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Former Lodi resident Jack Earl writes crime book about murders in Victor

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Posted: Saturday, February 2, 2013 10:30 pm

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.

Earl began researching and writing in 1991, and self-published “Where Sadness Breathes” in 2012. The 612-page tome 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 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 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 gave an interview to the News-Sentinel. Below 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 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 of 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 in to 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 sarap@lodinews.com.

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  • robert maurer posted at 10:26 am on Sat, Feb 9, 2013.

    mason day Posts: 437

    Hi,Ted, you said it exactly correct.I only knew you from Mr. Heinrich's mechanical drawing class. You were one of the students that in many ways, I worked to achieve to be; a good roll model. I remember the same about Jim. It is almost always a pleasure to hear from good people from my past. However, I just moved to Idaho last year,but in my heart ,the lodi area has always been my home and always will be.

  • Ted Lauchland posted at 10:27 am on Thu, Feb 7, 2013.

    Ted Lauchland Posts: 229

    I can not say I knew everyone in Highschool but seeing faces in my annual brings back even people I never really knew. Good to meet you again , more or less. A lot of water under the bridge and yet it seems just like yesterday. People that come and go and some "Stuck in Lodi" - and loving it !

    I do not go on line that often on this blog but when I do it never seems to fail to be interesting. Looking forward to conversing on subjects with you in the future.

  • robert maurer posted at 12:56 pm on Tue, Feb 5, 2013.

    mason day Posts: 437

    My dad was employed by Rick's dad until that tragedy. I have memories of rick and I racing to the concession stand during the 7th inning stretch for food and drinks while our dads talked at the Lodi Crushers/Padres/A's baseball games at the Lodi stadium.By the way,hello Ted and Jim.I remember you from high school.

  • Alex Kennedy posted at 4:26 pm on Mon, Feb 4, 2013.

    Alex Posts: 215

    Dear LNS,

    This article is so riddled with grammatical errors that it was hard to follow in some areas. It's as though you don't even care. Take a few minutes to proof read your work before you post.

  • Simon Birch posted at 1:19 pm on Mon, Feb 4, 2013.

    Simon Birch - Online Manager Posts: 139 Staff

    Everyone: Here's the link to the Amazon page. http://amzn.to/VFtdkO
    I've also added it to the story above (where it's clickable).

  • Jim Schwartzenberger posted at 12:20 pm on Mon, Feb 4, 2013.

    Jim Schwartzenberger Posts: 2

    I just ordered the book on Amazon $22.95 not sure if it is available locally. There was not an E-book option.

  • Layla Bohm posted at 11:29 am on Mon, Feb 4, 2013.

    Layla Posts: 9


  • Marty & Christi Weybret posted at 9:42 am on Mon, Feb 4, 2013.

    MCW Posts: 7

    Sara, I'd like to read the book. How do I find it? Has Jack thought of publishing it on iTunes?

  • Ted Lauchland posted at 2:28 pm on Sun, Feb 3, 2013.

    Ted Lauchland Posts: 229

    You will find many people in this area that remember and have a personal viewpoint of the tragedy. Mine was close , very close as I knew Mark, Debbie and the Earl family through DeMolay and Rainbow. I sat next to Ricky in an accounting class one day and not the next . I lived a mile away from the happenings . Not a pleasant memory . Their houses carry those memories to this day every time I drive by.

    My sorrow still goes out to their remaining families. The stories go on.



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