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Valley of the Shadow

[whitespace] Lagoon Valley Needle in a Hayfield: The search for Eric Keller ended at this deserted spot in Solano County's Lagoon Valley, where his severely beaten body was found underneath an oak tree.

Christopher Gardner

Who was Eric Keller, and how did he come to leave a comfortable high-tech, happily married, two-home existence and end up half-naked and dead in a field? Two months after his death, more remains a mystery than has been revealed.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

ON A WINDSWEPT, overcast afternoon late in January, a California Highway Patrol officer sits in his car on a lonely frontage road near Interstate 80 just south of downtown Vacaville. It is a quiet place where he can fill out his reports and escape the rush of the freeway while still keeping an eye on the road just up a short rise in front of him. Only the occasional long-eared jackrabbit bounds by, or perhaps a plump wild quail piping from a bush in the long grass, or a solitary jogger coming up the trail north from the city of Fairfield.

This is Lagoon Valley, Solano County, an eerily beautiful 2,700-acre basin of grassland and scrub trees surrounding a flat, placid lake carved out beside the long road to Lake Tahoe. Here and there among the valley's nearly bare surrounding hills, tortured pines and oaks strain to rise from the ground, appearing almost as devil's sentinels.

"Back there," the officer says, motioning behind his car to a rutted dirt road that rises up for a couple of hundred yards and ends at a huge stack of baled hay. "That's where they found the body."

To the left of the haystack is the expanse of the valley floor, and to the right, running along the southern foothills, is a three-foot-high barbed wire fence. On the opposite side of the fence is an ancient spreading oak tree, its limbs so old and heavy that gravity has drawn them back toward the ground.

It was beside this haystack and under this oak tree on a Monday morning in mid-January that police searchers discovered the bloodied and beaten body of 41-year-old Eric Keller, a Silicon Graphics marketing manager and outdoors enthusiast who had reportedly set out on a daylong excursion to Lake Tahoe.

The day before, police had found Keller's dark blue 1998 Saab, parked and locked with the alarm set, on a nearby frontage road. That discovery sparked a 40-member search-and- rescue effort composed of teams from Solano, Marin and Contra Costa counties, who scoured the area on horseback and with dogs. A group of specialists was preparing to drag the nearby lake, as is routine when searching for a missing person near a body of water.

But before this plan was put into action, a searcher found Eric Keller's 5-foot-10-inch, 140-pound body. It lay under the branches of this gnarled oak tree, face up and naked from the waist down. The face was almost unrecognizable--Keller had been beaten with a blunt object on both the front and back of the head, and he had suffered a massive, forceful "death blow" to the right side of his chest, which had broken seven of his ribs simultaneously, puncturing a lung and causing Keller to suffocate on his own blood. One police investigator described it as a "torture murder," as if someone had either stomped him to death or had leaped upon him from a great height.

Keller's pants, underwear, shoes and socks were found folded neatly on a haystack nearby. He was left wearing only a blue down vest with a gray sweater and two layers of T-shirts. He had on his watch, his wedding ring and a pair of glasses on a neck cord. Keller's legs had been crossed at the ankles, as if in a crucifixion.

BOTH FRIENDS AND co-workers describe Keller as the ultimate success story: a financially secure guy who built a highly successful career at one of the top companies in the valley, had a great marriage, took time to walk in the woods and watch the sunsets, and managed to do it all, apparently, by getting along with everyone he came in contact with.

Keller's co-workers universally praised him.

James Maziliewski says Keller was "very highly regarded, a hell of a nice guy." Maziliewski worked with Keller at Siemens in New Jersey, where Keller moved up from X-ray sales representative to manager of strategic planning to director of strategic planning to director of business development. He describes Keller as "very career oriented, but he wasn't like a cutthroat guy. He was bright. Good intellect. Very nice guy."

Keller left Siemens amid company strife in late 1997 and moved to San Jose to take a job as vice president of divisional marketing with KLA-Tencor. Several months later, his skills and contacts allowed him to float above what could have been another career setback. When a downsizing move at KLA-Tencor left him temporarily out of work, he quickly landed a better position at Silicon Graphics, a maker of high-speed UNIX workstations used as servers and by Hollywood animators. In December of 1998 Keller took over as director of global service sales.

New Jersey papers report that Eric and his wife, Karen, met in the mid-1970s in Lancaster, Pa. Whereas Karen was born in the conservative Amish country of Pennsylvania, Eric was a military brat, living many places in the United States and overseas.

Keller received his M.B.A. from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, and he and Karen married and purchased a home in Hunterdon County, N.J., one of the richest counties in the state, home of the governor and site of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial in the 1930s. The Kellers had no children.

Karen did not make the move with Eric to live in Silicon Valley, opting to remain in New Jersey. Friends were divided as to why they thought she chose to stay back East. One told a Vacaville newspaper that she was taking care of elderly parents.

Another said that she did not want to give up the couple's custom-built house in Hunterdon County. Karen Keller herself has refused to answer questions about the matter since her husband's death. In either event, friends and family say they remained close. Eric and Karen purchased a second home in early 1998, a condominium in the MillBrook subdivision near the Montague Expressway in north San Jose. Either Eric or Karen made a cross-country visit at least once a month. Karen was reportedly planning to come to San Jose in late January to celebrate Keller's 42nd birthday.

"He had such a mature relationship with his wife," says Mark DePugh, who worked directly under Keller's supervision at Siemens Medical Systems in New Jersey for almost a year and kept in close contact after Keller's move to San Jose. "She was so close to him as a friend." DePugh describes Karen as "a very responsible person. Well-educated. She's an attorney. Eric was the adventuresome one in the relationship. He was a real nature lover. He'd go kayaking in Connecticut. Skiing. Biking. Karen was the responsible one. She's the one who would fix things if they went bad."

Eric Keller's ID badge ON THE LAST NIGHT of his life, Friday, Jan. 8, Keller made a phone call to Karen in New Jersey, telling her he was going to spend the next day skiing in Lake Tahoe, leaving early the next morning. Keller promised to call her the next evening when he returned to his San Jose condominium.

The next morning, a downstairs neighbor says, she heard Keller taking a shower about 4:30am, just before police believe he left his condominium en route to the Tahoe ski basin, to make the opening of the ski lifts at 9am. If he drove toward Lake Tahoe by the normal route, I-680 to I-80 just below Fairfield, he would have arrived at Lagoon Valley in a deep fog about 6:30am, a half hour before morning twilight began.

It is here that police begin to lose track of events.

As it turned out, Keller never called his wife that night and there were no records of ski rentals in Lake Tahoe by Keller on that Saturday. By Sunday morning an "agitated and nervous" Karen Keller had called the property manager and asked her to go in the garage and see if Keller's car was there.

"The wife was frantic," recalls neighbor Diane Dixon, who ran into the manager while walking her dog and also went into Keller's condominium to help search for the garage door opener to see if Keller's car was there. Eventually they discovered that Keller's car was missing, a fact which made Karen Keller file a missing persons report with police.

While news of Keller's death was shocking to his neighbors at the MillBrook condominium subdivision, most admitted they knew little about him.

Accrue Software account executive Gary Gattis says that he first learned Eric Keller's name when Vacaville police slipped cards in all of the neighbors' doors, asking to be contacted if they had any information. "I told them I'd never seen him," Gattis says. "Then afterwards, I remembered that one time I went over to his house to borrow some Saran Wrap. A one-minute conversation, I think. He was very polite. That was it." According to neighbors, Gattis says, Keller was a quiet man who kept to himself. "It was strange, the way he got killed," he says. "He didn't look like the kind of fellow who would go around getting into fights."

Neighbor Dianne Dixon says she learned more about her neighbor in the short search of his condominium than she had known in the year she lived down the street from him. "He was very meticulous, for a man," Dixon says of Keller, almost in awe. "Everything was in place. Books. His clothes. Everything in his briefcase. His bed was made, perfect." She spreads her hand flat out. "He was the kind of person who had little 'to do' notes to himself by the telephone. You know, go to the cleaners. What to get from the store. Very detailed."

Dixon says she met Keller shortly after she moved to MillBrook, about a month after Keller himself moved in. "A neighbor got us together because he was from New Jersey and I was from New Jersey," Dixon says. "But we ended up having only one conversation, about putting up blinds." She remembers Keller as standoffish and reserved. "In the summertime you'd see him up there on his balcony, sitting by himself, smoking his pipe," she says. "He was always by himself."

BY THE FIRST DAY of February, just a few weeks after his death, Keller's missing persons picture and poster has been taken down from the wall of the police station in Vacaville. Neither clerks nor officers could say exactly when it came down, or where, at first, to locate it.

After a handful of articles spread out among the Solano County, San Jose and New Jersey dailies, newspaper and broadcast coverage has virtually ceased.

Even more strangely, after an initial flurry of good police work that developed several promising leads in the case, the Vacaville Police Department suddenly seemed to lose interest in the investigation.

Unaccountably, Keller's Silicon Valley employers also became tight-lipped. A spokesperson for KLA-Tencor will confirm only that Keller was a "former employee, vice president of divisional marketing." The spokesperson refused to give the names of any employees Keller may have worked with. "I only knew him around work," says a KLA-Tencor co-worker, who asked not to be identified. "You'll have to talk to people back East about any personal things about him. I just know what I learned at the memorial service."

At Silicon Graphics, where Keller worked as director of global service sales for a month before his death, a spokesperson says they are withholding all other information "out of respect for the family."

No public expressions of sorrow were offered by either company, although KLA sponsored a memorial service and Silicon Graphics helped ferry Karen Keller around when she came to California to identify the body.

And rather than leading the public calls for a solution to the murder of her husband, Karen Keller herself has refused so far to make any statement to the press. "I am sorry," she says by telephone from her New Jersey home. "I have no comment."

rest stop Resting Place: Police say they have reports that Keller frequented this rest stop on Interstate 80 south of Vacaville, a popular gay pickup spot.

Christopher Gardner

BUT WITHIN THE SILENCE, members of the Vacaville police department were privately discussing how to proceed with the case of Eric Keller, using some of the facts of the case that they had not publicly revealed.

Late last month, Vacaville police asked for assistance in the Eric Keller murder from Ron Huberman, an openly gay investigator with the San Francisco district attorney's office. The reason? Police confirmed from interviews with Keller's father and a family friend that Eric Keller was a closet bisexual, and they had strong reason to believe that his murder was a possible anti-gay hate crime, as savage as the crucifixion beating/murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard last year.

Vacaville detective Don Wallar, the primary investigator in the Keller case, says Karen Keller told him that she had no knowledge of Keller's bisexuality.

In their initial search of Keller's San Jose home following his murder, Vacaville police had discovered several sex toys that they associated with gay sexual activity. They traced the toys to the Borderline Book Store in Santa Clara, which has both gay and straight sections, and which sits next door to the Tinker's Dam, a gay club. At DA investigator Huberman's urging, Huberman and Wallar gave an hour-long interview to the Bay Area Reporter, a gay newspaper, for the first time publicly revealing the gay-sex-related aspects of the crime.

They also let out another pertinent piece of information that had previously gone unreported: At the time of his death Keller had approximately 1.1 milligrams of MDMA in his system, a drug commonly known as "ecstasy." Huberman speculates that because the amount of ecstasy in Keller's system, it was unlikely that he was planning to continue his trip to Lake Tahoe. "That's not the type of drug you can easily drive with," Huberman says. "It's a sensual drug; it increases your sensual perceptions."

These revelations led almost directly to a tip from the Solano County gay community which Detective Wallar calls "credible." An unidentified informant told police that Keller was a regular cruiser at the rest stop on I-80 in Vallejo, some 20 miles south of Vacaville, an area which one gay community leader called a "legendary gay pickup spot." Keller was reportedly seen several times picking up men at the rest stop, describing himself as a Lake Tahoe resident.

POLICE SAY THEY were merely being cautious, but leaders of the gay communities in both Vacaville and San Jose were incensed that Vacaville police failed to release the possible gay-bashing aspect of Eric Keller's murder until a month and a half after his death.

Some attribute the slowdown in the investigation to attempts to avoid the bad publicity that might come to the area over a hate crime, and others believe that law enforcement harbors the idea that these are the risks inherent in being gay.

Dennis Andrews, co-owner of the Fox Tail and owner of the Silver Fox, two Silicon Valley gay bars, as well as a fundraiser for AIDS-related causes and a leader of Santa Clara County's gay community, says that a hate crime such as may have befallen Eric Keller "affects all of us. It's just like Jasper. I think about that all the time. It's terrible that these goddamn skinheads, or whoever they are, can do shit like this." But Andrews is also upset and angry with the Vacaville police. "Waiting a month and a half ... that is wrong, very wrong," he says. "The information should have been released as soon as possible. If there is a murderer out there, the community should know about it. Gay men need to know that every time you go home with someone you don't know, you put yourself at risk." He says that he will be circulating posters of Keller on his own in the hope that someone in the valley can come forward and shed some light on the murder.

Solano County gay leader Kathy Rardin agrees that Vacaville police erred in withholding the gay-related information for so long. "It's unmentionable," she says. "If there is a sexual predator, we've got to know. Police had a duty to tell the gay community. I'm not really happy. If it is a targeted group, you need to let them know."

Rardin says that her partner placed a call to Captain Craig Rossiter, head of Vacaville police investigations, shortly after an article about the murder appeared in the gay press. She says he has not yet returned her call.

Detective Wallar says that the Vacaville police did not actively begin pursuing the gay-related aspect of Keller's killing until they verified that Keller was bisexual, and Wallar says they did not determine this until they talked to one of Keller's friends in New York some two weeks after the murder. "He kept his alternative lifestyle pretty secret," Wallar says. Still, that leaves a gap of more than a month between when the Vacaville police learned this information and when they released it.

IF THE ERIC KELLER MURDER was a gay-bashing, it would not be new to Solano County. Orrin Olsen, who operates the gay men's hotline in Vacaville, says that while "there have been some threats" against gays, Solano County is "a pretty tolerant area. We advertise the hotline in the Vacaville newspaper directory. It's an openly gay ad, and we don't have any trouble. Like any small community, you can't go running out in the open, though."

Rardin, who co-operates the Solano County Gay and Lesbian Information Line, agrees with Olsen's summation of the county. "This is very much a closet community," she says, citing the proximity to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. "You have a lot of gay men out here who are bisexual and who hide their sexuality from their wives. Gays sometimes get catcalls out here, but not as much as you get down in Vallejo. My partner and I used to run a gay and lesbian bookstore in Vacaville that never had any problems. Generally, it's a nice area for gays."

But that, apparently, is all relative.

Three years ago, in response to an article on gay marriages published in the Fairfield Daily Republic, the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Fairfield posted a website article titled "God Condemns the Gay Lifestyle." Likening homosexuals to adulterers, fornicators, thieves, drunkards and swindlers, Robert D. Lewis wrote, "I have become very concerned by the recent movement of some Christians and churches to accept homosexuality as a natural, moral way of life. ... It is not my intent or my place to condemn or harass people involved in homosexual relationships. However, God clearly condemns the homosexual lifestyle in his Word. ... Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of such practices."

Last year, the Fairfield Daily Republic published several articles detailing anti-gay harassment in the Fairfield and Vacaville public schools. In one article, a gay student recalled her days at Fairfield High School in the early '90s, "when classmates slammed her head against lockers and shoved her to the ground, pummeling her as if they were trying to beat the homosexuality out of her." The student said she attempted suicide in her sophomore year.

The newspaper also reported that last year a gay student at Will C. Wood High School in Vacaville said that fellow students "hurled spit, garbage and Gummi Worms at him. They pushed him. And, he alleged last week, one boy displayed his underwear to [him], taunting his sexuality in a classroom full of giggling kids." The student transferred to Vacaville High School at the end of his freshman year but the taunting continued, forcing him to drop out of Vacaville High for home study. It did not stop the harassment. Last summer, the student received a phone call at home with a whispered message stating, "Hello ... you faggot. I saw your picture in the paper. You're a bad boy. I'm going to kill you." The caller was later identified as a 15-year-old Suisun City youth. He was arrested by Vacaville Detective Don Wallar, the same detective in charge of the Keller murder case.

And in 1997, four Fairfield teenagers were initially charged with gay bashing during the annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco when they allegedly beat several paraders with a baseball bat after shouting anti-gay epithets at them. The charges were later dropped when witnesses refused to testify.

roses & tree Memorial Bouquet: A friend from back East left roses underneath the tree where Eric Keller's body was found.

Christopher Gardner

ERIC KELLER'S AUTOPSY report, signed by Solano County forensic pathologist Susan R. Hogan, is a tightly packed document of tiny, eighth-inch-high type. It takes three-quarters of a dense, single-spaced page to describe the injuries to Keller's head alone.

"There is a one half inch group of linear abrasions on the right side of the forehead, directly above the right eyebrow," the report begins. "There is contusion and edema of the periorbital soft tissues of the right eye. There is hemorrhage involving the lateral and medial aspects of the sclerae of the right eye. There is hemorrhage into the periorbital soft tissues of the left eye. ... There is a large amount of hemorrhage into the soft tissue of the inner aspect of the right side of the lower lip and the soft tissues surrounding the right side of the mandible. There is a one inch laceration on the right side of the chin. ... This laceration is approximately one inch deep and extends throughout the lower lip through the soft tissue of the face and into the soft tissue of the lower gum. This laceration is approximately one inch in depth. ... There is a one-and-a-quarter-inch obliquely orientated laceration on the right side of the back of the head ... which is approximately one-half inch deep."

The blows to the head, the examiner determined, led to internal injuries to Keller's brain, described as "subarachnoid hemorrhage involving the left frontal and parietal regions of the left cerebral cortex."

The report also details injuries to Keller's body, his arms, shoulders, thighs and ankles, including lacerations and contusions and superficial abrasions over much of his body. Both knees were bruised and swollen. His left knee was dislocated. There was dirt on both buttocks, and on the bottoms of his feet.

But what the coroner's office determined was one of the most serious injuries suffered by Keller was a blunt-force trauma to the chest which severed his ribs. It was described as follows:

"There is hemorrhage into the soft tissues of the ... right chest wall. There are fractures of right ribs three through eleven on the lateral and posterial aspects. Right ribs five, seven and nine are rotated anteriorly, such that the posterior fractured portion of the rib extends into the right chest cavity. There are multiple pulmonary lacerations and contusions to the posterior aspect of the upper, middle and lower lobes of the right lung. There is 1000 ml of fluid and clotted blood in the right pleural space."

The cause of death listed: blunt-force trauma to the head and chest. There is no mention in the report of injuries that would indicate rape. Detective Wallar says, however, that there was evidence of some sort of sexual activity.

Investigator Huberman told a Vacaville daily newspaper that "my feeling is whatever happened on the hay began as consensual, then turned into a killing for whatever reason." Police theories in this area fall along two lines: first, that Keller may have been killed by a person with whom he was having sex on the haystack, or second, that Keller and a sex partner were surprised at the haystack by an individual or individuals.

The second instance leaves a possibility that a witness remains at large, at least to the initial assault. Police also have not determined if Keller brought someone to Lagoon Valley with him, if he had arranged to meet someone in the valley or if he picked someone up along the way.

WHAT DROVE Eric Keller to leave the security of his successful career and caring wife to roll the dice of his life in a foggy field in Solano County is anyone's guess.

A fellow employee at Silicon Graphics, also a closeted gay man, says the behavior is uncommon for a bisexual or a closeted man. "It's strange behavior, to go out and disrobe yourself in the open like that," says Warren (not his real name). "There must have been some sort of desperation involved."

Warren, who says he did not know Keller, says that there is a supportive gay community in the Santa Clara Valley and at Silicon Graphics that Keller could have bonded with. "There is a large openly gay population at SGI; we've got support groups like the Lavender Network." Warren says he knows of no employees who have suffered any kind of employment discrimination or problems at SGI because they are gay. "We've got domestic partner benefits here," he says. "There are many openly gay people in many departments. It's a good environment."

Warren says that married bisexuals such as Keller often stay in the closet not because of issues about their sexuality, but because of issues about their fidelity. "You don't want your wife to know you're cheating on her. There's also an issue of commitment," he says. "If you carry someone with you to Tahoe and get a room there, that's a level of commitment to the relationship," he explains. "But picking up someone in a cruising area ... when you're finished, you can walk away from it and even pretend that it did not happen."

LAGOON VALLEY IS almost forgotten territory. The city of Vacaville annexed the valley several years ago in anticipation of a large building project by the Bank of America. After the project fell through, no one seems to have informed Vacaville police that this largely empty valley was now under their jurisdiction. "When the city limit signs were finally moved about a month ago," says Vacaville Police Captain Craig Rossiter, "we thought it was a joke."

The spot where Eric Keller was killed now sits littered with a few beer bottles, some crumpled condoms and assorted pieces of trash.

Lagoon Valley contains only a handful of structures scattered around the rim of its hills. Able Towing Company. The Ranchotel Horse Center, a motley collection of horse stables and rented rooms. The Lagoon Lake Regional Park with its handful of picnic tables and playground equipment, where tourists are sure to stop this summer to picnic by the small lake on their way to destinations in California. Most will have no knowledge of what transpired here early one January morning.

The Highway Patrol officer says that because of its isolation and the confusion about police jurisdiction, the seemingly idyllic haystack road remains a magnet for illicit activity. "People come up here and park and drink liquor and have sex," he says. "Sometimes they just come and read their sex magazines and toss them when they're done." Hunters occasionally wander the foothills to shoot at whatever gets in their way, he says, from game to abandoned farm vehicles. Normally, he says, the property owner keeps a wire and padlock across the dirt road to prevent people from driving up, but the patrolman says he often finds the wire has been broken.

The highway patrolman pauses in his report writing. He admits that early on, local law enforcement officers felt pretty much stymied in their investigation of the slaying. "One of the things they can't figure is why the killer left the clothes in plain sight and why they left the body over here at all," he says. He points to the empty brown hills on the other side of I-80. "Over there it's open country for miles, all the way to Lake Berryessa. You could dump a body down in one of those canyons and after the coyotes got to it, you'd never find it."

They are still actively investigating, energized by the tips from the gay community. But chillingly, for the gay community and for residents and visitors to this tranquil-looking spot, Keller's killer or killers remain at large.

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From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of Metro.

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