BISBEE — Horrific and heartbreaking details emerged Friday at a bond hearing for a man accused of killing his ex-wife and her companion, with information from the case leaving mostly everyone in the courtroom in tears.
No one knows exactly how Duong Nguyen and Robert Atwell died, an investigator told the Herald/Review.
All that Cochise County Sheriff’s investigators are sure of is that very little of their bodies — which were burned — remain.
Detectives believe that what was left of the pair was a few bones found on the sprawling Sunizona property that belongs to the parents of murder suspect Gregory Carlson off East Aschenbach Road.
At the end of the almost-three-hour hearing, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal, who also was visibly emotional during the session, ruled that Carlson would remain at the Cochise County Jail with no bond.
“He is not eligible for bond,” Cardinal said somberly after Carlson’s attorney Kevin Oursland asked that he be released on $100,000 bond. “The defendant poses a substantial danger to the community. There is no certainty that he wouldn’t seek revenge on family members.”
Last week, a grand jury indicted Carlson on two counts of first degree murder, two counts of second degree murder, one count of tampering with physical evidence and two counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body.
Oursland entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client for all seven counts.
One of Nguyen’s sisters and a cousin were present at the hearing. Nguyen’s parents had phoned in and communicated via a Vietnamese interpreter. One of Atwell’s sisters called in, as well. They all pleaded with Cardinal to keep Carlson locked up.
All testified that Nguyen feared Carlson and that’s why Atwell accompanied her on the trip.
The most searing and heart wrenching testimony was delivered by Nguyen’s sister, who stood shaking and sobbing in front of Cardinal, begging that the defendant remain in jail.
The two victims had been reported missing on Sept. 4 by family members in Philadelphia. Nguyen and Atwell had flown to Phoenix and rented a Kia sport utility vehicle so they could drive to Sunizona and retrieve the child that Nguyen shared with Carlson — a 4-year-old girl — on Sept. 3.
Nguyen and the 56-year-old Carlson had a contentious marriage and their relationship of late was described as “strained” by detectives who testified at Carlson’s hearing Friday. Nguyen, 30, had custody of the girl, but Carlson had visitation rights. The youngster had spent a week with the suspect and his parents in Sunizona.
When relatives of both Nguyen and Atwell did not hear back from the victims on Sept. 3, they contacted the Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Carol Capas said last week.
Sheriff’s deputies were sent to Carlson’s residence on Sept. 4 and found him with his child, Capas said. Carlson claimed that Nguyen was supposed to pick up the child, but she never showed up.
Sheriff’s Deputy German Paz reported to the Carlson property on Sept. 4 just after 6 a.m. following the missing persons call from relatives. Paz spoke with Carlson and noticed that the defendant’s hands were shaking.
The defendant also told Paz that Nguyen and Atwell were supposed to have stayed at a Quality Inn in Benson the night before they were scheduled to pick up the child. Paz noticed though that the youngster’s bags were not packed.
Sensing something was off, Paz requested help from the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. Paz also had noticed something on the property that looked like “disturbed earth.”
As Paz was leaving the ranch after the arrival of the search and rescue team, he was called by one of the search and rescue members who stated that they could see a burned object on the property that looked like a vehicle. He also received a call from the motel stating that the victims had been there and had checked out the day before at 9 a.m. They were scheduled to pick up the youngster at Carlson’s residence by 10 a.m., investigators said.
That’s when Paz headed back to the Carlson property. He asked for assistance from Cpl. Jesus Davidson.
The helicopter pilot for the search and rescue team guided Paz and Davidson to the burnt out SUV.
Detectives were called to the scene and as the hours wore on, they began discovering more and more clues that changed the situation from a missing persons case to a possible double homicide. They found bones in the destroyed vehicle and along a trail near the car, said Det. John Gjerde. More bones were discovered near the section of disturbed earth.
The bones were found by investigators and cadaver dogs trained specifically to detect the scent of human remains, said Sheriff’s Det. Mike McGeoghegan.
Additionally, surveillance video provided to the investigators from the Quality Inn showed Atwell getting into a vehicle that matched the description of the car he and Nguyen had rented at the airport in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the victims’ remains, not yet identified, have been sent to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, Gjerde said.
Assistant Cochise County Attorney Michael Powell said in court Friday that there were no remains left for the families to bury.
“We don’t know how they died,” Gjerde said after the hearing. “We may never know.”