it’s only interesting to me,” he said.
Earl spoke with the News-Sentinel. This is a lightly edited transcript of his responses.
How did you handle the research and interviews with no writing or reporting experience?
That was a fun part, I got to play detective. I would start off with a basic question. I would go to the library and get as many newspaper stories as possible. Then I’d jot down names from the articles and go to the courts and the police departments, asking if the person I was looking for was still around. Because I was a member of a victim’s family, I got further than most people. I didn’t play that up, but it did open some doors for me. It was just that I was an Earl, and these people were Earls.
What struck you about the process?
I quickly realized that everyone I talked to had a story. I think everybody who lost somebody in this had this lingering feeling that there was more to know. The thing you have to remember is that nobody knew the whole story. People never knew how their story connected with the big picture. They just knew enough for their part of the story. It was rewarding to tell these people what I knew, to share and take a little bit of burden off people.
Was there a point when you felt buried by the work?
No. If I discovered something, it led to something else. I had misdirection, but that was a really enjoyable part of the story. I was overwhelmed at times. It was much bigger than even I realized. I was just gathering. I was a hoarder. I didn’t know where it was going. It was an obsession.
Included in the book are some gruesome crime scene photos. Explain your decision to include those.
That was a tough one. I had people advise me not to put any photos in it. Trust me, I have photos that I would never ever publish. I thought I had failed because of how I wrote the book. I felt I had not a done a service to the savagery of this crime. I felt I needed to hit home the grisly, unbelievable evil these guys had left behind. I wanted to jar the viewer and maybe myself into realizing this was ugly. These photos were the least graphic.
How did your family and others react to your research?
I had more than one insinuate that I was a little bit twisted to be digging all this up. I had to decide whether to carry around this hatred and animosity, and I chose not to. I chose to forgive him in the end. When I got down there (for the execution), they made it clear they were not happy with me, and did not want me to be a part of this group. I was not received well. Some of the people I had talked to felt used.
Would you follow this story again, knowing what it took to complete?
Yes, I would do it again, because it allowed me to deal with something that everyone has to deal with at some point in their lives. People deal with a lot of stuff in their lives and we’re not always privy to it. These people are walking in and out of our lives, and we never have the opportunity to sit down and find out what brought them to this point. I had that opportunity. Nobody is all bad. There is evil in the world, trust me, but how did it get there?
What was it like corresponding with Gretzler?
First, I thought I would be doing a huge disservice to the memory of my family. But up until then, I’d been reading documents in the third person. Wouldn’t I want to talk to him? I asked my father about it, and he said it wouldn’t bother him.
At one point, I’m looking at Gretzler and I’m feeling sad for him. He is sweating bullets, but he feels he owes it to me to talk to me. I remember looking him in the eye and thinking those eyes watched my cousin Debbie take four or five bullets at his hand. Those eyes were the last ones to see my cousins alive. It jarred me back into the reality of the story. I wanted to tell a true story from every conceivable angle, from victims and family and from killers as well. But sometimes I was reminded that this was my family in it, too. I don’t hate Doug Gretzler. I hate what he did.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.