Murder in Sandpoint, Idaho - forensic documents play important role in charging, evidence, and conviction

Body of missing teacher discovered under home

By Craig Welch

Staff writer

SANDPOINT - The body of a man believed murdered nearly two years ago has been discovered under a place authorities had combed dozens of times before - his home.

Bonner County detectives Wednesday found the remains of wealthy retired school teacher Paul Gruber buried under his Muskrat Lake home.

Authorities said the discovery was a giant step toward cracking the notorious, bizarre unsolved case that had detectives at one time considerint a call to the television shows "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries."

"A man is dead and somebody killed him," Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos said. "When you can bring it closer to justice, that's a good feeling."

Deputies believe Gruber was shot a killed at his home in the woods sometime around February 1994 when family members reported the 53-year-old missing. An autopsy was under way late Friday in Spokane.

Deputies have a suspect but the state Attorney General's Office would not say wheterh they are close to making an arrest. State officials are involved in the investigation because the Bonner County prosecutor has an unspecified conflict of interest.

Authorities have a part-time carpenter to thank for this week's break, some 21-months into the investigation. Detectives this week asked the carpenter to comb the grounds for any signs of new construction done to hide a body or clues. The carpenter notices a low spot beneath the northwest corner of the house. Detectives peeled back a plastic barrier and dug a test hole in the dirt. There, they found unspecified evidence. Further digging produced the body.

"I myself had walked over that body no less than four times," said Sheriff Roos. Last year, deputies used dogs that sniff for cadavers and a search team to scour the 20 acres areound and under Gruber's house south of Sandpoint. They found nothing.

Roos said the plastic probably had prevented the dogs from smelling the remains.

Fearful of disturbing or destroying evidence, authorities continued digging out mounds of earth Friday with trowels and teaspoons. State crime officials tested evidence removed from the ground for fingerprints. The discovery is the latest twist in a case that has kept deputies scurrying from one bizarre turn to another.

After family members reported Gruber missing in February 1994, authorities searched his home off Gypsy Bay Road. All his clothes were gone, along with guns, a computer, a television and most of his personal papers. They also found his vehicles left out of the garage in the snow - unlocked.

Authorities later found blood in the breezeway of his split-level home. DNA tests showed it came from Gruber and that there was enough blood to have killed him - but those tests were not completed until recently.

Weeks later, Grubers brand-new truck was found abandoned in Kootenai County L. The keys were inside butthere were not fingerprint - not even Gruber's. In March, a fisher man found a safe and Gruber's cellular telephone by the road near Hayden ake.

Someone had been picking up Gruber's mail, paying his bills and using his credit card to withdraw cash from automated teller machines - sometimes $200 twice a day. Between $25,000 and $30,000 was withdrawn.

None of the developments in the case meshed with the portrait of Gruber that had been developed by detectives. Gruber was a well-traveled, wealthy man descibed as outgoing but meticulous, said Detective John Valdez.

Gruber owned a tour boat servide in Lake Tahoe before moving to North Idaho and was a world traveler. He lived alone in his North Idaho home.

"We talked to well over 50 people who know this guy - including his stock broker - and it didn't look right," Valdez said. So detectives "just kept following the trail, looking for clues."

The work led them to a man authorities say had established a relationship with Gruber "for business reasons." The man also had some of Gruber's personal property. Deputies "have a 4-inch-thick stack of papers and everything points in one direction, Roos said. Deputy Attorney General Scott James would not say wheter charges were imminent. "We have an ongoing investigation," James said. "We are not able to discuss anything about it."

Regardless, Roos said Friday he was pround of his detetives' persistence. "They would not let it go," he said.

Investigators from the Idaho State Attoney General's office contacted me regarding their on-going investigation into Mr. Grubers murder several weeks after his body had been located under the crawl space of his Idaho home (see the attached article).  Earilier, the investigators had submitted several of the forged Gruber

documents to their lab and received inconclusive results. However, there was now a suspect availalbe and several forged checks, notes, and greeting cards that suspect Darryl Kuehl had produced would now be an important aspect in charging Kuehl.

The first order of business was to serve a court order on the suspect and his wife authorizing us to take a handwriting sample of both their cursive and printed handwriting.

Obtaining an undisguised sample of the suspect's handwriting was crucial to the success of this matter. Detailed samples were taken and examined. Many of the forged items and greeting cards that were relevant in this investigation were also collected and examined.

In a typical forgery case, the suspect involved may have a general idea of what the account holders signature looks like, but has little or no idea of exactly how the account holder signs his name, how he habitually writes the date on the check, how or if the victim prints the written information on the check. The suspect may not know how the victim makes his numeral forms, his printed forms, the format on the written amount line, and a myriad of other details. The Sandpoint case however, was not typical. It seemed the forgery may have had days and weeks of time to learn the victim's writing habits! In January 1994, as details later unfolded, Kuehl had murdered Mr. Gruber and disposed of his body well under the crawl-space of the Gruber residence. Kuehl was aware that the retired victim Gruber had few close friends or family in the area, and was able to "take over" the deceased life, using his property, house, and accessing various financial accounts. By having access to the dead man's cancelled checks and other private documents, Kuehl could see exactly how the victim had formatted his written checks, how he made his signature, studied his various spellings, abbreviations, and other idiosyncrasies. That knowledge, coupled with some artistic ability - allowed the suspect to practice and then to closely duplicate the known writing of his victim. I, too, had a chance to study the known writings of Mr. Gruber that were provided by the State of Idaho. The forger's time with these samples was limited, mine however was unlimited as well as having the benefit my stereo-zoom microscope and other laboratory equipment. As I became familiar with his learned writing habits, it became obvious that the checks written on his account in latter January and February of 1994 were definitely not in Mr. Gruber's hand, but that of another. Was it Kuehl's? There are so many factors involved in handwriting that a forger cannot begin to duplicate, much less even be aware of. Low level forgers concentrate on the capital letter forms, thinking if these match the victim's known writing, most may not notice the other discrepancies. Higher level forgers also may concentrate on the lower case letters, slant, and letter spacing. Very few criminals are even aware of the individual traits of pen pressure, comparative height ratios between upper and lower case letters, capitalization habits, punctuation habits, baseline characteristics, word and phrase alignment, paragraph format habits, indentations, overall writing size in relation to the form, rhythms, pen tics, feathering, writing speed, line quality and a host of other writing characteristics that make each writer in this world unique and set apart from all other individuals. All these characteristics, combined with letter forms and letter connections that make handwriting identifiable, and impossible for anther to accurately duplicate.

I studied Kuehl's known handwriting samples. I noted that several of his well established habits occasionally would "shine through" in the writing on the forged checks and greeting cards. This was observed more frequently when the writing speed increased (obviously it is harder to duplicate someone else's handwriting style when the pen speed picks up and natural habits take over.) After agonizing over the wording of the reports and the degree of certainty in this case, I rendered my opinion that suspect Darryl Kuehl was the forger of the many Gruber checks and correspondence dated in January and February 1994. My case was set to the Idaho State Attorney General's office - the agency that was conducting the murder investigation.

Investigator Scott Birch called to state that my report, coupled with the circumstantial evidence from the scene led prosecutors to charge suspect Kuehl with first degree murder. There would be a trial, and jurors to convince of my findings. Secondly, the Nevada State Crime lab was contacted to evaluate the stamps that had been affixed to the greeting cards almost two years earlier. Advanced DNA analysis had been used to connect suspects to licked envelopes and stamps in other parts of the nation, and there was a good possibility that some DNA also remained on the Kuehl documents. I packaged the items for transit to Nevada, and several weeks later was advised that Kuehl's DNA had been matched to the saliva on the documents!

In preparation for trial, hundreds of words, phrases, and letters were pasted onto exhibits and overheads in an organized fashion so the jury could also see the suspect's obvious characteristics in the forged items. Not just one or two characteristics, but several of such unique quality, that when coupled together, the statistical combination produced another "DNA fingerprint" -- this time a handwriting "fingerprint" identifying the forger of the documents just as if he had confessed to all of it out loud.

On May 2, 1997, several days after my testimony in this matter, the jury of Idaho citizens found the defendant, Darryl Kuehl guilty of forgery and first degree murder in the case of the missing teacher, Paul Gruber.