Stepfather charged with murder in case of missing teen

Manuel Villegas, the 32-year-old Visalia man who was arrested last week in the death of his stepson Dameian “Luke” Gulley, was formally charged with premeditated murder at a preliminary hearing on Monday, Dec. 2. He entered a plea of not guilty. 

Villegas requested that he be granted a court-appointed attorney. There was no bail set in connection with the first-degree murder charge. No additional arrests have been made in the case.

Only a few details have been revealed in the case as the investigation is ongoing. Visalia police chief Colleen Mestas did say that detectives believe the 14-year-old victim died Sunday, Nov. 17, one day before he was reported missing after he didn’t show up for school.

The chief investigator at Sequoia National Park confirmed that the boy’s body was discovered Thursday, Nov. 21 in the park by an off-duty employee who was walking her dog on the Buckeye Flat Road near Hospital Rock. Foul play was immediately suspected by investigators who processed the scene as the body was partially wrapped in a blanket.  

Villegas is reportedly a former employee of Sequoia Shuttle who was discharged in 2011, so he would be familiar with areas adjacent to the Generals Highway. Shuttles transport park visitors back and forth from Visalia to the Giant Forest area.

Investigators would not confirm if video cameras at the Ash Mountain or Big Stump entrance stations contain images of Villegas entering or exiting the parks.

The Tulare County Coroner is currently conducting an investigation into the cause of death of the victim. Those results are expected to be released in the near future.    

On Saturday, Nov. 30, a memorial service for the teen was held at Sierra Baptist Church in Visalia. He was remembered as a mild-mannered, caring teen who was a local nursing home volunteer.

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