Original article no longer available
The Des Moines Register, (IA)
January 31, 2004
By LISA LIVERMORE, REGISTER STAFF WRITER
An enraged Tyler Pirtle killed his 21-year-old housesitter with a single shotgun blast to the head Sunday after she threatened to tell his father and probation officer about two parties he hosted while his father was vacationing in the Cayman Islands, police said Friday.
On Tuesday, Pirtle shot his counselor, who was summoned to the Johnston home to help, police said.
On Wednesday, Pirtle fatally turned a shotgun on himself, jamming the barrel of the weapon against his right temple when he fired, said a Colorado medical examiner. He had just led authorities on a chase near the Colorado-Utah border.
Still grieving, Ann Pirtle said Friday she never thought her son would kill.
“I can’t understand this,” she said, in her first extended comments since the shootings. “He was such a big-hearted child. Around animals and children, he was so sensitive and caring.”
On Friday, police outlined the chain of events that ultimately led to what they believe are two murders and a suicide within a span of four days.
Investigators Tuesday found the body of Greg Gaul, 41, a private social worker who had been Pirtle’s therapist, in an upstairs hallway. The body of Sarah Dahlke, 21, a recent Iowa State University graduate, was found near a bedroom, said Steve Bogle, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
The slayings occurred while Pirtle’s father, Matthew, and his girlfriend, Sarah Collinson, were vacationing. Dahlke worked with Collinson at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, where they contacted each other about the housesitting and baby-sitting job. Matthew and Ann Pirtle were divorced in February 2002, court records show.
Tyler Pirtle was scheduled to go before judges in a juvenile court hearing next month. He had been in trouble with authorities for drinking, committing petty theft, and taking a car without permission, among other offenses.
Police said he was known for threatening the lives of those close to him, including his mother, father, and Collinson. Officials said Matthew Pirtle kept a gun cabinet in his house, but they were unsure where the teen got the gun used in the slayings.
Bogle said Pirtle hosted parties Thursday and Saturday, where teens smoked marijuana and drank.
Dahlke, who was housesitting, was upset by his disobedience, Bogle said.
Pirtle killed Dahlke sometime after 9 p.m. Sunday, police said. That was the last time Dahlke spoke to her father, complaining about the tensions building between her and Pirtle.
Several of Pirtle’s friends told police the teen was mad at Dahlke and had threatened violence against the young woman.
Students kept the threats to themselves, which is why no one from the Johnston Police Department was called to check the home while the owners were gone, Bogle said.
“He would say things -`I’m going to kill that person.’ That’s how he would refer to someone when he was mad,” Bogle said.
Pirtle was seen in Dahlke’s white Chevrolet Lumina in West Des Moines at 10 p.m. Sunday, a signal to police that she was already dead.
Max Baxter, 15, of Burlington, one of Pirtle’s friends, has said Pirtle told him Monday that he was going to kill Dahlke. It was not immediately apparent why Pirtle told Baxter he was going to kill Dahlke when police believe she was already dead.
Police said Pirtle had made threats about Dahlke to other friends on Monday and hinted that “something’s up, and I can’t tell you about it right now.”
“He mentioned to at least one of his friends, he said he was `redrum,’ which is murder spelled backwards,” Bogle said.
At 10:28 a.m. Tuesday, Gaul told his wife he was on the way to help one of his clients.
Gaul had been receiving calls all weekend about the dispute between Dahlke and Pirtle over the beer parties, Bogle said.
At 10:30 a.m. the wife of a Pioneer employee concerned about Dahlke’s whereabouts drove by the house. She saw no footprints in the yard and the garage door was closed, Bogle said. A half-hour later she drove back and saw footprints in the snow and saw somebody coming out of the garage carrying what looked like a shotgun wrapped in a blanket.
The person she saw, which police now said was Pirtle, climbed into Gaul’s Mercury Mystique and drove away.
The nationwide search ended Wednesday when authorities in Colorado confronted a speeding Pirtle. The car went off the road and stopped in a field. A team of officers found Pirtle inside.
In addition to the fatal shotgun wound, Pirtle also suffered minor bruises and a scrape on his hand, which investigators think happened several days before his death, said Mesa County, Colo., forensic pathologist Dean Havlik.
Toxicology tests showed recent use of marijuana, Havlik said.
Ann Pirtle said her son took Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, and Concerta, which helped with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder.
“It kept him focused,” she said.
James Hall, a University of Iowa associate professor of pediatrics and social work, said he doubted the drug combination -even if used with alcohol or marijuana -could be blamed for violence.
Concerta, which is a controlled release of Ritalin, is intended to calm. Wellbutrin is also meant [to help people] relax. If mixed with alcohol, the user could become tired or sleepy, Hall said.
Ann Pirtle admitted that she passed Tyler on to his father as he became difficult as a teenager. But she clings to the memories of his better times.
“One of his counselors in school told me that in a group they asked children, `Who was the one person you would turn to for anything.’ He said it was his mom.”
She was sobbing so much she couldn’t say anymore.
Record Number: des2004020210277533 Copyright (c) The Des Moines Register. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.