Since teenager Karlie Gusé disappeared nearly a year ago in eastern California, her stepmother, Melissa Gusé, has been a subject of accusation and suspicion.
Melissa told the Mono County Sheriff’s Office that on Oct. 12, 2018, she spent a long night comforting Karlie after the 16-year-old had a bad drug experience.
Melissa said that on the following day, she awoke to find Karlie missing. The Sheriff’s Office reported that Karlie was last seen walking in the direction of U.S. Highway 6.
But on the television show “Dr. Phil” and in an interview with longtime commentator and television host Nancy Grace, Karlie’s birth mother, Lindsay Fairley, of Yerington, Nevada, questioned this account.
Some people on social media went further, claiming that Karlie never made it out of the house alive.
Now two witnesses have confirmed to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that on the morning of Oct. 13, 2018, Karlie walked by herself toward the highway holding a piece of paper.
“I know her,” said Kenneth Dutton, 49, who lived around the corner. “I saw her.”
In October 2018, Karlie resided with Melissa; her father, Zachary Gusé; and two brothers, ages 10 and 9, in a rural neighborhood 10 miles north of Bishop, California.
On Friday, Oct. 12 of that year, while partying in Bishop with a group of friends, Karlie got high and began to panic.
“She hadn’t smoked in a while,” said her boyfriend, Donald Arrowood III, who’ll turn 18 later this month. “It could’ve triggered something.”
Melissa said she received a frantic cellphone call from Karlie, went to fetch the teen, and drove her back home.
After that came a long night as Karlie grappled with the effects of cannabis — or whatever else may have sparked the episode.
In an audio recording that Melissa made, Karlie could be heard telling her stepmom “I’m so glad you came” and “I love you” but also asking “Are you going to call 911?” and “Am I going to live until tomorrow?”
Melissa said she fell asleep alongside Karlie and woke up once to see the teenager still awake, lying on the bed with her blue eyes open.
When Melissa awoke again around 7:15 to 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Karlie was gone.
No viable leads
The Mono County Sheriff’s Office launched a massive, weeklong search. Later, searchers returned to a field with cadaver-sniffing dogs.
After the official search ended, private search parties continued to crisscross the high desert and probe the nearby White Mountains.
The FBI scoured Karlie’s cellphone, which was still in the house when she disappeared, and looked online for digital footprints.
Missing-person posters of her appeared in stores, diners and gas stations across eastern California and beyond.
News of the case went viral. Thousands of people nationwide joined Facebook groups such as “Bring Karlie Home” and “Justice for Karlie Gusé.”
Although the tip line has received many phone calls, there have been no viable leads, said Lynda Bergh, a veteran missing children investigator who’s been working on the case as a volunteer.
Starting the day Karlie vanished, Melissa livestreamed updates about the search on Facebook. As these videos circulated online, many viewers became suspicious.
“One thing that bothers me as a licensed psychotherapist is the stepmother’s eyes shift constantly which indicates lying,” read a YouTube post by Francie Hartsog, 52, of Davidson, North Carolina.
Fairley, the teen’s biological mother, publicly questioned Melissa’s credibility.
“I’ve been hearing about four or five stories now,” she told Nancy Grace in an October 2018 podcast.
Bergh said “there were changes” in Melissa’s statements and “to me they didn’t make sense.” But she added that “it’s not uncommon to have parents change their stories or remember something they forgot.”
On a May 2019 episode of “Dr. Phil,” Fairley said, “I believe my daughter had a fatal drug overdose … and I believe that very early morning, Melissa saw her with her eyes open, and I think that’s when my daughter passed.”
When asked by the Review-Journal to explain the basis of these allegations, Fairley responded with an email reading: “Please send me a list of questions you have for me and I’ll run them past my attorney.”
Michael Boone, a private investigator retained by Fairley, said the Sheriff’s Office didn’t follow proper protocol.
“Karlie’s bedding wasn’t taken and analyzed,” he said. “No search warrant was served on the cars.”
Melissa has denied involvement in Karlie’s disappearance.
“It feels awful,” she said about the accusations. “When Karlie went missing that day, everything happened so fast. … She’s not dead; she is missing.”
Shortly after Karlie disappeared, the Mono County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement that she was “last seen in the early morning of Saturday, October 13, 2018, in White Mountain Estates in Chalfant, walking toward Highway 6.”
But on social media, people questioned the eyewitness sightings. An October 2018 post on Facebook wondered “Did Melissa walk down the street that morning and was mistaken for Karlie?”
Over time, this speculation morphed into a story that was repeated as fact.
Recently, when someone on YouTube asked “Then why are there reports of witnesses seeing Karlie on the road at daybreak,” the question generated a startling reply.
“It wasn’t Karlie,” wrote Amanda Earls, of Knoxville, Tennessee. “It was Melissa running around in hopes people would think it was Karlie. Karlie was long dead by then.”
When asked what information supports her claim, Earls told the Review-Journal, “I don’t have any. … This is just what I’m coming up with.”
Two of the eyewitnesses who reported sightings to the Sheriff’s Office spoke with the Review-Journal and confirmed their accounts.
Dutton lived down the street and around the corner, seven houses away from the Gusé home.
In a recent interview, Dutton told the Review-Journal that he saw Karlie walking through the neighborhood that Saturday morning.
Dutton said he recognized Karlie. He also said she was holding a piece of paper.
Richard Eddy, a retired motorcycle officer living down the street from the Gusés, offered a similar account.
Eddy told the Review-Journal that early in the morning on Oct. 13, 2018, he saw a thin female with long hair walk by his house, “looking up, looking around at the sky.” He also said she had a piece of paper in her hand.
“It was kind of unusual,” said Eddy. “We don’t have a lot of kids out walking.”
A third witness, described as someone who was heading out to cut firewood, hasn’t been publicly identified. According to the Sheriff’s Office, the “wooder” reported seeing a girl fitting Karlie’s description in the vicinity of Highway 6.
The two-lane route runs toward Bishop but also leads north into some of Nevada’s loneliest desert.
‘Nobody’s been cleared’
Sheriff Ingrid Braun told the Review-Journal that her office doesn’t have a theory about what happened to Karlie and remains “open to all possibilities.”
When asked whether she’d cleared Karlie’s family of involvement in her disappearance, Braun said, “Nobody’s been cleared of anything. Right now I don’t even have a crime to clear them of.”
As for the accusations on social media, Braun said, “Most of them don’t appear to be locals. The anonymity of the keyboard draws people who think they can solve crimes from afar.”
To date there’s been only one arrest, of 18-year-old Jaymes Dulin, on allegations that he provided cannabis to Karlie on Oct. 12, 2018.
In January 2019, Dulin pleaded guilty to a lesser related charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Although no one’s been charged in connection with Karlie’s disappearance, Braun said, “We’re treating the investigation as we would a crime.”
She’s asking anyone who might’ve seen Karlie to call the Mono County Sheriff’s Office at 760-932-7549, option 7.
— Doug Kari is an attorney and writer based in Lone Pine, California.