BELLINGHAM - Three days before he confessed to killing a 59-year-old hairdresser in Bellingham, police felt "99 percent" sure they had found the murderer: Michael G. Arnold, a gunner's mate aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman.
But Bellingham detectives let Arnold, 33, walk out of the police station after hours of questioning Wednesday, Aug. 6, because they lacked hard evidence.
Later that week U.S. Marshals found Arnold dead, hanged, in a family cabin near the town of Show Low, Ariz. He had spray-painted apologies on the cabin walls and left a written confession to the murder on the doorstep, said Bellingham Police Lt. Rick Sucee.
Until then he'd stuck to a story that police still believe to be true - up to a point. Arnold and a few other Coast Guardsmen spent the evening of Aug. 2 drinking in Fairhaven bars with Abigail D. Gulotta. A bartender saw Gulotta leave with Arnold shortly after midnight. They walked on a trail near Taylor Dock.
That's where fact and fiction start to diverge. According to Arnold's story, he and Gulotta split up. He went back to the ship, he told investigators. She walked a few more blocks to her basement apartment at 606 12th St.
Gulotta, a hair stylist at Blessings Salon and Spa in Fairhaven, didn't show up to work the next morning. Around 11 a.m. a coworker went to check on her. Gulotta was found dead from severe head trauma on the floor of her apartment.
For days police investigated Arnold, and other Coast Guardsmen, as potential suspects. Some crewmen misunderstood a question and unwittingly confirmed Arnold's alibi to police. Yes, they remembered him being on the ship Sunday night. But the detective had been asking about early Sunday morning.
Only Arnold was asked to take a lie detector test, police said. He refused.
"In our mind, we were 99 percent sure," Sucee said. "But that doesn't work. You need to be a hundred percent."
The missing piece that prevented police from making an arrest, Sucee said, was some shred of forensic evidence: DNA, fingerprints, anything to prove Arnold had been in Gulotta's apartment.
"But those things aren't like 'CSI' or television, it doesn't take just five minutes," Sucee said.
So in the meantime the Coast Guard reassigned Arnold to a base in Seattle. Bellingham police wanted him kept close for more questioning, but he hadn't been named as a person of interest, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Donnie Brzuska.
He'd been ordered to show up to his new post at 8 a.m. Thursday, with his duties to be determined then. He'd need to check in with his commanding officer at set times.
He never showed up.
A base-wide search turned up no sign of him. It took about 24 hours of processing paperwork to get a warrant declaring him AWOL. Once Bellingham police learned he'd fled, they told the Coast Guard he was now a suspect.
"Obviously that increases the urgency for us," Brzuska said.
Until then no safeguards had restricted him from buying a plane ticket or crossing the border. After he went missing, Coast Guard agents asked U.S. border authorities to flag his name, in case he tried to flee to Canada or Mexico.
As police later learned, Arnold had rented a car and made a beeline for San Diego, the Sherman's homeport, where he picked up his wedding suit from a storage locker, Sucee said. From there, he drove deep into the desert of Arizona to a family cabin in Apache County.
On Saturday he called his wife in Michigan. Over the phone he confessed to the murder and said he would kill himself, according to police. Right away she called the lead Bellingham detective on the case.
Once U.S. Marshals reached his cabin in the small, remote community of Concho, Ariz., they found apologies to Arnold's friends and family members spray-painted in black on the outer walls and steps leading up to the cabin. Other short apologies were written on the "junk" piled up near the home, Sucee said. And a written confession to police had been left on the doorstep. Other notes from Arnold were recovered at the scene.
In one confession, Arnold said something to the effect of, "She made me mad, so I hit her," according to police. But Arnold didn't give away how he killed Gulotta.
Police believe the killer attacked her with some kind of weapon - authorities still aren't sure what - while in a drunken rage, Sucee said. It's not clear how he got rid of any blood on his clothes or how he left the apartment. The door was locked that Sunday morning; the key was missing.
The Sherman had been in dry dock in Fairhaven for repairs since April. The crew of about 170 Coast Guardsmen left Bellingham last week, on Thursday.
Arnold, a petty officer 3rd class who served in the Coast Guard for five years, gave inexpensive haircuts to the crew aboard the cutter Sherman.
Gulotta lived on the East Coast before moving to Bellingham's South Hill neighborhood. Friends set up a gofundme.com page in her name, "In Memory of Abigail Gulotta," to support her two loves: cats and books. The page pledges donations will go to the Whatcom Humane Society and Bellingham's public libraries.