Handyman Darryl Kuehl not only met retired Sandpoint teacher Paul W. Gruber, but he also killed him, a jury decided Thursday.
After a three-week trial and a day and a half of deliberations, the Sandpoint jury found Kuehl, 46, guilty of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors convinced the panel that Kuehl shot Gruber four times in late 1993 or early 1994, stole his truck and boat, withdrew thousands from his bank account and even sent greeting cards to the retiree’s friends and relatives to cover up the death.
Kuehl acknowledged being caught with Gruber’s truck, boat and money, but he claimed he never had met Gruber. Kuehl’s attorney argued someone else had killed Gruber and was impersonating the teacher when he loaned Kuehl the property.
The verdict came as a relief to authorities, who spent thousands of hours solving the case.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Bonner County detective John Valdez. “It’s been over three years and everybody’s worked real hard.”
Kuehl faces a possible death sentence.
Gruber, 53, was reported missing Jan. 5, 1994, after having spent the holidays with family in Reno, Nev., where he previously had lived and worked as a card dealer and teacher.
It was 17 months before detectives discovered the body, buried under Gruber’s own house. Detective Harvey Thompson had been walking through Gruber’s home with a contractor who noticed an unusual depression in the floor.
“Finding the body was probably the biggest moment in the case,” Valdez said.
But the biggest break, he said, was when DNA test results showed Kuehl had licked the stamps on letters received by Gruber’s relatives after his disappearance.
Gruber’s daughter, Shellie Kepley, testified that her husband and son received cards that sounded and looked as if they had been written by someone other than her father. Handwriting experts identified the writing as Kuehl’s - not Gruber’s.
Kuehl also was convicted Thursday of several counts of forgery.
Sheriff’s deputies say Kuehl went to elaborate lengths to cover up the murder, replacing carpet at the crime scene and paying the dead man’s bills. Court records show the defendant even had brainstormed a plan to find a transient, give him details of Gruber’s murder and videotape a confession to clear Kuehl.
But authorities, led by Thompson, also went to great lengths to catch Kuehl, even capturing him on hidden camera as he picked up Gruber’s mail at the post office.
When police put Kuehl with a sketch artist and had him describe the “imposter” he claimed he thought was Gruber, the drawing came out resembling the sketch artist.