Everything about the murderspree which ended with 17 people dead over the course of 21 days, began in Mesa in 1973. It started on Oct. 28 when two men — Doug Gretzler and Willie Steelman, neither yet 30 years old at the time — kidnapped two Mesa residents, drove them to California, and killed them brutally and without mercy.
Nov. 18 marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the spree in which Gretzler and Steelman mercilessly killed men, women and children in two states. Among the victims were the uncle, aunt and two cousins of Oregon resident Jack Earl, who spent years researching and writing a book detailing those 21 days of horror.
Earl was 22 and living in California at the time when four members of his family — Richard, Debbie, Wanda and Ricky Earl — were killed by Gretzler and Steelman in the City of Lodi. The details of the night the Earl family died are nothing less than horrific. Nine people in all were killed, and the seven oldest, including the Earls, were tied up in a walk-in closet and were gunned down. A Tribune article from 1998 states the gunmen reloaded their weapons four times during the course of the shooting.
After all seven were dead — Earl’s cousin Ricky was killed when he tried to hide under his mother’s corpse — Gretzler proceeded to shoot a 9-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl who were cowering in a nearby bed. According to the Tribune article, photos from the scene showed the girl was praying before she died.
The spree, which encompassed three murders in Mesa, finally ended when Gretzler and Steelman were caught in a hotel on Nov. 18. Both men were given a death sentence and died during their imprisonment: Steelman from liver disease in 1987 and Gretzler from lethal injection in 1998.
Jack Earl, who lived in neighboring Antioch and visited his uncle the Friday before his murder, began researching his book, “Where Sadness Breathes,” six years before Gretzler received his injection. The decision to revisit the death of his family members and 13 other victims came in large part to a lack of coverage after the arrest. Even during the trial, which occurred in Arizona, Earl said news about Gretzler and Steelman “disappeared.”
“In California, we had no idea if anything had ever happened,” he said.
His curiosity was piqued in 1992 when he started to read a police report about one of the Mesa murders, and that initial report spurred him to continue researching the rest of the incidents. It wasn’t easy getting all of the files — this was still well before Internet access became a fact of life — but he was successful in his mission and continued to plunge into the events that occurred in 1973.
The journey through the past and pain wasn’t easy, and it included a hurdle that would be difficult to leap over: an interview with Gretzler. Earl said he debated taking the trip to Arizona to visit with the man who murdered four members of his family, but was convinced when his father gave his blessing.
“He said ‘I think you need to, I think you need to find out,’” he said.
The visit took place in July 1992, and the effect it had on both men was profound. Earl said Gretzler was clearly shaken by Earl’s visit and said the man shutdown for about six months afterward.
For Earl, the decision to see Gretzler in person ended up angering other family members in Lodi who thought the visit dishonored the victims, a situation that became exacerbated six years later.
But the visit to Florence to see Gretzler also led Earl to see the human side of the monster, and it contributed greatly to his decision to forgive Gretzler for what he did.
“Some people can do the forgiveness thing, some can’t,” he said. “I just did it because I couldn’t carry this around with me.”
That additional anger directed toward Earl from family members and beyond began shortly after Gretzler’s execution. Per the Tribune report, there wasn’t much sympathy for the man after his death, and former Pima County Attorney David Dingeldine said he did not believe Gretzler ever felt any remorse for the terrible acts he committed in his youth.
But Earl felt, and still feels, that Gretzler’s final words of remorse were heartfelt and true, largely due to the 20-plus years he had to think about his actions.
“Doug Gretzler, during his time, was able to come to grips with the magnitude of what he’d done,” he said.
He made similar comments to the press, and the result was additional ire directed toward him not just from family members, but from the public. Even 15 years later, Earl said people still yell at him for what he said.
Conversely, though, Earl said others will come up to him and cry about what happened. They remember all of the violence and death and misery inflicted upon the victims, their families and friends and even the loved ones of the two murderers — as Earl put it, even Charles Manson was somebody’s baby boy at one point.
The gap between monster and man is razor thin at best, and it’s that component along with the death, details and other elements made the 21 days in 1973 such a compelling tale.
“I think it’s a good story; it’s not an easy story, it’s not a pretty story, but it’s a good story,” he said.
Copies of Earl’s book are available on Amazon.com.
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