Dusty Harless: Death by Testosterone

Alcohol, Adrenaline, a Knife
(“Pinned by the Evidence,” Forensic Files)

The last two posts told of murders that were horrible, but made some sense just the same. Howard Elkins killed his pregnant girlfriend because she threatened his marriage and social standing.

Dusty Harless wrestled for Palomar College

Sharee Miller enticed her boyfriend to shoot her husband, Bruce, because she hoped to enrich herself via his estate. The boyfriend wanted Bruce dead to end what he thought was his cruelty toward Sharee.

XY doings. For Dustin “Dusty” Harless, on the other hand, there were no high stakes. He overreacted to a comment. The ensuing fight caused the end of his own life and the incarceration of another man for years.

Harless’ actions on April 18, 1996 were senseless, but that’s part of what makes them interesting.

The crime and its immediate aftermath demonstrate how an unwritten code on fair parameters for a man-on-man fight — no matter how unwarranted — can spill over into legal judgment.

Rain of terror. Here’s a recap of the Forensic Files episode about the case, “Pinned by the Evidence,” along with some extra information from internet research:

A couple consisting of Sky Flanders and surfboard salesman boyfriend Dusty Harless, age 25, exited a San Diego bar on a rainy night in 1996. She ran ahead of him to get under an awning.

Harless “tried  to protect fiancée from attacker’s lewd comments”

Motorist David Genzler, also 25, spotted her and offered a ride. Although the episode never gives a definitive account of his verbiage, it probably fell somewhere between “Ma’am, do you need a ride?” and “Climb in, baby.”

She declined, citing the existence of a boyfriend.

Appalled to learn that a man had the gall to speak to his girlfriend while she was standing alone, the legally intoxicated Harless walked to the passenger side of Genzler’s car to confront him.

The pin man. Twelve mintues later, Harless lay beeding from a 4-inch knife wound to his aorta. Genzler fled the scene. So did another motorist, Scott Davis, a Naval officer and bouncer who knew and apparently liked Harless enough to get out of his car to help him grapple with Genzler.

The part I forgot to mention is that Harless was a former AAU national wrestling champion who had a huge advantage over the eyeglass-wearing Genzler.

A chess club match was likely the closest the slender San Diego State University finance student ever got to beating anybody.

But Genzler was carrying a knife and he stabbed Harless during their struggle. Flanders made note of his license plate number, and police traced it to Genzler’s mother. He then turned himself in.

Blood evidence. Genzler said that Harless dragged him out of his car and pinned him so that he was facing the ground. Genzler defended himself, he said, by grabbing the knife from his pocket, reaching backward, and blindly trying to hit Harless in the shoulder.

But investigators found Harless’ blood on the front of Genzler’s shirt. That, according to the prosecution, proved the two were face to face when the knife pierced Harless’ body — and that Genzler intended to deliver a fatal wound.

David Genzler in court

Whichever the real scenario, it still sounds as though Genzler did nothing illegal. I don’t believe he willingly exited his car to confront a riled-up boyfriend in the first place.

Genzler had nothing at stake; the woman at the center of the conflict had already rebuffed him. And no one, except Sky Flanders, had heard the exchange between her and Genzler. It’s not as though she embarrassed Genzler in front of a group of people.

Waves of friends. And if a nationally recognized wrestler is attacking an unwilling opponent, doesn’t that give the latter the right to do anything he can to defend himself?

The jury didn’t think so, and convicted Genzler of second-degree murder. He received 20 years to life, and Forensic Files shows Flanders in cathartic joy upon hearing the verdict.

It’s possible Harless’ popularity in the community ultimately contributed to the guilty verdict. He was outgoing, belonged to a competitive surfing team, and had hundreds of friends. A number of them paddled into the Pacific Ocean to lay commemorative wreaths in his honor.

A post honoring Harless on the Parents of Murdered Children website places all the blame for his death on Genzler:

“…Dustin was on his way home with his girlfriend. Dustin was stabbed by David Genzler in cold blood. David jumped out of his car, hit Dustin in the temple and Dustin fell to the pavement. David jumped on top and stabbed Dustin with a 4″ knife, putting it in all the way to the hilt.”

Flanders reacting to the first guilty verdict

Genzler served his sentence in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, until he won a new trial on the basis of having been denied his counsel of choice at the first one. (Sources vary on how much time Genzler served; it was at least three years and possibly as many as six.)

Rhythm to it. This time, Genzler’s attorneys brought in Wrestling Hall of Fame member Ned Blass to refute the most damning forensic evidence against him: Harless’ blood on the front of Genzler’s shirt.

Blass showed a common wrestling hold that would have forced Genzler to face the pavement before he stabbed Harless. The defense team also used forensic animation to show how Genzler might have flipped over right after the stabbing.

An expert testified that, because the aorta spurts at a cadence, it’s possible Harless wasn’t bleeding in the split second before Genzler turned face up.

Also, the defense found witnesses who said Dusty made a habit out of starting physical fights with other men, including one he incited after another man allegedly made an insulting comment to his girlfriend at a bar.

Justice not done. The defense also found discrepancies between the story Flanders gave to police on the night of the accident and the one she offered on the witness stand. In her first account, she admitted that Harless had Genzler on the ground and wouldn’t let him up before the stabbing.

Flanders conceded on camera during her Forensic Files appearance that she wasn’t entirely “truthful” during the first trial because she didn’t want to help the defense lawyers. (She later claimed the prosecutor had coached her to withhold information during the first trial.)

The jury found Genzler guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to time served and set him free.

I still think Genzler was railroaded. Another unfair contention was that, because Genzler carried a knife in his pocket, he must have been looking for trouble.

Feckless fight. My brothers own and sometimes carry sporting knives, and they have never gotten into any fights (except the battles we all got into as kids, but those were weaponless).

Harless worked for  Innovative Manufacturing Ventures in San Diego

In fact, all of Genzler’s actions to end the fight seem justifiable. Evidence suggested that Harless, on the other hand, enjoyed conflict for conflict’s sake.

In the Genzler case, Harless more than likely defended honor that no one had attacked. He let adrenaline and testosterone coax him into his own demise.

That’s all for this week. For next time, I’ll dig up some research on what does and doesn’t qualify as self-defense under California law as it applies to this case. Until then, cheers. — RR


Update: Read Part 2 of the Dusty Harless story.

25 thoughts on “Dusty Harless: Death by Testosterone”

  1. Testosterone poisoning. If it isn’t heart disease from all the steroids, it’s the addled, muscle-bound mind that mail orders a head stone, usually on impulse. Or jail term. People should take up knitting. It’s amazing that people still think they have the right to use violence.

    1. You’d think with all those friends and a fiancee and surfboarding he wouldn’t feel compelled to recapture varsity glory via needless violence.

  2. It would be interesting to know if Genzler was picked on a lot when he was younger and was carrying a knife in the first place because of the Dusty Harless types he’d encountered before. The whole situation is one sad shame after another — one person ended up in prison, and the other not only died, he lost any chance to grow up and stop being such a jerk.

    1. With a few more years of maturity, his character arc definitely could have progressed from bully to responsible adult. I also wonder why the girlfriend didn’t try to stop the fight.

      1. It sounds like the girlfriend started it. Sky Flanders apparently liked Dusty beating people up for her honor. Good job Sky you got Dusty killed!! Then she went and lied to get an innocent man locked up. She’s terrible!!

        I wish Dave Genzler could sue Sky and the prosecutor. They knew that man was innocent, so they manipulated the facts of the case. They didn’t know Dusty or Dave, so why do that? They said Dusty was popular, so it was probably political. That prosecutor is the worst of the worst.

    1. Yep. He sounds like the typical dominant alpha type who’s cool until you disagree on something. With his wrestling background, that gives him a very large advantage. He needed to get stuck, or shot. Whichever.

  3. Saw the ‘Forensic Files’ files episode tonight here in UK; am inclined to agree with RR that, even with a much lighter sentence, Genzler was hard done by. It’s hard not to stereotype Harless as a foolish jock who went, lubricated by booze, too far. But why wasn’t Genzler acquitted? Given the FF presentation, including Harless’s g/friend admitting perjury in court, had I been a juror I’d have been inclined to acquit (albeit we don’t see things from the jurors’ perspective). [However, I understand it was only on FF that she admitted the perjury…] Six years in prison was a high price to pay, and I note that Genzler sought compensation after his release, which I think he well deserved… I may also have sought prosecution of the g/friend for perjury, since in FF she couldn’t have been clearer about its commission: ‘I changed my story because I thought that what I saw would aid the defense’ [not verbatim]. Touche.

    I can understand that she felt under pressure from Harless’s family and friends to present in his ‘favour’ — but other ‘friends’ felt able to say that he was a fight-starter; and in any case, seeking an unfair murder conviction to make one and one’s friends feel better is so obviously immoral as not to need stating when one knows of exculpatory evidence.

    1. Excellent points — it’s surprising she didn’t face any legal consequences for lying. Maybe Genzler was tired of drama and court dates and wanted to move on.

      1. Thanks, RR, for such an interesting website.
        You may well be right about Genzler being jaded — but the state could have sought her prosecution, I suspect, regardless of his position. The web indicates that it got messy later for one of the lawyers, who was disbarred for a time due to alleged mishandling of exculpatory evidence, and over which Genzler was paid a settlement. It adds to the sense that he was unfairly treated.

        A sad postscript is that around a decade later, his mother, in her 60s, was killed in a fatal car accident.

        1. So glad you’re enjoying the site — thanks much for the kind words!

          And so true about the Harless matter. A lot of sadness for a lot of people. It amazes me that a guy with a fiancée, a job, exciting hobbies, and a ton of friends still craved the high of picking a fight in the street.

  4. Incredibly accurate and rational comments here.

    Terrie, unfortunately the likelihood is that Dusty would’ve grown up to be much worse, people don’t really change too much.

    We are lucky that Dusty did not start using weapons himself. And in time no doubt he would have. Genzler very likely saved someone else’s life, in the future.

    Prosecutor, Judge, girlfriend should be given stiff penalties, judge made some crazy comments as well if I recall.

    They essentially handed Genzler a death penalty with life in prison, people doubting him, why shouldn’t they receive the same instead of him; now that it is quite obvious that this man is victimized?

    I suppose any one asking a woman out should expect to be killed or he better do some serious research as to whether she may have a boyfriend. I can understand her being so upset, how dare Genzler find her somewhat attractive?

    The bouncer should be given a prison term. How does he run over there and just start kicking someone, and helping the guy who’s already winning and is already a professional wrestler; that’s incredible to me.
    What kind of guy could he possibly be?

    Basically everything good was punished and everything bad was praised in this case.

  5. Wow! Some very judgemental comments. You get a “for tv” view if the situation and you all think you know Dusty and feel sorry for the cry baby Genzler. The defense stacked the witnesses with Dusty haters who were jealous of his success and you all say he deserved to die. That is disgusting! If someone shoves a 4″ knife in your heart, they intended to kill. Stop being so naive.

    1. Posters are NOT (almost all) suggesting he deserved to die: of course he didn’t. They’re merely suggesting, as the second trial found, that this was an unfortunate — deadly — combination of poor judgement and action, perhaps fueled by alcohol, and certainly affected by wrestling ability — on Harless’s part, and the other party (Genzler) happening to have a knife (but with no aggressive history — unlike Harless). The jury accepted that it was reasonable, being in a choke-hold, that a person would use any weapon to hand to cease this (a nearby rock could have been fatal if smashed into the head); that it happened to be a knife; and that the necessarily indiscriminate striking with the knife per choke-hold happened to be fatal, though wasn’t intended to be (though the fact remains that if Genzler thought his life was in danger by asphyxiation, and disabling/killing Harless were the only means of preventing it, it would have been justified.)

      As you can have no evidence for jury bias, just your opinion, that is dismissed. And in the first trial it was Genzler who came out worse per the jury. You appear to suggest that if a jury doesn’t agree with you, they were biased! Your last sentence’s claim is unquestionably incorrect: THAT is bias.

      This was certainly a sad case in which both parties suffered – one mortally. But Harless caused the chain of events. Perhaps the girlfriend could have intervened to get Harless off Genzler, instead of witnessing, then lying (because SHE thought Harless looked bad!); or the fool who laid-in then drove off.

  6. Some very intense opinions without knowing the laws and the case still being very opinionated.

    For those claiming the bouncer should have been charged as well for his supposed actions of kicking Genzler while he was already pinned, those are accusations for 1 and no proof was provided. It would need to be tried in another case, of which I am sure statute of limitations are over this situation.

    2. For those stating Sky should be tried for perjury… once again statute of limitations. Once guilt was admitted or found, was the crime still chargable?

    3. The judge being charged for his sentencing with the ruling determined is not on him. It’s on what he/she is provided. Found guilty of murder has a base of sentencing. He/she doesn’t go “oh guilty, dice says 9 years for you and only 6 months for the next person convicted of same crime.” This is ludicrous to assert the judge be charged for the sentence they issued.

    4. People assuming Harless just started swinging… what if he approached with intent of telling the guy to smarten up and Genzler got aggressive, which riled up Harless.

    5. The person saying women are always innocent in an alcohol induced fight… work in a bar for a month and tell me that again.

    Before people cast stones, they should attempt to look at things from the other side. I do not believe Harless is innocent in this at all and in the end the proper judgement was reached. But the people in this discussion are looking at this from only one side. Another side is that Forensic Files has exaggerated some parts of the stories to help sell their story. This is a television show that makes money by having more viewers. It wouldn’t be the first program to add some intrigue and drama.

    1. For those claiming the bouncer should have been charged as well for his supposed actions of kicking Genzler while he was already pinned, those are accusations for 1 and no proof was provided. It would need to be tried in another case, of which I am sure statute of limitations are over this situation.

      * Sure, but the gfriend DID witness: what does she say happened? Agree little mileage in the bouncer issue.

      2. For those stating Sky should be tried for perjury… once again statute of limitations. Once guilt was admitted or found, was the crime still chargeable?

      * I and others meant possibly could have, not should have. Indeed, it seems only to have been much later that she ‘fessed-up that she’d lied initially.

      3. The judge being charged for his sentencing with the ruling determined is not on him. It’s on what he/she is provided. Found guilty of murder has a base of sentencing. He/she doesn’t go “oh guilty, dice says 9 years for you and only 6 months for the next person convicted of same crime.” This is ludicrous to assert the judge be charged for the sentence they issued.

      * Has anyone suggested that the judge’s judgment was procedurally wrong?

      4. People assuming Harless just started swinging… what if he approached with intent of telling the guy to smarten up and Genzler got aggressive, which riled up Harless.

      * Well, that doesn’t appear to have been the view of jurors, and we can’t second-guess their perceptions as we weren’t in court and don’t know what they were presented with for sure. We have no reason NOT to accept FF’s presentation, based on research, which is that Harless initiated physical contact. If it were Genzler — agreed: that puts a different complexion on matters. We can’t claim to judge the facts, only what’s presented to us by FF (and in RR’s and my case, some background reading, including court papers) and what the jury found (that H was the aggressor).

      5. The person saying women are always innocent in an alcohol induced fight… work in a bar for a month and tell me that again.

      * Agreed! Women are increasingly inclined to violence when inebriated — but that’s possibly because they’re increasingly likely to be as inebriated as men, as taboo against ‘unladylike’ behaviour recedes. Here in UK increase in arrest for drunken/violent behaviour is rising faster for women than men, and I suspect is in US.

      Before people cast stones, they should attempt to look at things from the other side. I do not believe Harless is innocent in this at all and in the end the proper judgment was reached. But the people in this discussion are looking at this from only one side. Another side is that Forensic Files has exaggerated some parts of the stories to help sell their story. This is a television show that makes money by having more viewers. It wouldn’t be the first program to add some intrigue and drama.

      * I think you overstate this. Fundamentally FF presents the evidence before, and to some degree the reasoning of a reasonable convicting jury, and is NOT there to re-hear the case. It takes it as given that X is guilty as charged. And why not? Of course with 30 mins much has to be precluded, including potentially exculpatory evidence (that necessarily made no difference to the outcome). We know it’s entertainment — but that doesn’t compromise its account as it’s not claiming to present every nuance. That’s enough for me…

  7. Just one quibble….the “Forensic Files” episode mentioned that Genzler actually turned himself in when he learned he had killed someone….though I haven’t had enough coffee yet, so maybe I just missed it above.

    1. You’re right — I changed the verbiage to reflect that he turned himself in after the police tracked the license plate to his mother. Thanks for the correction!

  8. I just watched this episode and I’m so excited to see that others share my viewpoints. I do feel that Genzler was railroaded. One look at the lanky, nerdy dude and I was like…there’s NO WAY he started a fight. Guys don’t pick fights unless they think they can win. I hope he did become a lawyer.

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