Burned alive

April 1, 2010

** UPDATE April 3: Couldn’t help but notice that some folks coming to this page are looking for the documents themselves. The Dem-Gaz has them up on its site.

By Jacob Quinn Sanders.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Hannah Grace Dowdie was alive in her father’s truck when it was set afire, his body lying in its bed after he was slain for failing to pay debts, according to unsealed Pulaski County sheriff’s records obtained Wednesday.

The fire killed the girl, weeks away from her second birthday.

The records depict for the first time publicly what sheriff’s office investigators believe happened Dec. 12 to the child and her father, Michael Palmer, 28, after they drove from his home in Hensley toward Sweet Home and before their bodies were found burned beyond recognition in his small 1988 GMC pickup on dead-end Wilbern Road.

The documents also reveal for the first time some of the evidence investigators found to implicate the two cousins they arrested – including statements that Hannah was alive when she was strapped into her car seat and the truck set ablaze.

Investigators and prosecutors requested in January that Pulaski County District Judge Wayne Gruber seal sworn affidavits for search warrants and arrest warrants because releasing such details as how Palmer and his daughter died could harm their case. Gruber unsealed the records Friday.

Sheriff Doc Holladay said that when he learned the records would become public, he told investigators to contact relatives of Palmer and his daughter to let them know what was coming.

“I didn’t feel it was appropriate for them to read that in the paper or see it on the news without hearing it from us first,” Holladay said.

He said the documents are not easy to read, even for a longtime law-enforcement officer.

“It’s hard for me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for the family,” he said. “We know that it’s going to be difficult to understand how someone could do something like that to anyone, especially a small child. But our role is to investigate it and make sure the people responsible are in jail.”

Robert Todd Gatrell, 20, and his cousin, Daniel Chase Gatrell, 16, are charged with arson and capital murder in the killings.

The older Gatrell’s attorney, Hubert Alexander, did not reply to a message seeking comment. Mark Hampton, who represents the younger Gatrell, said he had not yet read the documents and could not comment.

Palmer took his daughter – in foster care until a judge gave him custody the day before – when he headed to Shamburger Lane and the home of Robert Todd Gatrell, who goes by his middle name, according to a sworn arrest warrant affidavit. Palmer called him twice before going over, according to the affidavit.

When investigators first talked to Gatrell the day of the killings, he denied that Palmer had called him, saying it had been two days since they talked. Then he changed his story, according to the affidavit.

“Mr. Gatrell said that during the second call, Mr. Palmer told Mr. Gatrell that he was coming to Gatrell’s residence to visit and to steal some tires from Mr. Gatrell’s grandfather’s residence, which is next door to his, for his vehicle,” sheriff’s office Sgt. Mike Blain wrote in the affidavit.

Gatrell also would not allow investigators to search his property that first day they talked to him, according to the affidavit, but he called back several hours later to give permission.

Lynette Beeson, a former girlfriend of Palmer’s, told investigators that Palmer had borrowed an all-terrain vehicle from Gatrell and sold it without giving Gatrell any of the money. She added that several weeks before dying, Palmer had gotten tires from Gatrell and never paid for them.

After his arrest, Gatrell told investigators that he and his cousin only tried to scare Palmer into paying them for other things he’d stolen, according to the affidavit.

Blain wrote in the affidavit that each Gatrell offered a different story to family members and investigators, each blaming the other.

One of Daniel Gatrell’s uncles, Thomas Floyd, said to investigators that his nephew told him that Robert Todd Gatrell called him when Palmer was on his way over.

“Daniel stated that Todd Gatrell advised him that a shotgun was on the back porch of his residence and directed Daniel to get the shotgun to protect the property,” Blain wrote in the affidavit.

Palmer met up with Robert Todd Gatrell and the two walked around the corner of a shed, where Daniel Gatrell was waiting, according to the affidavit. Palmer saw the shotgun and grabbed it, but it went off, wounding him in the abdomen, according to the affidavit.

“Daniel advised that at that time, he was ‘frozen’ in shock and Todd Gatrell stated that Mr. Palmer was not dead and for him to shoot him again,” Blain wrote. “Daniel advised that he could not shoot the weapon again and at that point, Todd took the weapon from him and shot Mr. Palmer again in the abdomen. Daniel advised that Todd then kicked the victim and said that he was still alive.”

Then Robert Todd Gatrell shot Palmer in the head, according to the affidavit.

Two days after his Jan. 21 arrest, Robert Todd Gatrell told investigators that his cousin fired three shots at Palmer in quick succession and killed him without any help after coming out of hiding from behind the shed, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit said the cousins’ accounts are consistent in describing what happened to Palmer’s body. They dropped the body in the bed of Palmer’s truck and tossed a couple wooden pallets on top and a bleach-soaked rug near the tailgate to keep blood from spilling out, according to the affidavit.

The Gatrells differ again, however, about how Palmer’s daughter got into the truck’s cab, according to the affidavit.

Hannah was inside Robert Todd Gatrell’s house playing with his girlfriend’s daughter when her father died, according to the affidavit. One version of the story told to investigators has the Gatrells walking inside, with Todd looking at the child and back at his cousin.

“No,” Daniel Gatrell told his cousin, according to the affidavit.

“Daniel advised that Todd stated to him that she (Hannah) was evidence and they needed to get rid of her,” Blain wrote in the affidavit, attributing the statements again to Daniel’s uncle, Floyd.

Robert Todd Gatrell strapped her into a child’s seat in the truck’s cab, according to the affidavit.

In his own statement after his arrest, Robert Todd Gatrell did not say who put Hannah in the truck, only that he drove it the half-mile to Wilbern Road near Granite Mountain Quarries.

Floyd told investigators his nephew said it was only Robert Todd Gatrell who poured gasoline on Palmer’s body and inside the truck’s cab. Robert Todd Gatrell told investigators he and Daniel Gatrell poured the gasoline and lit it.

Palmer and his daughter were unrecognizable when firefighters put out the fire. The fire burned both Gatrells as well, according to the affidavit.

Investigators found nails in the truck’s bed that looked like they may have come from wooden pallets, according to the affidavit. An autopsy confirmed that Palmer died from shotgun wounds made with 12-gauge Remington shells, size No. 4. Hannah died from burns and smoke inhalation.

Four days after the killings, Pulaski County sheriff’s Deputy Steve Morgan got a call from Robert Todd Gatrell, his stepson.

“Mr. Morgan advised that on December 16, 2009, Todd Gatrell contacted him via telephone and advised him that he was suicidal and had placed a shotgun in his mouth on this date,” Blain wrote in the affidavit.

There were nightmares, too, according to the affidavit, “where he hears Hannah crying as she is burning in the vehicle.”

The next day, Morgan drove his stepson to Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, according to the affidavit. Morgan also took three guns – a 12-gauge shotgun, a 20-gauge shotgun and a .50-caliber black-powder rifle – out of the house for “safekeeping,” according to the affidavit.

After cooperating with the investigation, Morgan resigned from the sheriff’s office Jan. 26.

Investigators got Robert Todd Gatrell’s medical records with a search warrant. At the hospital, he was treated for suicidal and homicidal thoughts as well as second degree burns on his lower back.

According to the affidavit, he told several people he got the burns lighting trash on his property.

Blain and other investigators served their first search warrants Jan. 6 at the two Gatrell properties on Shamburger Road. According to inventories released Wednesday, they took leaves they thought might be stained with blood, plastic oil containers, a red plastic gasoline container and a 12-gauge Remington shotgun shell, size No. 4.

They also found mail addressed to Palmer from the state Department of Finance and Administration about his 1988 GMC pickup and a CD holder “with painted writing on the back that states ‘Lynette B (heart) Michael P Always.’”

With Robert Todd Gatrell already in jail, investigators went back with another search warrant Jan. 25 and found what they thought could be blood.

They went back again the next day, arresting Daniel Gatrell and finding a black wallet belonging to Palmer down a well, according to that warrant’s inventory.

“You don’t get to pick and choose the circumstances you’re confronted with,” Holladay said. “You just do the best you can and send the bad guys to jail, and we’re confident we’ll be able to do that in this case.”

  1. […] The other story came about because I heard some documents related to a gruesome homicide had just become public. The investigating sheriff’s office had released almost nothing about precisely how this man and his near-2-year-old daughter died and why that might have happened. Even after they arrested two cousins and served search warrants, they got a judge to keep those documents sealed. The judge had removed the seal, and I was the only reporter who knew about it. I had less fun writing this one. […]

  2. -alex- says:

    i knew daniel. i was in band with him in high school. i was a pretty cool guy.i dont know what happened but watever it was it was bad. none of us could ever see him doing that ever

  3. Elaine says:

    i knew them… can’t say i didn’t expect karma to catch up with that family after flaunting and swelling in how bad ass they supposedly all were. I was quite close with one family member in particular and well, all i can say is… your idol is behind bars rotting.

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