Two days after the September 11th everyone will always remember, a lithe 39-year-old ex-Marine named Donald Perez took $200 out of his savings and headed north for Mendocino County. Perez was on the road in anticipation of another sexual romp with an 18-year-old Fort Bragg man child named August Stuckey.
By 10am Friday, September 14th, Perez was dead, his slumped remains sagging from an alder in a brushy margin separating the Noyo River from the A&W logging road. What was left of him was very near the first bridge over the river before the road gradually climbs east into the forested hills separating the Mendocino Coast from Willits and Highway 101 some 30 miles away.
The dead man was 525 miles from his rented room in Santa Ana, one mile from the Fort Bragg Police Department, and 19 feet from the rutted pavement of the heavily traveled recreation and logging road.
Donald Perez would be pinioned to his last tree between the road and river for more than three weeks, and he might still be there if August Stuckey hadn't talked about it in front of another young Fort Bragg man named Michael Johnson.
It was an implausibly beautiful place to die that perfect early fall morning, at a junction of river and forest on a day made for life, not death. It was also an implausible place for all that happened there because even in bad weather that section of the road and its old bridge is humming with traffic, much of it on foot or by bicycle with kayakers, a frequent sight on the adjacent Noyo. There's almost always someone around day and night, the area also being a convenient nocturnal party site. It's not a place that rational criminals would choose to do all they did to Donald Perez.
But somehow, in a prolonged series of murderous events mostly occurring on the bridge itself, Perez had been carjacked, robbed, hit over the head with a rock, dragged down off the bridge and along the road west towards Fort Bragg, then forced east back into the brush, duct-taped to a tree, and probably stabbed in the throat.
And not a soul saw or heard any part of this death dance.
The pathology report from UC Davis indicates that the "larval infestation" discovered in the area of Perez's throat was most likely attracted to the "purge of fluids" that drain from the nose upon death. But, the report cautions, "Trauma to the neck is not supported. Degree of decomposition in these areas does not confirm the presence of such trauma. Arms overhead and binding of wrists offers the possibility of asphyxiation through respiratory fatigue. Entirely conceivable that the death may not have involved any form of trauma whatsoever but was caused by abandonment. Conclusion, cause of death unknown."
If Perez had simply been duct-taped to the tree, he was near enough to the road that his grunts and moans would soon have been heard by one of the innumerable persons who pass by at all hours. But, it seems likely, Perez didn't have time to either be discovered alive or suffocate because one of his three abductors likely drove a K-bar knife into his throat soon after he was taped to the tree.
Three young Fort Bragg men, August Stuckey, 18, Aaron Channel, 20, and Tai Abreu, 19, were arrested three weeks later when August Stuckey led police to Perez's remains after telling the police that he, Channel and Abreu caused Perez to be where he was — duct-taped dead.
None of the three alleged murderers had criminal records, none were known to be violent. The one common denominator they did have was their general estrangement from the society they'd inherited. Their school days had been difficult, and they were now adrift as young adults. All three had been bullied and harassed by schoolmates, all three did poorly in formal school settings, but all three tested at the gifted and talented level of natural intelligence. Stuckey had always been a special ed case, Tai Abreu, at the urging of Fort Bragg school officials, had been declared unmanageable by the schools and packed off to a children's institution by age 12, and Aaron Channel had dropped out on his own after bouncing from Fort Bragg's educational banquet to Mendocino's, at one point leaving school as a 16-year-old to make his way to Oklahoma to meet a girl he'd met on-line.
When the three young men were arrested, Stuckey told multiple stories about what had happened. Abreu told two versions of Perez's last hour. Channel said nothing at all. Both Stuckey's and Abreu's stories exempted themselves from the murder part of Perez's abduction and robbery.
Although only one of these improbable thugs cut Perez's throat, it is fair to say that none of the three were overly concerned with their victim's welfare before, during or after his death.
The murder began on August 28th of 2001 when August Stuckey, stranded in Sacramento, e-mailed Perez asking Perez for money to get back to Fort Bragg. Stuckey would later say he'd fled to Sacramento because another uneven young Fort Bragg man named Shane Merritt was threatening to kill him because Merritt believed Stuckey had stolen sound equipment from him.
It seems that Perez wired Stuckey the bus fare back to Fort Bragg because the next day Perez was in Fort Bragg where he and Stuckey spent a presumably priapic three days at the Seabird Motel. A few days before their Seabird interlude, Stuckey and Perez had exchanged steamy e-mails featuring photos of Perez with his penis at present arms. Stuckey e-mailed Perez his phone number and directions to Fort Bragg.
Stuckey would later claim that he and Perez had often met at the College of the Redwoods where Stuckey, a talented artist, drew chaste portraits of Perez for small amounts of money. However, the only renderings of Perez found among Stuckey's belongs were internet photos of Perez in the nude that Perez had taken of himself. That Perez required directions to Fort Bragg to meet Stuckey means Perez was unfamiliar with the Mendocino Coast prior to the fateful August of 2001.
Perez was murdered because he made the fatal mistake of returning to Fort Bragg for what he anticipated as another round of sex with Stuckey, but Stuckey had already decided to rob Perez and then kill him. Abreu and Channel apparently became involved in Stuckey's insane scheme out of a wildly misplaced but affectionate loyalty to Stuckey. Abreu would tell investigators that Channel feared Stuckey would "fuck it up" on his own.
As it turned out, it took all three of them to "fuck it up."
The three conspirators devised a hazy plan for Stuckey to persuade Perez to drive out the A&W road on the pretext that the A&W road was a shortcut from the coast to inland Willits and Highway 101. Once Perez was three or four miles out in the woods, Channel and Abreu would jump out of the bushes and help Stuckey rob Perez. Perez had told his roommate and his landlady back in Santa Ana that he was headed for Washington State, hence his desire to get back on 101 to proceed north. Always a secretive man, Perez didn't say why he was going to Washington, if indeed he was going there.
Once Perez and Stuckey were out in the woods east of town, the three amigos plotted, Stuckey would feign car sickness to get Perez to stop his truck, but Stuckey and Perez were late arriving, not getting to the A&W road until around 9am. Victim and escort had been expected earlier. Channel and Abreu had tired of waiting and were walking back towards Fort Bragg when Perez and Stuckey drove up.
Perez was dead twenty minutes later.
Abreu now says his modified story about what happened is untrue, but it does tend to corroborate Stuckey's fluid versions of Perez's death. It also buttresses the account of Michael Johnson, the Fort Bragg youth who eventually went to the police to say he'd heard his three friends talking about the murder while the four of them were smoking pot in Johnson's backyard.
Johnson told police that August Stuckey had told Johnson, "We killed a guy," and that the "guy deserved to die." Johnson said he asked Aaron Channel why he did it. Channel, Johnson said, replied that he was just helping a friend who was going to do it anyway and would probably mess it up. Johnson recalled that Channel thought murder had occurred "around September 18th." He said his three friends told him that they poured alcohol on the floor of the truck to make the cops think Perez had gotten drunk and had wandered out in the woods and gotten lost. Johnson claimed that August Stuckey had asked him about how he might cook up some home made napalm and go back out to Perez's body to completely destroy it. Johnson told police he remembered Tai Abreu borrowing a shovel from Johnson's house on Livingston Street that Johnson shared with his mother to "bury something," speculating that the "something" was cameras stolen from Perez. And, Johnson told the police, when he asked his three pot pals how they knew "the guy" was dead, Channel reportedly said, "He gurgled, that's how we knew he was dead."
The same day Johnson came to the police with the news that his three friends had murdered someone, Stuckey, before leading police to Perez's corpse, was telling investigators that Channel and Abreu had forced him into a scheme to rob Perez or they'd harm Stuckey's sister. Stuckey said he'd only been involved out of fear for his sister's welfare, and he certainly wasn't down in the bushes when Perez died.
Investigators immediately went to Stuckey's sister, Candace, then a student at Mendocino High School, to see if Candace might confirm the most important element of her brother's story — his involvement.
Candace said she'd "rather be taking her chemistry test," but, yes, her brother August had told her how a couple of friends of his had taken a man out into the woods, robbed him and cut his throat. Candace tearfully said her brother often lied to her but she was sure he was telling the truth this time. Candace told the police that the two friends of her brother's who had done the killing were Tai Abreu and Aaron Channel. Candace said Abreu and Channel had threatened to rape and kill her if August didn't help them rob Perez. Candace said her brother had been tortured by Channel and Abreu into going along with the scheme.
Both Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts always exempted themselves from responsibility for the murder. They both said they were up on the road when Perez got it in the throat with the K-bar knife. They both admitted that they were part of the plan to rob Perez and that Aaron Channel was the third person involved.
Abreu would later claim that his confession to detective Kevin Bailey was not only untrue but falsely obtained because his request for an attorney had been ignored. Channel would subsequently admit that he was involved well after Perez was dead, and Stuckey would say he was involved but hadn't used the K-bar military knife he wore on his belt to stab anyone.
In all the three weeks Perez's corpse was wrapped to the tree by the Noyo, nobody saw his remains, nobody smelled his remains, no dog barked at his remains, when all anybody had to do was look off the side of the road and there he was, sagging to earth between the road and the river.
The police, finally directed to what was left of Perez by Stuckey, seemed as surprised at the body's proximity to the busy road as they were at the improbability of the site as a murder scene.
"We responded out the A&W Logging Road approximately one mile where we met deputies and search and rescue personnel. Lt. Miller directed us to a location just west of the first bridge on the logging road. We looked off the road and observed a male adult hanging by his hands, which were tied around a tree."
Perez's wallet, containing his driver's license, his credit cards, and his ATM card, was found undisturbed in his trousers.
"Considering it happened during daylight hours," detective Bailey would say, "to say that they were lucky to get away with all that right there is an understatement. Not only is it a pretty popular place — we have County employees who walk that road on a daily basis — for his remains to be maybe 20 feet off the roadway and not be discovered is amazing. There's nothing in the vehicle to indicate that he was killed in the vehicle. If they'd killed him some other place then transported him in the vehicle there would have been some trace evidence in the vehicle. They were very lucky."
Although gay groups would immediately demand that the three be charged with a hate crime because Perez was gay, the sexual motive didn't seem to have been a factor; Stuckey was gay and Abreu actively bi-sexual. Channel was heterosexual and not known to be intolerant of gays or anybody else. The sexually ecumenical hijackers, it seems, just wanted Perez's property, which consisted of two hundred dollars in cash, a hand held 8 millimeter camera, a 35 millimeter camcorder, camera lenses, four canisters of film, a battery charger for the camcorder, and music cd's including Nirvana and Suicidal Tendencies, all of it buried in Abreu's green duffel bag.
Stuckey's multiple accounts, scattered as they were, confirmed that the police had the right three persons responsible for Perez's death. Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts confirmed the information brought to the police by Michael Johnson, a drug buddy of the three young hijackers and an occasional sex partner of Stuckey's. But it was Abreu's confession to detective Kevin Bailey of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department that would send all three to state prison, Abreu for life without the possibility of parole.
A wiry, restless young man who always seems in motion, Abreu sat in the stark interview room of the county jail complex in Ukiah the afternoon of October 9th waiting for detective Bailey. As he waited, the tightly wrapped young man sang fragments of a love song to himself, rhythmically accompanying himself by slapping his hands on the interview desk. Abreu would always insist that he'd been up on the road as lookout man when Stuckey and Channel killed Perez down in the bushes. They did the murder part of the crime, not him.
If Tai Abreu had known he was about to put himself in prison for the rest of his life, if he'd known that the law says he was as guilty as whomever it was stabbed Perez in the throat, if he'd known that detective Bailey was not his friend, not some kind of surrogate daddy, but only a cop doing his job, if only he'd had the lawyer present he'd asked for, Tai might have saved himself. But he was young and dumb, and nobody was on his side, least of all the lawyer he finally got after it was too late.
It took Tai an hour to put himself in prison for the rest of his life.