Wiretap recordings played during the ongoing jury trial of a former Marine accused of killing his girlfriend’s lover detailed the investigation into how the deceased man’s body ended up half-buried in Joshua Tree National Park and how the accused searched for reports about the body soon after it was discovered.
Curtis Lee Krueger, 32, is charged with one count of murder and one count of assault in connection with two attacks prosecutors say led to the death of Henry Alan Stange, 54, in May 2018. Krueger has pleaded not guilty.
Through court filings and more than a week of testimony, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Daniel DeLimon seeks to prove Krueger killed Stange after tracking Ashlie Stapp to Stange’s house in Murrieta, where he believed the pair used drugs and conducted their affair.
While Riverside County Deputy Public Defender Brian Cosgrove has yet to present the defense’s case, he contends Krueger searched for Stapp the day Stange died because he believed she was suicidal as their relationship had deteriorated due to her drug use.
Testimony from fellow Marines and police investigators during the first week of trial, which began Aug. 17, bolster the prosecution’s belief that Krueger and Stapp buried Stange in the national park the night of the killing and struggled to conceal it from family, coworkers and authorities.
‘In one ear and out the other…’
Last week the prosecution called several witnesses who served with Krueger at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.
Marine Sgt. Lucas Zifilippo, a member of Krueger’s unit, testified that Krueger would take the unit on runs and hikes at Ryan Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park, an area he remembered Krueger liking very much.
Another prosecution witness, Mark Powers, testified that he found skeletal remains, half buried, about 15 feet off of Big Horn Pass Road. He told jurors he spotted the remains after he approached a gathering of vultures. Powers said he took pictures of the skeleton and was later urged by his wife to contact authorities.
Major Nicholas Lybeck, who Krueger reported to, testified about several interactions he had with Krueger before and after Stange’s killing on May 24, 2018.
Lybeck said he granted Krueger permission that day to travel to the Murrieta area to search for Stapp after Krueger told him he was worried Stapp was suicidal because she didn’t show for an event that day on base.
Lybeck testified about several texts and a phone conversation in which Krueger told him he was unable to find Stapp. Eventually, Lybeck added, Krueger told him he had returned to Twentynine Palms after 10 p.m. that night.
Lybeck said Krueger was back at work the next day. He said he tried to talk with Krueger about Stapp, but the conversation didn’t go far.
“I wanted to talk to him to make sure he knew the challenges of a relationship with someone who had mental health issues.” Lybeck said. “It seemed to go in one ear and out the other.”
The truck ‘changed everything’
DeLimon examined several investigators whose testimonies supported the prosecution’s belief that Krueger tried to conceal the fatal attack at Stange’s home and the botched burial in the national park that night.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Shannon Wheeler searched Krueger’s and Stapp’s computers and cell phones, which were seized soon after their arrests.
Wheeler testified about several of Krueger’s text messages, emails and some digital notes Krueger wrote about his troubled relationship with Stapp and his anger over her involvement with Stange.
Wheeler, who testified Tuesday, added that Krueger’s laptop and Stapp’s cell phone were used to conduct Google searches in June and July 2018 for: “Henry Stange,” “identifying human remains in Joshua Tree,” and “Man found dead in Joshua Tree.” Stange’s body was found on June 1.
Murrieta police Detective Jason Calvert told jurors, during his testimony Tuesday, that investigators listened in on phone calls between Krueger and Stapp in the months after Stange was killed, focusing on whether Krueger’s truck had been at the crime scene around the time of the killing.
Calvert and another investigator both testified that Krueger’s cell phone records showed he was in the vicinity of Stange’s house around 5 p.m. on May 28, the time Stange is believed to have been attacked.
Calvert testified that police then tracked Krueger’s phone to Canyon Lake, where Stapp’s parents live, and then back again to Stange’s home around 7:45 p.m.
The investigators used the evidence provided by the phone location records to obtain a wire-tap warrant on Aug. 14, 2018, and the Murrieta Police Department monitored Krueger’s calls for nearly two weeks.
Calvert said detectives initially believed that many of Krueger’s conversations — which were recorded and often monitored in real time — were unrelated to the alleged crime. But that changed when they started questioning people.
Calvert described to jurors two contacts that “stimulated” recorded conversations between Krueger and Stapp about evidence authorities appear to have collected.
Calvert said that one recorded conversation occurred after investigators contacted Stapp’s brother, Kevin, about why her car had been parked at his apartment complex. They showed Kevin Stapp a picture of his sister and Stange, Calvert said, but he only recognized his sister. He speculated Stange was someone his sister bought pills from.
Calvert testified that Kevin Stapp later told his sister and Krueger police asked him about Krueger’s black truck.
The prosecution, on Tuesday, played a recording of Krueger and Stapp discussing whehter police had potentially determined Krueger’s truck was at Stange’s house the day he was killed.
In a phone call recorded on Aug. 23, 2018, Stapp told Krueger that investigators’ interest in his truck “changed everything.”
“Ya, it does,” Krueger agreed.
Stapp said she was worried and her “heart sank” because “that’s more information than I thought they knew.”
Stapp said she told her brother the man in the photo he had been shown was an acquaintance from her previous job. She added she told her brother: “I haven’t purchased from him since we’ve been together.”
Krueger abruptly ended the call, but called Stapp again about 20 minutes later.
In this recorded conversation the two speculated, in great detail, about how investigators might know Krueger’s truck had been at the house.
Krueger said he was confident they had gathered all of the security cameras and computers at the house. But, he wondered if video footage of his truck had been stored in a cloud-based database that investigators subsequently accessed.
Stapp doubted it, saying Stange likely couldn’t afford the storage fees. His power would be shut off for weeks at a time, she said, because he was late paying his bills.
In any case, Krueger said, he had pulled the truck in “close enough” that it couldn’t have been spotted by the cameras.
“Or there could have been a camera at Joshua Tree National Park,” Krueger speculated to Stapp during the recorded phone call.
‘They still couldn’t prove it in court…’
During the second recorded phone call, Krueger said he remembered seeing a neighbor at the house next to Stange’s when he was backing Stapp’s car out of the driveway. Krueger said the woman seemed friendly and waved.
Krueger then said his truck was there only briefly, “a couple minutes while we loaded.” Had the neighbor seen something, he said in the recording, she would have called the police and “this would have been a way bigger ordeal.”
Krueger then said his truck had off road tires and an aftermarket front end that might have distinguished it to witnesses. Krueger said the tires left a very noticeable thread pattern in the dirt and Stapp recommended he swap out the tires.
Stapp said she could tell investigators Stange “sold [Oxycontin] to three other people,” to establish doubt about who might have been there at the time of the killing.
Krueger reassured her that even if investigators believed she was there, “they still couldn’t prove it in court.”
“I’d rather avoid going to court at all costs,” Stapp said.
Calvert testified that investigators recorded another call between Stapp and Krueger in which Stapp said investigators tried to talk to her in the parking lot outside Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree after she’d finished a class.
She said they were driving an unmarked police vehicle. Krueger told her, Calvert said, that he had also seen what he thought were two unmarked police cars near their home. The two agreed that they should stop talking about the subject over the phone, Calvert testified.
DeLimon read from a transcript of the recorded call to the jury: “I’m like all paranoid now that they’re listening in.”
Desert Sun reporter Christopher Damien covers crime, public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @chris_a_damien.