- PHOTO COURTESY OF HOULGATE FAMILY
- GRADUATION : Joshua Houlgate graduated from Cal Poly in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in sociobiology and minor in psychology. This picture was taken just before his graduation ceremony.
On a cold December morning in San Luis Obispo, Joshua Houlgate and Sarah Lonsinger-Rey lay together on a mattress in the family room of a dark, empty, one-bedroom trailer. A Christmas tree covered in strands of small white lights stood in the corner, but Houlgate unplugged the lights and left the room in darkness. The two took meth together that day and made love. Lying together, they drifted in and out of sleep. When they were awake, they cuddled, talked, and listened to music. Then Lonsinger-Rey fell asleep again.
This is according to testimony she gave almost two years ago during a preliminary hearing in the investigation intended to uncover who, or whom, savagely beat and shot Joshua Houlgate. Though two men have been convicted—one of whom will likely spend the rest of his life in prison—Houlgate’s family, friends, and even police investigators believe more people were involved.
Lonsinger-Rey awoke to someone repeatedly hitting her. She and Houlgate were bombarded by roughly 10 blows from a baseball bat as they lay asleep on the floor. Houlgate pulled a sheet over both of them. Lonsinger-Rey used her arms and legs to shield herself from the attack, but the assailants still shattered two bones in her foot and severely bruised her forearm.
When there was a brief pause in the assault, the couple stood up and faced their attackers, who stood a few feet away. One of them, Chad Westbrook, was holding a shotgun, she testified.
Westbrook raised the gun and pointed it at Houlgate. Houlgate ran and tried to escape through a sliding glass door. Then the room exploded in a red and orange light; it was the muzzle flash from Westbrook’s gun, Lonsinger-Rey said. Houlgate managed to get outside, but he had been shot at point blank range, suffering a lethal wound.
Westbrook cracked the barrel, reloaded, and shifted his focus toward Lonsinger-Rey, she testified.
She pleaded, “Don’t shoot me; don’t shoot me.”
Without reply, according to the testimony, Westbrook fled out the rear of the trailer, leaving Lonsinger-Rey and then 18-year-old Patrick Wollett—her friend of five years—in the trailer. Lonsinger-Rey testified Wollett looked terrified as they stared at each other, the two of them alone in the room. Oddly, Wollett, one of the attackers, asked her, “What am I going to do?” before running out of the trailer, too.
Lonsinger-Rey gathered her purse and shoes and went outside. She found Houlgate lying motionless on the ground. He had a severe wound on his head from the beating and a wound in his chest: He had been shot through the heart. Blood gurgled in his mouth.
Both Westbrook and Wollett were convicted for Houlgate’s murder. Westbrook was sentenced to spend 67 years to life in prison. Wollett had yet to be sentenced, as of this printing, but is facing a term of at least 29 years to life in prison.
At one of the final hearings, Houlgate’s father made a statement to the court, saying, “Nothing that will ever happen to us during the remainder of our time on this Earth will be as horrible as the death of our beloved son.”
Judge Dodie Harman said after the jury rendered its verdict: “I will comment that this is one of the most senseless killings I have seen.”
Indeed, little about the murder made sense, if such a word could be used in this case. For one: Houlgate knew his assailants and, by several accounts, was friends with them before the fatal shot was fired. Another curiosity: Even Lonsinger-Rey had trouble defining the motive during her preliminary trial testimony. Immediately following Houlgate’s death, his friends approached police investigators, mentioning others they believed could have been involved. As the trial came to a close, Houlgate’s family—in a bizarre twist—came to Wollett’s defense after he was convicted, repeating the suspicions Josh’s friends had voiced.
Attorney Gregory Jacobson immediately recused himself from further representing Wollett. The court has assigned a new attorney, Thomas McCormick, who is reviewing the case to see if there are grounds for a mistrial.
If there ever was an open-and-shut case, it should have been this one. An eyewitness who could easily identify the assailants was spared her life and allowed to testify. Drugs were involved. The prosecution had a theory of a love triangle involving Wollett’s brother, Lonsinger-Rey, and Houlgate, which seemed to provide logical motive. But there are many unanswered questions. The biggest: Did someone else want Houlgate dead?
Sequence of events
On Sept. 1, 2009, Houlgate’s family sent a letter to the court saying they believed Wollett’s attorney didn’t adequately represent him, that the investigation didn’t go far enough, and—based on pleas from Houlgate’s friends—they believed other parties were complicit in the murder. On Sept. 2, 2009, Jacobson stepped down as Wollett’s attorney from the case, citing a “conflict on the record.”
From the beginning of this trial, many of Houlgate’s friends told investigators they believed others had motive to order the kill, even if there were no other triggermen, and at least one such person had a longstanding relationship with Lonsinger-Rey, the sole eyewitness to the murder.
Jacobson previously defended at least one such person in multiple felony cases—some of them violent. During Wollett’s trial, Jacobson made a motion to preclude certain testimonies and names from being uttered before the jury. He also asked to have several witnesses barred from testimony who would have mentioned certain names.
Despite repeated requests, Jacobson did not respond to New Times and could otherwise not be reached for comment.
Lonsinger-Rey was in witness protection for about a week after the murder, according to court documents. The defendants were arrested within 48 hours of the killing. Her version of the story changed several times during the investigation and trial. At first, she didn’t identify Westbrook or Wollett because they were her friends and she didn’t want to be a “rat,” according to testimony.
After Jacobson removed himself, the court appointed McCormick to take over Wollett’s defense and review the case for a possible mistrial. Meanwhile, Wollett is still in the SLO County jail, where he remains a convicted murderer awaiting sentencing. He was charged with first-degree murder for participating, though he didn’t pull the trigger.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
- WESTBROOK : Thirty-seven-year-old Chad William Westbrook was convicted and sentenced to 67 years to life for first-degree murder. Westbrook is appealing his case and in holding at the Wasco State Prison Reception outside Bakersfield before serving his prison sentence.
Danielle Renae Moser called Houlgate her brother, and he called her his sister, she said. Her kids called Houlgate their uncle. Her son is now in counseling and suffers regular night terrors.
“He’s like, ‘Mommy, I need to protect you so the bad guys can’t get you,’” Renae Moser told New Times. “‘They took my superhero.’”
On the day before his murder, Houlgate was taking pictures with Renae Moser’s daughter, she said. Her daughter wanted pictures with “her uncle” to take to school for show and tell. That day, Houlgate confided to Renae Moser: “He’s like, ‘Something’s not right; I can feel it.’”
A few days after Houlgate’s murder, once the regular police patrol subsided, Renae Moser went to the trailer. Despite her husband’s pleas not to go, she said she felt compelled.
“As close as I was with [Houlgate], I felt that God was telling me, ‘Danielle, you need to go and do something over there.’”
So she broke into the trailer. There, she found a pair of black gloves in the bathroom, as well as Houlgate’s “bomber jacket” she had bought him as a gift. Inside the jacket, she found Houlgate’s cell phone—“the biggest clunky cell phone you’d ever seen,” she said. She didn’t fault investigators for missing the jacket, saying it was the type of thing only someone who knew Houlgate would know was important, and she informed police of what she discovered.
After Houlgate’s death, Renae Moser’s suspicions grew. She didn’t believe the motive the prosecutors presented, and she thought Westbrook and Wollett cooked up a story “as an excuse to save their asses.”
When SLO Police Department investigators interviewed Brian Adams, Westbrook’s cousin, for the second time, he also hinted there was something severely amiss.
Here’s a portion of that interview:
Adams: “Honest to God, if you really want to know the fucking truth, I think there was more than just that there. Honest to fucking God, I really truly do.”
Interviewer: “More than what?”
Adams: “Than those two there. I think there’s more to this than it was—turned out to be. I just got this hunch. I really truly do. And that’s just between you and me. I really truly do. I mean, I had people call me, wanting to know what was going on. While I’m at work, they’re like, ‘What’s going on? What happened? I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you guys talking about?’ They’re like, ‘Well, we have a friend, one—one of our other … .’”
The following page wasn’t included in the court file available to the public.
Law enforcement officials declined to comment about the investigation. However, they verified that several witnesses approached police investigators shortly after Houlgate’s death with suspicions that more people were involved.
Several people, including one of the banned witnesses, told New Times they believed there’s at least one person with a history of numerous violent felony charges and convictions who had motive and the ability to coerce people to kill Houlgate.
Monte Garrison, whose interview with police and potential testimony was excluded from the trial, met with New Times, eager to say what he wasn’t allowed to in court. Merely a few weeks before Houlgate’s murder, he said, he was confronted by Westbrook and two other men at his home at about 4 a.m. One of them threatened him with a shotgun, he said—the stock was cracked and covered in blood, supposedly because one of the men had beaten a woman with it—and tried to compel Garrison to “firebomb” the trailer of a woman who lived at the same Oceanaire mobile-home park where Houlgate was killed. That night stuck with Garrison, particularly after he learned Houlgate, with whom he worked, was killed. And, Garrison believed, there were indications the men who approached him were eager to kill Houlgate.
“Maybe it’s a Charles Manson gig,” Garrison told New Times, referring to the convict held responsible for masterminding several murders in the 1960s. “Charles Manson didn’t kill anybody, but he got people to do what he wanted them to do.”
According to SLO Police Detective Victor Nunez, as outlined in court documents, Garrison told law enforcement the three men had tried to coerce him to “solicit murder.”
Jacobson’s motion prevented Garrison from testifying in open court.
According to law enforcement agents, other parties were implicated in Houlgate’s murder during the initial investigation. In fact, the District Attorney’s charges that Westbrook and Wollett conspired to commit a crime were among the few charges jurors couldn’t agree on.
Westbrook’s attorney, Gael Mueller, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Deputy District Attorney Matt Kerrigan said he couldn’t comment on the Houlgate murder case because of Wollett’s pending sentencing.
New Times’ attempts to visit Wollett at the SLO County jail were unsuccessful. His mother, Chris Anne Wollett, declined to comment while his case is in limbo with a new attorney. In a voicemail recording to New Times, however, she said, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing has been a sham, and that’s all I can say right now—a travesty and a sham.”
In the days leading up to Houlgate’s murder, Lonsinger-Rey reluctantly admitted to the court that she had been taking meth for at least four days while she was staying at Wollett’s trailer—she was living there for approximately two weeks before Houlgate’s murder, then was taken into protective custody, although Westbrook and Wollett were taken into custody within 48 hours after the crime.
According to Lonsinger-Rey’s testimony, the day before Houlgate was murdered, she, Wollett, Westbrook, and another friend took meth together during the day and went for food and drinks at a bar in SLO that night. There, they socialized, ate barbecue, and drank pitchers of beer. Lonsinger-Rey testified she invited Houlgate to join them. Houlgate arrived at the bar later that night. He left before everyone else—the three others stayed until closing at 2 a.m.—but she arranged with him to meet at Wollett’s trailer. After Houlgate left the bar, the others went to the parking lot, where they drank tequila from a bottle, Lonsinger-Rey told the court. Despite Westbrook and Wollett being fueled by alcohol and meth, there were no altercations with Houlgate the night before his murder. Moreover, during Lonsinger-Rey’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, she said Wollett had never expressed anger toward Houlgate.
Lonsinger-Rey testified she was previously engaged to Wollett’s older brother, Paul. She said she eventually decided to break it off and began an intimate relationship with Houlgate. The prosecution aimed to find motive in the brothers’ connection, but Lonsinger-Rey said when she told Paul’s brother, Patrick, the engagement was over, he didn’t seem angry. She was never afraid of him, and he had never spoken to her with any threat of violence.
“I love Patrick as a person,” Lonsinger-Rey testified, stating the two had been close friends of about five years.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
- WOLLETT : Twenty-year-old Patrick Oren Wollett has been convicted of first-degree murder but hasn’t yet been sentenced while his new attorney Thomas McCormick reviews whether there are grounds for a mistrial.
Almost two years after Houlgate’s murder, there remain ghostly hauntings. On a recent visit to Wollett’s uninhabited trailer, where the murder took place, at the southern edge of San Luis Obispo, there hung in the air the pungent smell of smoke and ash. The exterior walls of the trailer still stood and at first glance the structure appeared normal. But many of the windows were missing, and through them there was only a deep, charred blackness.
On Sept. 19, someone lit Wollett’s trailer ablaze. The interior was gutted by flames, leaving only the thin metal of a hollowed shell. Investigators quickly concluded the fire was deliberately ignited, though they hadn’t released further details as of this printing. Was someone trying to destroy evidence? Was it a message to those skeptical about the investigation and the extent of people prosecuted for Houlgate’s murder? Whatever the answers, the shell of a trailer now stands as a reminder of all the inconsistencies in the case of who murdered Joshua Houlgate.
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at email@example.com.