BPD sergeant details 'meticulous and expansive' four-year investigation into Bakersfield 3 defendant Matthew Queen

Jun. 26—Leave no stone unturned.

Bakersfield Police Sgt. Chad Garrett said the phrase encapsulates his four-year investigation into the death of Micah Holsonbake, 35, a member of the Bakersfield 3. Countless detective hours, witness interviews and scores of search warrants dominated his investigation, which ultimately culminated in a murder conviction.

"Sgt. Garrett ... would sit and listen to us ... rather than just being very flippant," Cheryl Holsonbake, the mother of Micah Holsonbake, said during a phone interview. She added, "He was the first law enforcement officer that really listened."

Three local mothers dubbed their respective children the "Bakersfield 3" to raise awareness about their disappearance or deaths and get answers. The name refers to Holsonbake; Baylee Despot, who was charged in his death but has been missing since April 2018; and James Kulstad, who died in a shooting unrelated to Holsonbake's death in April 2018.

Garrett said the investigation into Despot's disappearance and Kulstad's death are ongoing.

Matthew Queen, an ex-boyfriend of Despot, and Matthew Vandecasteele, a former friend of Queen, were also charged in Holsonbake's death. Vandecasteele took a plea deal to testify against Queen, which resulted in him pleading no contest to an accessory charge, possessing a firearm by a felon and falsely imprisoning someone with violence. Kidnapping, conspiracy and manufacturing assault weapons charges were dismissed. Vandecasteele was sentenced May 23 to four years in prison.

Prosecutors and Garrett largely focused their efforts on Queen, who faced 35 charges related to Holsonbake's death, assault incidents of three people and a slew of gun charges. Queen was sentenced June 7 to 30 years to life plus 56 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder, multiple assault charges and numerous gun allegations during a weekslong trial.

"The prosecution of Matthew Queen was made possible by Sgt. Chad Garrett's meticulous and expansive investigation," Deputy District Attorney Eric Smith, the prosecutor on Queen's case, wrote in an email. "Sgt. Garrett, along with his fellow Bakersfield Police Department detectives, interviewed every known witness, continually sought out all relevant evidence and used every available forensic investigative tool to solve the case."

The investigation

A general crimes detective was assigned to Holsonbake's case after his mother, Cheryl Holsonbake, reported him missing April 4, 2018, while Garrett served only as an adviser on the case.

Throughout the investigation, they found suspicious activity surrounding the disappearance of Micah Holsonbake and believed foul play was involved.

"You talk to people and you investigate the case and things just don't add up," Garrett said.

Friends and acquaintances of Holsonbake hadn't seen him. His social media accounts showed no activity and his bank accounts remained untouched, he said.

"Generally, people just don't drop off the face of the earth," the sergeant added. He has investigated other missing persons cases where an individual might be hiding but still display signs of life through social media and their banking history.

Garrett happened to be the homicide detective who picked up the phone April 8, 2018, the day that Kulstad died, and assumed the role as lead detective. He determined Holsonbake and Kulstad had friends in common, such as Queen, but did not believe their investigations were directly linked. Queen wasn't at that time a suspect in the case, Garrett said.

A "feeling" led the BPD sergeant to start investigating Holsonbake's case as a "no-body homicide" because he believed something nefarious could have happened, he said. At that point, police started talking to members of Holsonbake's circle. Definitive determination about his status arrived in August 2018.

Holsonbake's left arm was discovered by boys playing in the Kern River on Aug. 19, 2018. Now, the sergeant said he had direct evidence to dig into and assumed the case, categorized now as a homicide. Orange-and-black rope was tied around the left arm's wrist and a forensic anthropologist ultimately testified in court that a saw severed the arm.

An early breakthrough in the case happened after Garrett said he listened to Vandecasteele's jailhouse calls starting in October 2018. He overheard a conversation between Vandecasteele, who was serving time for an incident unrelated to Holsonbake, and his former girlfriend Sara Wedemeyer.

Wedemeyer began living with Queen soon after Vandecasteele was arrested, and the inmate warned her to stop hanging out with him because "you know what happened that night" and that "he's going to do the same thing to you," Garrett said of Vandecasteele's warning.

The sergeant said the call told him people in the group knew about something that happened one night when Holsonbake, Queen, Despot, Wedemeyer and Vandecasteele gathered at Vandecasteele's apartment. He suspected everyone involved knew more than what they were telling.

Garrett said he started digging into phone records, such as location history and social media accounts, to create a timeline of events. Accumulating enormous amounts of data ultimately led him to fill up a two-terabyte hard drive, which he booked as evidence.

Queen also faced assault charges from three separate incidents and 20 gun-related allegations. For each interview he conducted regarding each charge, Garrett went back to phone data — such as location data and text messages — and attempted to corroborate their statements.

"I talked to anyone who wanted to talk to me," Garrett said.

Cheryl Holsonbake joked Garrett may have thought she and the other moms — Diane Byrne, the mother of Kulstad, and Jane Parrent, the mother of Despot — were "wacky" with the massive amounts of information they dumped on him as well.

"We probably dramatically increased his workload," Cheryl Holsonbake said. "But, he was really there for us."

She recalls the information secured by Garrett through a search warrant, such as Facebook messages, did not come in a digestible format. He had to translate massive amounts of online data into a form understandable by an average person.

"That doesn't happen by snapping his fingers ... it takes months," Cheryl Holsonbake said. "You have the expertise to dig into the data."

Another smoking gun came from combing through Vandecasteele's Google searches, she said. Garrett found Vandecasteele had searched "how long does it take to dissolve a human body" around the time he suspected Micah Holsonbake was killed.

"I think that's when Sgt. Garrett thought the case would stand up in court and the investigation could move forward in the DA's office," Cheryl Holsonbake said. "Calls and comments like that made us feel very confident."

Garrett said he had to establish a "pattern of criminal activity" against Queen.

Caleb Seiler, an assault victim, had alleged he was tied down, shocked with a dog collar and beaten by Queen for information. Megan Farmer, another alleged victim, was threatened by Queen after he pointed a gun at her to get information about Despot cheating on him, prosecutors said.

Garrett knew there was an allegation that Micah Holsonbake had stolen a gun from Queen, and he started to piece together a timeline from phone records with Queen's behavior to determine how the death occurred.

"We kept getting pieces of the puzzle and there was not a single point where we had the full picture," Garrett said. "It just kept adding all pieces of basically evidence of what transpired. Eventually, we had a fair understanding of what happened."

But the BPD sergeant acknowledges it was challenging to directly prove what happened the night he believes Holsonbake died at Vandecasteele's garage. Vandecasteele's testimony helped to piece that night together.

Queen has told The Californian he thinks investigators coerced Vandecasteele into talking. Garrett denies the allegation, saying they didn't force Vandecasteele to testify — they simply showed him why it was important to absolve his loyalty to Queen.

Vandecasteele pointed Garrett to a shelf in his garage, which tested positive for Holsonbake's blood. He told Garrett that Queen and Despot wanted to question Holsonbake about a gun one night. Despot came into the house, grabbed a knife and returned looking pale, Vandecasteele testified at trial.

Other evidence started coming together: The orange-and-black rope found with the arm, and later the skull, matched a spool of rope found in Queen's house, experts testified at the trial.

Garrett said he always went back to the beginning and evaluated the evidence he had, and he was not solely focused on Queen. Every time he retraced the steps, they all led back to Queen.

Queen had denied involvement for years, Garrett said. The sergeant characterized Queen as an arrogant man, successful at convincing others of things.

"He's always been able to manipulate people," Garrett said. "That's what frustrated him the most because he could never manipulate me."

Prosecutors charged Queen with first-degree murder, torture and kidnapping in Holsonbake's death. Jurors acquitted Queen of first-degree murder, torture and kidnapping, ultimately finding him guilty of second-degree murder. Queen testified at trial Despot had killed Holsonbake by dropping a 40-pound dumbbell on his head. They chopped up his body and scattered his remains throughout Kern County, Queen testified.

"I'm just glad this person is no longer out roaming, further victimizing people," Garrett said. "I'm glad to be able to do that part for the family and do that part for our citizens here to help keep them safe."

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.