Dameian “Luke” Gulley, 14, of Visalia was reported missing by his family on Monday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 p.m. They stated that they had last seen him at 6:30 that morning when he departed for Valley Oak Middle School. Luke walked approximately two miles to the school daily.
The Visalia Police Department sent out an “at risk” missing persons alert since Luke was in need of medication due to having Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Based on evidence collected at the home, investigators initially suspected the teen was a runaway. The family stated publicly that they didn’t believe Luke had run away because he was comfortable with his daily routine.
On Thursday, Nov. 21, the teen’s body was discovered in the Hospital Rock area of Sequoia National Park. This popular day-use area is located five miles from the Foothills Visitor Center.
An off-duty park employee who was walking her dog on the Buckeye Flat road made the discovery. Investigators closed the area Thursday and processed the scene on Friday. Foul play was immediately suspected upon recovering the partially clad body wrapped in a blanket.
Until a press conference this week, scant details of the case had been made public by law enforcement officials regarding the investigation, either before or after the teen was found deceased. Luke’s stepfather, Manuel Villegas, however, had made several statements to the media regarding the teen’s disappearance and the family’s activities.
On the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 26, an announcement was made by Visalia PD that they had arrested Villegas, 32, on suspicion of murder. At the time of the arrest, they also searched the residence. It was also reported that Luke was fearful of his stepfather and police had been summoned to the residence in the past.
During Wednesday’s press conference, law-enforcement officials addressed the media as did Craig Wheaton, superintendent of Visalia Unified School District. Wheaton said that Valley Oak Middle School personnel followed proper protocol in alerting the family that Luke didn’t attend classes on November 18.
The murder investigation is being conducted jointly by the Visalia Police Department, the FBI, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, and the National Park Service.