Gregory Carlson

Gregory Carlson

A Sunizona man who murdered his ex-wife and her friend in order to prevent them from taking the killer’s toddler back to Philadelphia after a visit pleaded guilty on Tuesday to shooting the pair and burning their bodies in the sport utility vehicle they had rented at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Gregory Carlson admitted he shot his ex-wife, Duong Nguyen, and her friend, Robert Atwell, three times each, then burned their bodies in the SUV.

His jarring admission was read in open court Tuesday morning by Carlson’s defense attorney, Xochitl Orozco, the Cochise County legal advocate.

Carlson, 58, was sentenced in the same hearing, which is not routine. Orozco declined comment on why he was sentenced the same day, but had said in court that Carlson wanted to “bring finality” to everyone involved in the matter, including his parents.

He will spend the rest of his life in prison and will not be eligible for parole or commutation of sentence, said Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal.

“ ... I intended on taking their lives,” Carlson wrote in the statement read by Orozco. “I shot her three times. I shot him three times. There was no discussion. They died immediately.”

Carlson then said he drove the rental car to a spot on his parent’s massive property in Sunizona and set the SUV on fire with Nguyen and Atwell inside.

“I was wrong and I am so sorry,” Carlson wrote.

The case, horrific enough because the bodies of Nguyen and Atwell were never recovered except for a handful of bones found outside the charred vehicle, was compounded by the heart-wrenching testimony that Nguyen’s Vietnamese relatives gave in Cardinal’s courtroom shortly after the killings. In a plea to Cardinal that Carlson’s bond not be reduced, Nguyen’s sister had tearfully described how the victim’s and Carlson’s daughter, then only 3, constantly asked where her mother had gone.

A relative of Nguyen’s who testified at the Tuesday proceeding spoke again about the youngster, now 4, and how she had to tell the child that her mother had died. While the girl’s name was uttered in court repeatedly Tuesday, the Herald/Review is not naming her because of her age.

Carlson had been charged with 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.

Nguyen and Atwell had traveled from Philadelphia to Sunizona to pick up the child, who had spent a week with Carlson in late August 2021, investigators said. Atwell had accompanied Nguyen because the latter and Carlson had an acrimonious relationship, especially where their daughter was concerned, and Nguyen was somewhat fearful of her ex-husband, investigators said.

Nguyen’s family members became worried when Nguyen and Atwell failed to return to Philadelphia by Sept. 4. That same day, a relative of Nguyen’s called the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and told investigators Nguyen and Atwell were supposed to pick up the girl on Sept. 3.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office dispatched a deputy to the property. Carlson was there with his daughter and claimed Nguyen and Atwell never showed.

But Carlson’s nervous demeanor concerned the deputy, and a search was done of the large property with help from the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. After several hours, a charred vehicle somewhat matching the description of the car Nguyen and Atwell had rented at the Phoenix airport was found on the Carlson estate, investigators said.

Surveillance video from a motel where Nguyen and Atwell had stayed the night before they were supposed to pick up the child showed the duo leaving the establishment the morning they were scheduled to retrieve her.

Cadaver dogs were taken to the Carlson property by sheriff’s investigators and the canines found human bones near the destroyed vehicle. There were few bones, detectives said, and they were not in good condition.

The bones had to be sent to a private lab equipped with technology able to identify the remains, Deputy Cochise County Attorney Michael Powell said earlier this year.

In his statement Tuesday, an emotional Powell told Cardinal that two families deserved justice in this case.

“There are things that stand out to me in this case that are the most tragic,” Powell said.

He described that Atwell was known for his generosity.

“And it was that generosity that got him killed,” he said. “That to me is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Powell also spoke of the 4-year-old girl.

“She has lost her parents,” he said. “There will come a time when she will ask what happened to her mother and father ... “

Powell also mentioned family in Vietnam who were not able to travel to the U.S for the hearing.

Several of Atwell’s relatives testified at Tuesday’s hearing in person, by phone or via letters read by a victim advocate.

At the end of the somber proceeding, Cardinal addressed Carlson: “This is a tragic end to your life as well,” the judge said. “And a tragic end for your daughter who lost both her mother and father.”