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A 50-year-old California mass murder case forever etched in my consciousness

In summary

Fifty years ago, two drifters murdered nine people in the bedroom of a home near Lodi. The memory of it never fades.

Occasionally I’m asked which event – which story – has been the most memorable of a journalistic career that’s spanned more than 60 years, three-quarters of them writing about California politics.

No political story, however, occupies a bigger place in my consciousness than the execution-style murders of nine people, two entire families, in the bedroom of a rural home near Lodi 50 years ago today, which I covered for the Sacramento Union.

It was the home of Walter Parkin, owner of a small food store in Victor, his wife, Joanne, and their two children, 11-year-old Lisa and Robert, 9.

The two Parkin children were lying in the master bedroom’s bed, both shot to death. Their parents and five other bodies were found in a walk-in closet, all bound and methodically murdered. They were the Parkins’ neighbors, Richard and Wanda Earl, their daughter, Debbie, who had been the Parkins’ babysitter, Debbie’s 15-year-old brother, Ricky, and her boyfriend, Mark Lang.

Authorities had absolutely no clues as to who had killed them, although they quickly discovered that the Parkins’ store had reportedly been robbed of about $3,000 in cash.

Nevertheless, the case was quickly solved because San Joaquin County Sheriff Mike Canlis had a hunch. He asked contacts at the FBI about fugitives roaming the countryside and was told that a warrant had just been issued for Willie Steelman, who had spent most of his life in the Lodi area, and Douglas Gretzler for killing two people in a mobile home in the Arizona desert.

Canlis released an old San Joaquin County mugshot of Steelman, who had a history of minor crimes, saying he thought it possible that Steelman was involved.

The mugshot was printed at the top of the Sacramento Union’s front page the next morning, and a clerk at the Clunie Hotel in downtown Sacramento recognized Steelman as one of two young men who had checked in the day before.

Cops scooped up Gretzler when he returned to the hotel and he told them where they could find Steelman. He was visiting a masseuse that the two had met while spending some of the loot at a massage parlor. After a brief standoff at her apartment house, Steelman surrendered.

A few days later, I obtained summaries of the their interrogations, and wrote that they had killed 17 people in a 17-day spree of death that began in Arizona with the mobile home killings, moved to California, then back to Arizona and finally back to California because Steelman knew that the Parkins’ store kept a lot of money to cash checks of farmworkers.

After months of legal wrangling, it was agreed that Steelman and Gretzler would be declared guilty in California and shipped to Arizona which, unlike California, had the death penalty. They were convicted of murdering a young couple whose car they were driving when arrested in California, nine others and sentenced to death. Steelman died in 1986 of cirrhosis but Gretzler sat on death row for nearly 25 years before being executed in 1998.

I wasn’t done with the story, however. Jack Earl, whose aunt, uncle and two cousins had been murdered, decided to satisfy his curiosity about the case by writing a book. I helped him with accounts of court battles and documents I had preserved. He had even visited Gretzler on death row and attended his execution. Earl’s book, “Where Sadness Breathes,” was published in 2013. I also helped a woman who produced a documentary video about the case and who had also interviewed Gretzler.

Fifty years is a long time, but the horrific events that began on Nov. 6, 1973, will forever be etched in my consciousness.

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