Chandler, Arizona—It was a warm Monday afternoon in May of 1995. As a private eye, I was assigned the case of a missing sailor from the U.S. Navy, 32 year-old, David Gugel.
Gugel’s family retained me to find this young father of two young boys and stepfather of two little girls. The demeanor my new clients, was unusually grim and subdued. It was obvious they all feared the worst. I unsuccessfully tried to paint a better picture for them with good statistics in similar cases.
I knew one thing going into the investigation and that was that the pending divorce between David and Karen Gugel that was not friendly. David Gugel had difficulties exercising his court ordered visitation of his children that he’d traveled to see from his Navy ship in Florida. The last that anyone had seen or spoken to David Gugel was when he rented a car and went to the house trailer in the Phoenix Southern suburb of Chandler, Arizona where his children were living.
I knew that detectives from the Chandler Police department had already been out to talk to Karen Gugel and her live-in boyfriend, Charles "Darren" Greer. I also knew they had canvassed the quite trailer park where this couple lived looking carefully for any evidence or information.
This was a missing case of an adult male subject and accordingly it was not a high priority but the sworn officers had worked it diligently under the suspicious circumstances.
It was late afternoon as I knocked on the door to the Gugel/Greer trailer. Where better a place to begin my investigation but this trailer? No vehicles were present and nobody was home. The same was true for the immediate neighbors. A strange sort of loneliness and melancholy consumed me as I began looking around the trailer and yard fenced with wire.
My attention was captured by a shovel sticking out of a mound of dirt in the back yard. Yes, my thoughts began to run wild, but soon settled down with the reality that the Arizona desert is not made of soft soil, but a formidable concrete like substance that would defeat any grave digger armed only with a shovel.
I began walking around the trailer. I could not stop walking and looking everywhere around this trailer and yard. Every time I got one of the corners by a driveway I felt the need to stop and look carefully at everything. I looked down at my feet and saw a round red spot about 3/8 of an inch. Was it blood? Was it paint? All I could find was that one red spot. Rather than try to guess perhaps we’ll let a crime laboratory tell us. For reasons I cannot explain, I kept walking around this scene perhaps 35 or 40 times before I finally stopped.
My imagination was working overtime. The whole thing was getting really creepy. It was like I was having conversations with myself. I needed a break. I needed to visit a bathroom and I was thirsty too.
There was a bar to the East of the trailer park. The bar looked really seedy and I was compelled to go in look around and use the men’s room anyway. I felt like I was being forced to stay even though I’m not a drinker and was the only one there other than the bartender. After a quick unhelpful interview of the bartender, I left that bar for a 7-11 store and a cold bottle of soda.
I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I knew I was not going to leave the area until after I had interviewed Karen Gugel and Darren Greer. I was wondering just how long I would have to hang around until that happened. I planned on talking to each neighbor whenever they got home too. I was guessing that it was going to be a long night.
I drove back to that lonely trailer park and saw no new cars but knocked on the door to the trailer to the South of the Gugel/Greer residence. An elderly lady answered the door. I flashed my private Eye ID and told her I need some help locating a young man as I showed her David Gugel’s picture. She seemed nervous and asked me to come inside. She took me away from the front door and told me almost in a whisper, “I saw it happen.” The woman went on tell me that she does not live there but she babysat for two little grandsons every Monday night. She continued to say that last week I saw the boys looking out a window at a disgusting sight. The man next door was holding the fellow down in the picture you have as the woman was hitting him in the head with a river rock. The woman then made her grandsons get away from the window. When the woman returned to the window the victim and his assailants were gone.
The disposition of David Gugel suddenly became obvious. Now I knew what that little red spot on the ground was really all about.
The woman told me that she was ashamed she did not call the police. She also neglected to tell her own daughter what had happened. When the police came by to do their routine interviews they missed the only eyewitness to what appears to be a murder.
In law enforcement the two most important words are probable cause. Probable cause allows for search warrants, seizure of evidence and arrests. This was indeed a golden moment. Failure to act now would allow the suspects to evade arrest, hide evidence and perhaps we may never find the young man's remains.
I informed the witness that I was going to get the information to the police detectives so this case could be resolved. That proved to be a difficult challenge.
I left the trailer park and went to a nearby location as not to attract police attention at the trailer park. I called the Chandler Police though the 911system. I’ve never been fond of the civilians police agencies hire and poorly train to answer their telephones.
I also knew before I made the call that this rather small department did not have detectives that worked nights.
I got one of their slower ladies on the line. I told her who I was and that I was working an active missing case and needed to get into contact with the detective and perhaps their homicide investigators. I also told her I located an eyewitness. With solid authority in her voice the 911operator told me that I’d have to wait until business hours in the morning. I then asked and waited several minutes for her supervisor. The supervisor was even worse if that was possible. The two 911 operators made a game out of telling this PI to get lost.
I then asked for a sworn officer and that was like throwing gasoline on the fire. They really became hostile even threatening to have me arrested after I told them I’d start breaking windows until they sent out someone, anyone.
Finally, a lone patrolman arrived who was a great deal smarter than the 911 ladies. He recognized the importance of what had happened and called out the cavalry from their homes to follow up on the smoking-gun evidence. The detectives involved had worked the entire day, and had little more time then enough for a meal before they jumped on these developments.
The suspects had not gotten home before the detectives had entered the trailer park, and re-interviewed with the witness. The plan was simple, arrest the suspects on sight for assault, and also get a search warrant for the trailer and any vehicles owned by the suspects. The scene was protected by several detectives as the others raced to the computers to get the warrants completed and then found a sleepy judge to sign them.
The suspects were arrested and a through search was conducted. Soon the key to David Gugel’s rental car was found in the ventilator over the stove in the trailer.
Soon the admonishments against self-incrimination were again read to the suspects as they were separated and placed in interrogation rooms. This is always the fun part. If all the people that are sitting in prison today were allowed to somehow take back what they told police our prisons would be nearly empty. Predictably they spilled their guts about the murder.
Darren Greer proved to be difficult as the sleepless detectives worked on him all night to tell them where he put Gugel’s body. Finally, the next day after driving around in the desert for hours Greer came clean and showed detectives a pile of palm fawns covering the murdered victim’s remains. Without Greer's cooperation, Gugel's remains would never have been found in this out of the way desert location.
David Gugel’s rental car was parked right behind that seedy bar I was compelled to visit. It was mid-day on Tuesday before any of us returned home. The Chandler officers sought nor got rest until they finished this job.
In court, Karen Gugel was given a 20-year prison term. Darren Greer was handed an 18-year term. David Gugel was buried with full military honors. All four children were placed into the loving custody of David Gugel’s mother, Phyllis Seedle.
Had this crime gone unsolved, David Gugel would have been wrongly declared a military deserter, two murderers would have gone free and four children would have been brought up under the worst possible conditions.
I had a lot of special help that May Day so long ago. David, rest in peace, the children are safe because of you.
The killers of Davis Gugel: