Jack Earl visited his cousins just one week before the teenagers and their parents were killed in California in the fall of 1973. Earl, then 22, was devastated by the loss and lack of information about the murders.
Earl, now a Roseburg resident, set out to learn more about the men who killed his relatives, a pursuit that soon became all consuming.
“It totally became an obsession for me,” he said. “I feel so strongly about it, it’s like I’m the only person who can do it. A calling, so to speak.”
Last year, Earl, now 61, published “Where Sadness Breathes,” an elaborate retelling of the murders and the preceding events.
The book tells the story of Willie Steelman and Doug Gretzler, drugged-out drifters who formed a lethal partnership.
They murdered Earl’s uncle, Richard Earl, his aunt, Wanda, and cousins, Debbie and Ricky.
Steelman and Gretzler met at a drug party in Denver and soon set out on a murder spree. They drifted through Arizona, robbing and killing sporadically for drugs and money. They drove through California and ended up in Victor, Calif. That night, the two killed the Earls, plus a friend and four neighbors.
They took 17 lives before they were captured in November 1973.
Earl, now an account manager for an office supply company, said he was always looking for a reason behind the random murders.
In 1991, his sister gave him a binder filled with police reports about one of the murders Steelman and Gretzler committed in Arizona.
“Reading the police reports was like out of a time machine. It kind of knocked the wind out of me, it was that intense. I knew immediately I was pretty hooked,” he said.
Earl set out to learn as much as he could about the crime and was soon immersed in the murders. He traveled through Arizona, talking to anyone who had a stake in the case. Being related to victims helped open doors, he said.
“I decided I wanted to write a story that wasn’t judgmental or slanted from a negative way,” he said.
His explorations allowed him to meet Gretzler in his prison cell. Earl said Gretzler was clearly remorseful for the killings and uncomfortable talking to a victim’s family member.
The similarities he shared with Gretzler were striking, Earl said. They were born months apart, both had daughters named Jessica, liked working on cars and had similar taste in music.
Steelman died of liver cancer in his cell, and Gretzler was executed in Arizona in 1998.
The 600-page book is just a fraction of what could have been written about the story, Earl said. The original manuscript exceeded 1,500 pages.
“Not getting published right away allowed me to continue and take a fresh look at it with an objective eye,” he said.
He struggled to find a publisher for the lengthy book for many years, but remained resolute about the length.
“I wasn’t going to dumb it down or cut it up,” he said.
He decided to publish it through CreateSpace, a service through Amazon.com that allows authors to publish a book without requiring a minimum number of copies.
He worked with graphic artist Gail Hanson to design the book. Hanson, who co-owns Just Perfect Binding in Roseburg, helped format the book and design the cover.
She said she was captivated by the story and enjoyed Earl’s attention to detail.
“I’m amazed how much he knows about what happened because he did get to speak to the bad guy. That intrigues me,” she said.
Earl is hosting a book reading from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at While Away Books, 932 W. Harvard Ave., Roseburg.
Earl said over the years he has moved beyond anger toward Gretzler.
“I absorbed all the emotions and eventually just had to let it go,” he said. “I couldn’t carry this burden around, I had to forgive him.”
• You can reach reporter Betsy Swanback at 541-957-4208 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.