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 considering 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 and 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 whether 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 jailer who works as a part-time carpenter to thank for this week’s break, some 21 months into the investigation.
The jailer had done some carpentry on Gruber’s house for its previous owner. Detectives this week asked him to comb the grounds for any signs of new construction done to hide a body or clues.
The jailer noticed 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 Roos.
Last year, deputies used dogs that sniff for cadavers and a search team to scour the 20 acres around 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 loss to have killed him - but those tests were not completed until recently.
Weeks later, Gruber’s brand-new truck was found abandoned in Kootenai County. The keys were inside but there were no fingerprints - not even Gruber’s.
In March, a fisherman found a safe and Gruber’s cellular telephone by the road near Hayden Lake.
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 described as outgoing but meticulous, said Detective John Valdez.
Gruber owned a tour boat service 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 stockbroker - 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 whether 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 proud of his detectives’ persistence.
“They would not let it go,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Map of area
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.
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