Commentary: A Chilling Glimpse into the Murder

When you listen to Joseph Hein calling 911, you get an eerie feeling that you are getting a small window into the mind of someone who has not only done the unthinkable, but who is about to end his own life. His voice is calm, but short. If you listen carefully, you can detect some nerves there.

The police believe that Mr. Hein shot and killed his 27-year-old roommate, Whitney Engler, at their home on Glacier Drive. He then called 911 to report “two gunshot victims, a 27-year-old female and a 23-year-old male.”

We now know that he was referring to himself – he would be the second victim. He identified himself, unknown to dispatch at the time, as the shooter. The police did not know this at the time, but shortly after Mr. Hein hung up on dispatch, he took the shot that ended his own life.

Listening to the call gives one an insight into the frame of mind of a killer who is about to end his own life. He is not hysterical. He is not angry. In fact, one could almost hear that he has almost no emotion at all.

Darren Pytel told the Vanguard last week that immediately they took the call as credible. On Thursday, he elaborated on that, noting that the tone was very matter of fact, he had a stoic voice and he provided at least some details.

He did not seem angry or panicked. Although, again if you listen to him carefully, he is trying to hold back some nerves. But mostly he is calm and collected. He answers the questions in a “calm, matter of fact tone.”

“Alarming,” is the word that Assistant Chief Pytel used to describe it.

Mr. Pytel also explained why, based on the 911 call, the police believed that he was going on alive and perhaps counting on a confrontation with the police to end his life. Earlier they had explained that the 911 dispatcher was able to ping his cell phone back to the house. There was other evidence that the inhabitants were home, including Ms. Engler’s dogs and her vehicle parked out front.

On the other hand, Mr. Hein seemed to be implying something more. When dispatch asked if they were alive, he would quickly respond, “I don’t believe so.”

He informed dispatch that “I just walked in on it,” but did not provide details of what he walked in on. How did he know? Why did he describe them as “a 27-year-old female and a 23-year-old male” rather than by name, as he knew who they were?

However, police seemed to focus in on the fact that he said, “send that ASAP,” when it was not clear what “that” was. He made the point “we’re less than a mile away from Sutter Davis.”

As Darren Pytel noted, “alive people need a hospital, not dead people.” He asked for an ambulance and requested urgency, even though “alive people who need help need an ambulance.”

His words, “I will be on scene,” suggested to the police he would be waiting for them.

It is not completely clear why he used the words he did. I could only speculate, but perhaps he was somehow hoping that Ms. Engler was not dead.   Perhaps he was thinking if the ambulance could get her to the hospital they could save her?

Or perhaps it was simply misdirection. Clearly the “I will be on scene” meant he would be one of the bodies awaiting the police. The police had no way of knowing this at the time.

In retrospect, Mr. Hein was a person who was probably moments away from ending his life on this call. As some have said, he almost seemed lifeless. It was like he was ordering a pizza or discussing the weather rather than a horrifying murder seen.

He seemed almost lifeless already. He did not seem to have any emotions or any feeling for the act.

The 911 call gives us a window into his mind, if only for a second. It doesn’t provide us with all the answers. It certainly will not help the loved ones on both sides of this horrible tragedy to move on with their lives.

Much of our discussion thus far has focused on the policy elements of this incident. The need for armored vehicles. The need for the MRAP.

But there is also a very human dimension here. I don’t know if we will ever know the answer on this, but were there warning signs? Could this have been prevented?

The window we have here is at the end of the story, and what hopefully the investigators can discover is what were the warning signs and whether we could have prevented this horrible tragedy.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Slightly off topic . . . but when I clicked on what seemed to me a familiar name in the Davis Enterprise Obituary section last week, I was a but surprised to see Joseph Hein.  I know he was a member of the community and his family no doubt are mourning the loss.  But somehow, it seemed so very odd to see the face of who we have been lead to believe (allegedly) to be a murderer.  I don’t know that this is “wrong”, but it sure seems odd.  Almost like “we” forgive him because he’s dead, but we’d hate him for what he did if he were still alive.  Personally, I think less of him for taking the easy way out.

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