Canyon County property owner wanted for questioning in 3 murders
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, an episode of “In Pursuit with John Walsh” will focus on the Caldwell triple murder and suspect Mike Bullinger’s double life. The episode will air on the Investigation Discovery network. This story originally ran in June 2018.
One year after a Utah man reportedly killed three women at his Idaho home and fled into the woods, the local sheriff believes the alleged killer must be dead.
Those who knew Gerald Michael Bullinger aren’t convinced.
Bullinger, better known as Mike, was last spotted July 20, 2017, in Eastern Idaho, headed toward the rugged Wyoming wilderness, where his car was later found. That’s one month after deputies found the bodies of his wife, Cheryl Baker, his apparent girlfriend, Nadja Medley, and Medley’s teenage daughter Payton in a shed at a home near Caldwell.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has said multiple times that his instincts tell him the 60-year-old is dead — either by suicide or exposure to the elements.
Bullinger’s first wife, Jacqui Garcia, said she doesn’t believe that was his last stop. She and several others who knew Bullinger said the pilot had a history of infidelity, lying, manipulation and violence. His behavior was described as selfish and even sociopathic. At one point, Garcia said, she feared Bullinger would kill her.
One thing is for certain, said an individual who knew Bullinger for more than a decade: He wouldn’t have killed himself.
“If you know about sociopaths, you know they’re unlikely to kill themselves. He would have to feel guilty, and he doesn’t have a conscience,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous.
“People have said he probably went out into the woods and shot himself. I think he’s too egotistical for that,” agreed Christine Roppel, a friend of Medley’s.
Instead, multiple former contacts of Bullinger’s suspect that he might have manipulated yet another woman into taking him in.
‘He is whatever you want him to be.’
Garcia remembers her ex-husband as “just a dishonest person.”
“You could catch him red-handed, God could be pointing at him, and he’d still lie all over the place,” Garcia said.
She first met Bullinger when they were freshmen at Ricks College — now Brigham Young University-Idaho — in Rexburg in the 1970s. Bullinger served a mission to Manila in 1976 and married Garcia in the Salt Lake City LDS Temple soon after his return in 1978. Things swiftly changed.
“I knew it was a mistake as soon as I got home from the honeymoon,” Garcia recalled.
She spent 10 years with Bullinger, and the pair had two children. Their marriage ultimately ended in 1988 after years of physical abuse and infidelity on Bullinger’s part, she said. He quickly began a relationship with the woman who would become his second wife. That relationship also ended due to infidelity — Bullinger had started seeing Baker, whom he eventually married, those familiar with Bullinger told the Statesman.
When Baker’s body was identified, family said they had no inkling of Bullinger’s relationship with Nadja Medley. Similarly, Medley had no knowledge of Baker, her friends claim.
“(Medley) had great morals, and she would’ve never been that close to (Bullinger) if she knew he was married,” Roppel said.
Other friends of Medley’s remember the two as remarkably similar. Rebecca Lorenz told “Crime Watch Daily” that both were ardent atheists. Garcia and others close to Bullinger believe that was part of his manipulation. Around Baker, a Hindu, he learned Sanskrit and attended the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, where both Bullinger and Baker were listed as members.
“He compartmentalized,” Garcia said. “He was whatever way somebody needed him to be.”
Bullinger’s manipulation didn’t stop with his romantic partners. Cheryl Baker’s brother, Byron Baker, said the two appeared to be in love. And Bullinger’s betrayal of Cheryl has given Byron pause in his own life.
“I don’t trust my own judgment on people anymore. I thought Mike was a nice guy. ... I’m not sure we would know the true story, even if Mike were found,” said Byron Baker.
Capable of violence
Garcia remembers the first time she realized that Mike Bullinger was capable of violence. During their first year of marriage, the pair had been arguing. She was on the floor, and Bullinger stood above her.
“I looked at his face and I said, ‘You wanted to hit me, didn’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yes,’” Garcia recalled.
Less than a year later, he did strike her. “He would hit me once and then I would quit talking. I don’t remember what the arguments were about,” Garcia said. “He just wanted to be the boss.”
Garcia went to the stake president of their LDS church in Billings, Montana, a man who had known Bullinger as a child. He “couldn’t believe Mike would do that,” Garcia recalled. She sought couples counseling through a church social services member, called a domestic violence hotline in Montana, sent Bullinger to therapy for “batterers” and even spoke with his parents about the abuse.
That did little to stop the violence.
“I think if anyone had intervened, had called him on his behavior, these women wouldn’t be dead now,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with Mike Bullinger. I know there’s a lot wrong with systems that let him get away with this.”
For Garcia — and for others who knew Bullinger and still fear his capacity for violence — there’s no doubt that he committed the killings outside Caldwell. Even optimistic relatives say the best-case scenario is one in which Bullinger arrived at the home to violent threats and fled for his own safety. Investigators have found no evidence that points to that.
“Our younger son told me once, after we were divorced, that his dad had hit him,” Garcia said.
“I had sole custody and called Mike and told him that was not allowed — that he could not hit the boys to discipline them. He didn’t agree or disagree — he just took it in. The next time the boys came home after being with Mike, they told me that their dad had sat them down and said that whatever happened at his house was to stay at his house — that it wasn’t my business.”
Canyon County law enforcement found a grisly sight as they performed a welfare check on a Monday afternoon last June, spurred by concerned friends and family of the Medleys, Baker and Bullinger.
Three bodies, each with a single fatal gunshot wound, were partially decomposed in a shed behind the KCID Road farmhouse that Baker and Bullinger bought in May 2017. Officials estimated that it had been more than a week since they were killed.
Since then, questions have only multiplied: Did Cheryl Baker and Nadja Medley know about one another? Were their killings planned?
Medley had posted on Facebook about moving to the Caldwell house. Why would Bullinger bring her and her daughter into a home he purchased with his wife?
The home, shrouded by trees, was foreclosed on Jan. 26, according to Canyon County records. The assessor’s office did not have a new owner listed as of Friday.
Friends of Baker’s say she had driven from the Ogden, Utah, home she shared with Bullinger to surprise him in Caldwell. Instead, she might have been surprised to find Nadja and Payton there, said one person close to Bullinger.
“(There may have been) this colossal meeting of women in his life who had no idea the other existed. And things got out of hand,” the person said.
Family and friends of the victims question why Bullinger, who had been caught in infidelity in both his previous marriages, turned to violence this time.
“Why instead of leaving them, why did he have to kill them all? You can just imagine maybe he just lost it,” Medley’s friend Roppel said.
That Bullinger’s whereabouts are still unknown adds to the confusion. Garcia holds out hope that he’ll emerge and be held responsible.
“I want him to be caught,” she said. “I want him to have to say something.”
Byron Baker said his sister’s killer has had a year to concoct explanations and excuses — a year that Byron has spent struggling to find peace and answers.
“I try not to think of it regular, but when I do it’s the sort of thing I wake up at 3 in the morning, stare at the ceiling and ponder why,” Byron said.
An ongoing search
The search for Bullinger is in the hands of the U.S. Marshals Service, while the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the killings.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office in Wyoming helped scour the Bridger-Teton National Forest last summer after Bullinger’s car was found. But its role is over for now, said Teton County spokesman Billy Kirk.
The Marshals Service has fielded hundreds of tips, said Deputy U.S. Marshal Travis Humkey.
“We run those tips to the ground (and) do what we can to validate those tips,” Humkey said Wednesday. “We welcome any tips as to Mr. Bullinger’s whereabouts.”
Donahue, the Canyon sheriff, said the triple homicide remains one of his “top priorities.”
“As we approach the year anniversary of this heinous crime, my detectives and I continue to work diligently on every possible lead in hopes of locating Mr. Bullinger,” Donahue said in a written statement Wednesday. “It is our unequivocal belief that Mr. Bullinger is the person responsible for the senseless killing of three innocent women, one of whom was just a teenager.”
Donahue said he thinks Bullinger is still somewhere in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, in the area near where his vehicle was last seen.
“I believe he is dead, either from taking his own life or dying from exposure to the elements,” Donahue said. “That said, we will not stop our investigation until we can locate him or positively identify his remains. We owe that to the families of the victims and the family of Mr. Bullinger so they can finally have some sense of closure in this case.”
A year has passed, though friends and family say it’s hard to believe at times. For Byron Baker and Christine Roppel, the anniversary is marked more by a growing feeling of unease than by a date on the calendar.
“We’re all going to die, but you hope people have a dignified death. Those are the things that still haunt me,” Roppel said.
Byron Baker said his mother regularly asks whether investigators have any updates on Cheryl’s killer. They almost never do.
The Utah School for the Deaf and the Blind, where Cheryl spent most of her career as a teacher, is erecting a memorial bench in her honor, Byron said.
Mark Medley’s brother, Todd Medley, was married to Nadja until his death in 2014. Mark said he mourns the relationship he was rebuilding with his niece. Payton was a bright girl — so smart, in fact, that Todd and Nadja had considered sending her “to a special school.”
Roppel and Mark Medley both recalled her excellent grades and her writing skills.
“Payton was the kind of young girl that you look to and say, ‘That is the future,’” Roppel said.
Nadja was independent, a woman with a stoic exterior whose nurturing side came out when she tended to her many animals, Mark Medley said.
Grief has radiated through the Bullinger family, too, relatives said — an emotion complicated by the anger and disbelief that a man they knew could be accused of such a gruesome crime.
Bullinger’s adult sons did not respond to requests for comment.
“I feel sad for my boys and for my granddaughter, who had just seen (Mike) a week before (the killings). He killed this little girl just a year older than his granddaughter,” Garcia said.
Have you seen Mike Bullinger?
If you have information on Bullinger, call your local law enforcement or the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, 208-454-7510.