By Curtis Skinner
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A man pleaded guilty on Thursday to kidnapping in connection with a bizarre 2015 abduction case in the San Francisco Bay Area that police initially deemed a hoax, prosecutors said.
As part of a plea deal, 39-year-old Matthew Muller admitted to one count of kidnapping in exchange for prosecutors recommending only 40 years in prison as opposed to a maximum penalty of life, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the eastern district of California said in a statement.
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Muller's attorney, Tom Johnson, told the Sacramento Bee newspaper the guilty plea showed Muller took responsibility for his actions.
"We feel that this is the way that will someday open a door for his return to society," Johnson said.
At the time, Vallejo Police Department detectives said they found no evidence of a kidnapping. A department spokesman held a news conference calling the incident a "wild goose chase" and blamed the victims, Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn.
Months later, prosecutors charged Muller, saying he broke into the Vallejo home early on March 23, 2015, armed with a stun gun, bound the two residents and drugged them.
Muller played a recorded message threatening them if they did not comply, then put Huskins in the trunk of his car and drove her to his South Lake Tahoe home, prosecutors said on Thursday.
Muller kept Huskins there for two days and demanded Quinn pay a ransom of $17,000. During that time, Muller emailed a San Francisco journalist about the kidnapping, prosecutors said.
Muller released Huskins in the southern California city of Huntington Beach after holding her captive for two days and no ransom was paid, prosecutors said.
The Sacramento Bee said Muller, a former U.S. Marine and Harvard-educated immigration attorney, told the court he is "being treated with mood stabilizers, anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications."
The couple sued the Vallejo Police Department in March, saying police statements and actions created a "destructive nationwide media frenzy ... and rubbed salt in the plaintiff's fresh wounds."
Huskins alleged in the suit she was raped twice while blindfolded and was told the sexual assault would be recorded to blackmail her from going to the police.
Muller was never charged with rape. Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said there was no federal law covering that crime as alleged and the state has not yet brought charges related to that incident.
Muller is to be sentenced on Jan. 19, 2017.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio)