How a road trip became a horrific killing rampage

Oct. 11, 1973 — Willie Luther Steelman, 28, and Douglas E. Gretzler, 22, leave Denver in Gretzler’s sports car and head toward Phoenix. Until this point, Gretzler’s only run-ins with the law have been traffic violations. Steelman is a former mental patient and an admitted heroin user with a jail record.

Oct. 13 — The men pull a sawed-off shotgun on a man and a woman outside Globe. They steal $25, then return $20 to the man. Steelman and Gretzler pick up a hitchhiker, then drive him to an orchard where they tie him up and rob him of his clothes, $20 and a ring they later pawn.

Oct. 15 — The pair rob a woman in Phoenix of $20 and some checks, which they use to pay for a motel room.

Oct. 16 — They force two acquaintances, Ken Unrein and Mike Adshade, at gunpoint to show them the Mesa mobile home of another acquaintance.

Oct. 17 — Steelman and Gretzler kidnap Unrein and Adshade and drive them to California, where they strangle and fatally stab them. They use the victims’ van until it breaks down.

Oct. 20 — The men start hitchhiking in Petaluma, Calif., and are picked up by a young couple, whom they hold at gunpoint. They force the man into the trunk of his car. Steelman rapes the woman. The next day, they leave the victims in an underground garage, then steal another car to return to Phoenix.

Oct. 21 — In Apache Junction the men pick up another hitchhiker and take him to the mobile home in Mesa.

Oct. 22 — Steelman and Gretzler drive the hitchhiker to the foot of the Superstition Mountains at gunpoint then force him to place a sleeping bag over his own head before shooting him.

Oct. 25 — They return to the mobile home and kill the two residents and steal their car.

Oct. 26 — Steelman and Gretzler take a cab to the Phoenix bus depot. They ride to Tucson and stay at a “crash pad” with hippies on North Fourth Avenue. Steelman trades cocaine for heroin and amphetamines, and is later beaten during a brawl. Gretzler is also beaten, stabbed in the head and loses his shotgun. They go to another house and get a .22-caliber revolver.

Nov. 2 — The men hitchhike near University Boulevard and are picked up by Gilbert Sierra, a 19-year-old San Manuel miner whom they later force at gunpoint into the trunk of his car. After picking up two other people, the men drive Sierra to a secluded area near Gates Pass and shoot him several times as he tries to run. Sierra falls into a cactus-filled arroyo and dies. The group returns to Tucson, and Gretzler and Steelman use the victim’s cash to buy amphetamine tablets. They decide to steal another car so they can leave the city.

Nov. 3 — The men pull the revolver on a University of Arizona student who stops to pick them up as they hitchhike on University Boulevard. Steelman boasts that he has just killed an undercover narcotics agent, which is a lie, and the victim becomes too nervous to drive. Once Gretzler starts driving north on Campbell Avenue the victim throws himself out of the car near River Road and later reports the robbery. Steelman and Gretzler drive the student’s car to the newly completed Villa Paraiso, 1353 E. Fort Lowell Road, where Michael Sandberg is washing his Datsun. Steelman forces the former Marine captain at gunpoint to his second-floor apartment, where his wife, Patricia, is studying. Steelman uses makeup to cover a black eye from the earlier beating, while Gretzler forces Patricia Sandberg to cut and dye his hair in the bathroom sink. Gretzler then binds the UA graduate students, leaving them face down in separate rooms. While waiting for darkness, Gretzler and Steelman study a map of Tucson. They then shoot both victims in the head, using a pillow to muffle the noise. They steal the couple’s car and other belongings and drive to Casa Grande, where they stay the night using the Sandbergs’ American Express card.

Nov. 4 — Police find the carjacking victim’s car in the Villa Paraiso parking lot but remain unaware the Sandbergs have been murdered. That night, a highway patrol officer stops Gretzler and Steelman at the state border, but waves them through after they show him Sandberg’s identification.

Nov. 7 — Gretzler and Steelman drive to Victor, Calif., near Steelman’s hometown of Lodi. The men go to a grocery store where Steelman knows farmworkers cash paychecks, then go to the home of the owner after they find it closed. The men take a teenage baby sitter and two children, ages 9 and 11, hostage and continue to add hostages through the night. They ultimately — and systematically — kill nine members of two families and steal more than $3,500 from the grocery store’s safe. Gretzler admits shooting the children as they slept. In Sacramento, Gretzler and Steelman register at a hotel under the name Doug Gretzler. Police learn the men are in the area and that Steelman talked about picking up $5,000 the night of the murders.

Nov. 8 — A hotel desk clerk recognizes the name from banner newspaper accounts of the mass murder and calls police. Officers converge on the hotel and arrest Gretzler, who later tells detectives about the Sandbergs. Steelman is seized after a brief standoff at a masseuse’s apartment.

July 8, 1974 — Gretzler and Steelman are sentenced to life imprisonment in California for the Victor massacre. Gretzler had pleaded guilty to nine counts of first-degree murder. Steelman waived his right to a jury trial and was found guilty by a judge.

Fall 1975 — In separate trials, the men are convicted of first-degree murder in the Sandberg slayings and sentenced to death.

1992 — Jack Earl’s sister gives him a copy of police reports from Maricopa County, sparking an obsession that will ultimately lead him to write his book.

Aug. 7, 1986 — Steelman dies in prison of liver disease at the age of 41.

June 3, 1998 — Earl is a witness at the prison when Gretzler, 47, is executed.

Sources: Laura Greenberg, Jack Earl and Arizona Daily Star archives