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Locked Inside: How an Arizona law allowed a man who killed his grandparents to not go to jail

In chapter two of the 12 News Locked Inside podcast, the I-Team looks into what happens when a man pleads Guilty Except Insane after killing his grandparents.

GILBERT, Ariz. — On April 12, 2005, Christopher Lambeth sat handcuffed at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tucson. He was face-to-face with two detectives after he was taken into custody from a bloody home in Rillito. They began asking his name and age. He told them who he was and that he was 20 years old.  

Then the detectives braced themselves for what he was about to say next.

Rillito is a small, tight-knit community about a 20-minute drive north of downtown Tucson. 

Just two days earlier, on April 10, 2005, something unsettling stood out. It was a Sunday morning and many people in Rillito were getting ready for church.

When services started that morning, some people noticed that two community fixtures, Carl and Patricia Gremmler, weren’t there.

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The couple were grandparents, both in their 70s and well-known as activists in Rillito. Former Tucson Citizen reporter Sherly Kornman remembered they would protest emissions from a nearby cement factory.

“And they were very vocal, you know, I guess you call them activists,” Kornman said. “Gray haired activists who really cared about their community.”

Friends of the Gremmlers told Kornman that the couple volunteered at a local food bank.

“They were very socially-conscious,” Kornman said. “Wouldn’t hurt a fly kind of people.”

The Gremmlers' absence at church that Sunday morning wasn’t just noticeable, it was out of the norm. One of the couple’s friends tried calling for a few days after missing them at church and finally decided to go to their house and see what was up.

This friend had known the Gremmlers for about a decade, according to an investigation report. He’d been to their home before. It sat right along I-10, the main highway connecting Tucson to Phoenix. The Gremmlers had their own house, a rental home, a garage and a red-brick business building all on the same plot of land. Carl Gremmler, a car enthusiast, ran an auto shop of sorts from that garage.  

The Gremmlers’ friend told investigators that he noticed a broken window on one of the front buildings when he pulled up to their property. When he went through the gate, he noticed another broken window. He didn’t go inside any of the buildings. He called his wife, who then called the sheriff’s department.

When two deputies got there, they started by searching the red-brick business building, according to the investigation report. The whole place had been ransacked. Blinds ripped, widows busted out, furniture overturned and part of a computer thrown to the floor.

One deputy wrote in the report that the person who did this must have been “very angry.”

The deputies moved to the garage, filled with antique cars Carl had been working on. They didn’t notice anything out of place and made their way to the house. As they approached the sliding glass door at the back of the Gremmlers’ home, one deputy took out a pen and gingerly used it to pull the door open, in case there were any fingerprints or evidence on the handle. The moment they stepped inside they knew something was very wrong.

The investigation report detailed that all the lights were off. The front room was trashed. The widescreen TV was shattered in its case. The couples’ two dogs were inside. The deputies noted that it seemed like they hadn’t been out in a few days, based on the mess they left on the floor.

The deputies pushed forward through the destruction, guns drawn. They made their way to a bedroom door, where they realized someone was lying in the bed under the covers.  

The deputies didn’t know it at the time, but this person was Christopher Lambeth. The deputies told him to get out of bed and lie down on his stomach in the hallway.

After putting Lambeth in handcuffs, records show Lambeth admitted he killed the people who lived in the home and directed the deputies to the other bedroom across the hall. One deputy wrote that the room was in “extreme disarray” and they could hardly step inside.

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'These people were completely defenseless'

Former Tucson Citizen reporter Sheryl Kornman covered the crime scene at the Gremmlers’ home.  

“All they could see was just a giant, bloody mess,” she remembered reporting, referring to the responding deputies.

The investigation report details that the first body they saw was Patricia’s, slumped on the bed against some pillows. Then they found Carl’s body on the floor. Investigators determined they’d been dead for a few days.

“And they were stabbed so many times,” Kornman said. “They never released the count. But they were so brutalized, that they had to have a closed casket for the funeral.”

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Sheryl Kornman spent the days after this brutal discovery connecting with the Gremmlers’ friends and investigators.

 “And the sheriff's department, the deputies were really upset about it,” she remembered. “Because, you know, seeing it was just horrific. Because these people were completely defenseless.”

Those who knew the Gremmlers the best were devastated, but not totally shocked.  

“It gives me chills, again, at the brutality of the murder,” Kornman said. “Feeling like I feel now like I felt then. This didn't have to happen, these were vulnerable, older people who never should have been put in that position.”

Christopher Lambeth wasn’t an intruder in their house. Christopher Lambeth was Carl and Patricia Gremmler's grandson.

RELATED: Murder, mystery and mental health: How one man was convicted of murder and allegedly killed again years later

After the deputies found the Gremmlers brutally stabbed to death in their own home, they wrapped Lambeth in a blanket and walked him out to a squad car. The dogs in the house started to follow them as they walked outside and one deputy wrote that Lambeth simply said, “Please close the gate. The dogs will get out.”

Then, Lambeth was face-to-face with deputies, answering questions about what happened to his grandparents. The sheriff’s department originally recorded this interview but burned the tapes in a routine cleanout in January 2020.  

The following printed interview is part of a transcript provided by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in a 12 News records request.

Detective: Are they alive or dead right now?

Lambeth: They’re dead.

Detective: OK, how do you know they’re dead?

Lambeth: I killed ‘em.

Detective: You killed ‘em?

Lambeth: Yeah.

Records show Lambeth admitted several times that he killed his grandparents and that he was “happy that they’re dead now.” But he was hesitant to tell investigators why he killed them.

Detective: OK, I mean was there some kind of argument between you guys? How did this - how did this turn into them being dead?

Lambeth: Personal problems.  I don’t want to talk about it.

Detective: Personal problems you have or between you and them?

Lambeth: Between us.

Detective: Between you and your grandparents?

Lambeth: Yes.

Detective: Does it go back a long way or something?

Lambeth: Yeah.

Detective: Like family history?

Lambeth: Yeah.

Read the full transcript here:

According to court records, Lambeth’s father died when he was young. Lambeth and his sister lived with their aunt and uncle for a while before moving back in with their mother, according to Kornman’s reporting. It seemed symptoms started around his teenage years. He was admitted to hospitals or other treatment facilities and court-ordered for psychiatric evaluations multiple times, according to court and investigation records.  

He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.

“So, he was diagnosed,” Kornman detailed. “But he was covered as what they call a ‘public pay’ individual because he was deemed disabled. Under the disability laws, he could get this public assistance for mental health care.”

Lambeth told detectives he’d been staying in mental health facilities and a group home before he started staying with his grandparents during the week. This was an arrangement planned by his mom.

Detectives: You said you get this money that comes from Social Security, it goes to your mom, does - what’s the arrangements as far as - do they pay your grandparents too, give them some money for you living there?

Lambeth: Yeah, my mom gives my grandparents money.

It wasn’t a secret that Lambeth stayed with his grandparents. Neither was his history of mental illness. Sheryl Kornman remembered friends of the Gremmlers telling her that the Gremmlers themselves were worried about Lambeth. Still, they let him stay at their home.

“I think it was their religious beliefs, you know, they believed that everybody is a child of God,” Kornman stated. “And they did tell their friends explicitly, who were very worried about him, we're not going to turn our backs on our grandson. You know, we love him. We know that he's sick and we're not going to turn our backs on him.”

In the interview with Lambeth, detectives kept pressing him for a motive. One investigator asked what things were like inside the home and whether those conditions led to Lambeth lashing out. Lambeth told them he felt his grandparents were “destructive” to him.

RELATED: 1 dead, suspect in custody after murder at Gilbert group home, police say

Guilty Except Insane

Lambeth was ultimately charged with two counts of first-degree murder for killing his grandparents. Lambeth told investigators he stopped taking his medicine before killing his grandparents.

Detective: Do you think you did this because you were off your medication?

Lambeth: No.

Detective: OK, you think it was just ‘cause you wanted to?

Lambeth: Like I said, it was just personal problems.

Detective: OK.

Lambeth: That I don’t want to bring up.

Detective: OK, but you don’t think your not being on your medication had anything to do with it?

Lambeth: No.

Detective: OK, OK.

Lambeth: Not an insane thing to do, it’s not because of my medication.

After nearly two years of court proceedings, Lambeth pleaded Guilty Except Insane to both counts of murder in 2007. Under Arizona law, Guilty Except Insane, or GEI, means a person has a mental disease or defect of such severity that the person did not know the criminal act was wrong.

In the months that followed his arrest for the double murder, court records show Lambeth refused to talk about the crime with his attorney and denied he had any symptoms.

Records show doctors evaluated him and reported he suffered from “delusions” and that he heard “voices that weren’t there.”

Court records claim Lambeth was “unable to function in a legal setting” and at one point, he was deemed “not competent to stand trial.”

Part of that guilty except insane plea meant Lambeth wouldn’t go to prison. Instead, a judge sentenced him 25 to life to the Arizona State Hospital for treatment.  

“The prosecutors decided to agree, because it was pretty obvious that he had a psychotic episode that jail would not be the place for him,’ Sheryl Kornman remembered. “They don't really have the facilities to incarcerate someone who's that ill.”

After Lambeth went to the state hospital to serve his sentence, his mother and his aunt, Carl and Patricia Gremmlers’ daughters, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the psychiatrist and two mental health agencies that worked with Lambeth before the murders. They accused the doctor and agencies of not doing enough to help Lambeth before the crime. The doctor settled with Lambeth’s family out of court, but the two mental health agencies went to trial. 

“Lambeth was deemed to be 25% responsible,” Sheryl Kornman remembered. “The psychiatrist overseeing his care was 25% responsible. And the other two public pay agencies that were involved in his care were each 25% responsible.”

RELATED: Suspect in Gilbert group home murder was supposed to move out the morning of the murder, according to police records

Court documents back-up that break-down. The out-of-court settlement with the doctor wasn’t made public, but in the case that went to trial, Lambeth’s mother and aunt were awarded $1.5 million dollars.

12 News tried to contact Lambeth’s mother for this story but could not reach her. An obituary shows his aunt passed away in 2014. Lambeth’s sister declined to talk with 12 News.

Despite his 25 to life sentence in the state hospital, Lambeth would be back in society long before then.  

You can catch that story in the next chapter of Locked Inside: Secured starting April 26, 20221 wherever you listen to podcasts.

No one working with or representing Tilda Manor agreed to talk with 12 News at this point in our story.

Lambeth’s current attorney did not respond to any of our requests for comment at the time this story was published.

Locked Inside Podcast: Tilda Manor coverage

Locked Inside, a new 12-News I-Team and VAULT Studios podcast, follows the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Christopher Lambeth and those who crossed his path along the way.

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