In the first significant break in the case of the Bakersfield 3, charges were filed Wednesday against one of the three for the murder of another.
Baylee Despot, who was 20 when she went missing more than two years ago, was charged along with her then-boyfriend Matthew Queen, 43, in the kidnapping and murder of Micah Holsonbake, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer announced in an afternoon news conference.
The whereabouts of Despot are unknown. Queen is already in Kern County Jail for other charges. The two are accused of first-degree murder, kidnapping, torture and conspiracy charges in Holsonbake's death.
"Our dedication to solving this case never wavered," Zimmer said, giving credit to the district attorney's investigators and the Bakersfield Police Department for their investigative work. "We want to remind the public that our mission is to never stop searching for answers on every homicide case in Kern County."
Holsonbake disappeared in March 2018 and was presumed dead after one of his limbs was found in the Kern River later that year. Zimmer declined to say how he died.
Despot, Holsonbake and James Kulstad, who died in an unsolved drive-by shooting in April 2018, make up the Bakersfield 3, the name their mothers came up with when they banded together to find out what happened to their adult children. Police have said they believe the deaths of Holsonbake and Kulstad, and the disappearance of Despot, are related.
However, Zimmer said Kulstad's death was not part of the current case.
Despot's mother, Jane Parrent, said the charges against her daughter came as a surprise. She learned of them later Wednesday morning after attending an event where the three mothers donated sonar equipment to the Kern County Sheriff's Office using funds raised through a charity golf tournament.
"The Baylee everybody knows and loves, she would never ever do anything that horrific to anybody unless her life was in danger or she was threatened, or maybe she was drugged and didn't know it," Parrent said. "I'm not trying to make excuses, I just want answers ... so until we can find her, if she's alive, and talk to her, only she knows for sure."
Parrent said Despot was "going off the rails" around the time of her disappearance, after facing several challenging events in her life.
Despot was living with Queen at the time of her disappearance, and was said to be pregnant with his child, but was trying to leave him, Despot’s mother, Parrent, has said.
She said she believes that Queen had a role in her daughter's disappearance.
Holsonbake's mother could not be reached for comment but Parrent said the two spoke to each other after learning of the news.
"We had discussed all different kinds of scenarios. What if this happened and what if that happened. You never think one of them could be true," Parrent said, adding that Cherly Holsonbake "doesn't think Baylee would ever do that unless she was made to."
The mothers of Holsonbake, Despot and Kulstad have joined together in a relentless search to find answers to their children's murders and disappearance in the past two years. They have gone to court to support other mothers of other murder victims, waited in the heat while police investigate a found body to see if it was one of their children and have helped raise money and awareness about the Secret Witness program.
A third man, Matthew Vandacasteele, was also charged with three counts in the case Wednesday. Vandacasteele faces charges for the alleged kidnapping of Holsonbake, and conspiracy and manufacture of assault weapons. Vandacasteele is in custody in another jurisdiction, said assistant district attorney Joseph Kinzel.
According to the charging documents, Queen allegedly asked to use the garage of Vandacasteele's apartment at 3029 N. Half Moon Drive in Bakersfield to extract information from Holsonbake. Queen and Despot are alleged to have placed zip ties on Holsonbake's arms at the residence and Despot allegedly retrieved a knife from inside the apartment. The document further alleges that either Queen or Vandacasteele researched how to dissolve a human body.
Queen faces 34 felonies in total, including seven charges related to a separate incident involving assault, burglary and threatening with the intent to terrorize and nearly two dozen charges related to a conspiracy to make and sell assault weapons. Zimmer said Despot, Holsonbake and Vandacasteele were involved in the alleged making and distribution of firearms.
Queen faces 50 years to life in prison if convicted on all the charges. Despot faces 25 years to life in prison and Vandacasteele faces 16 years in prison if convicted of the crimes.
Di Byrne said that while her son Kulstad's murder is not part of the case announced Wednesday, she believes he was killed by someone in the same circles. She is hopeful that the new charges might prompt someone else with information on the cases to come forward.
"There's a big web of people. We're waiting for the rest of it to unfold," Byrne said. "As moms we know who is in that circle and we're not going to stop until every one of them either help us or is arrested."
The mothers urged anyone with information to contact the Secret Witness Line at 322-4040.