Dusty Harless: Wrestling with the Facts

Epilogues for the Cast
(“Pinned by the Evidence,” Forensic Files)

After doing some elementary research on California self-defense laws, I’m starting to understand how two juries found David Genzler guilty of charges related to his struggle with Dusty Harless.

Dusty Harless was only 5-foot-8 but an incredible athlete

Last week’s post told the story of how Genzler ended up in jail for his actions during a 1996 street fight in San Diego that was doubtlessly initiated by Harless.

Two on one. Offended that Genzler offered his girlfriend, Sky Flanders, a ride and called her “baby” — or some other slightly inappropriate term — the former college wrestling champion straightened out the non-issue by pinning him to the ground.

Scott Davis, a Harless associate, joined the fray by kicking Genzler, who pulled a knife from his pocket and stabbed Harless.

During the first trial, blood evidence seemed to support the theory that Harless and Genzler, both 25 years old, were face to face when the knife wound happened, although the defense maintained Harless had Genzler pinned face to the ground.

The law gives the right to defend yourself when you reasonably believe you’re in “imminent danger of being killed, hurt, or molested, believe immediate force is necessary, and use no more force than necessary.”

Sharp outcome. I tend to think anyone violent enough to pin a stranger to the ground over a minor provocation is also dangerous enough to kill someone whether intentionally or not.

But that’s me. (I’m also the person who still stands far from the edges of subway platforms because I once read about a mentally ill man who pushed a woman onto the tracks in 1985.)

California state law — and unwritten guy code — probably assumes no one is likely to die from a weaponless street fight, hence pulling out a knife during such a struggle constitutes more force than necessary.

Face to face, it’s more likely Genzler intended to inflict a deadly wound, which explains the second-degree murder conviction at the first trial.

Cathy Harless after her son’s death

Newer laws. The jury at the second trial believed Genzler’s contention that Harless had him pinned face to the ground, meaning Genzler reached backward with his knife without necessarily intending to hit a major artery, hence the manslaughter conviction.

Either way, Genzler might have fared better under the Stand Your Ground laws that states started passing in 2005. They specify that as long as the victim didn’t make the first strike, he doesn’t necessarily have to retreat or run away when he feels threatened.

A defense lawyer today could make a case that brandishing a knife is simply standing your ground.

Fortunately, manslaughter verdict notwithstanding, the second judge sentenced Genzler to time served and set him free.

Legal recourse. Still, Genzler, a finance student who had no criminal history prior to the Harless tragedy, had to spend at least three years in prison, presumably with hardened criminals.

Genzler did get some satisfaction in the matter when he sued Deputy District Attorney Peter Longanbach for prosecutorial misconduct related to false testimony from Sky Flanders. (It’s not clear whether it applied to both trials or just the first one.)

According to the suit, the night of the Harless stabbing, Flanders told police that Harless “flip[ped] Genzler to the ground, and Genzler stabbed Harless while Harless held Genzler on the ground.” She also admitted to police that Harless had engaged in other street fights.

After meeting with Longanbach and his investigator, Jeffrey O’Brien, however, Flanders changed her story. She said she “remembered little of the actual fight.” She also failed to repeat her earlier statement that Harless had a history of fighting both on and off the wrestling mat.

Alternate facts. She also stated that she thought Davis had pulled Genzler off Harless after the stabbing — when, in fact, Genzler was still beneath Harless.

The amount of the settlement, reached in 2006, wasn’t disclosed.

A bit more consolation for Genzler: Longanbach’s law license was suspended for two years.

The Forensic Files episode mentioned Genzler himself was considering a career as a lawyer. I did a little poking around to find out whether that happened or to at least discover some kind of epilogue for him.

There wasn’t any confirmation on whether or not he went to law school, but he did complete his finance degree by 2006.

No information came up about him for the last decade or so. I didn’t look very hard because he probably prefers to not be found.

Sky Flanders during her appearance on Forensic Files

Sky Flanders appears to be alive and well. She was never prosecuted for perjury relating to the legal actions against Genzler.

Flanders has stated that she prefers not to talk about the tragedy.

Car accident. After the trial, Dusty’s mother, Cathy Harless, who appeared in “Pinned by the Evidence,” moved to Butte, Montana, and then to San Diego.

She worked as a caretaker for ranch owners’ properties and also had two dogs and two horses of her own.

Her relationship with Sky Flanders ultimately turned sour. A 2006 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune contained the following quote from Cathy Harless:

“I consider [Flanders] really part of the problem, and I think she should be so ashamed for ruining Pete Longanbach’s life and career,” she said. “It turned from a trial about murder into a trial about lawyer misconduct.”

Sadly, Cathy Harless died at age 63 when a drunk driver hit her pickup truck in Alpine, California, in 2010. Two daughters survived her.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR

23 thoughts on “Dusty Harless: Wrestling with the Facts”

  1. Gosh, with a name like Sky Flanders, you’d think she’d choose her friends more carefully. She seems ‘poorly grounded.’ Great article, once again proving that in a complex court case, on an unclear day you can see forever.

  2. I too was intrigued by this case. I hope Genzler is doing ok these days. Terrible to go to jail for defending yourself.

  3. Love your posts! So well researched, thought out and written. Please never stop. I’m obsessed! Cheers from Australia.

  4. Being obsessed with Forensic Files & reviewing past episodes to see if any were missed; I always feel like I want “more” after the episode ends. Thank you so much for the updates!!! BTW, as a former wrestler & coach, I believe Genzler’s version of events.

    1. Glad to hear that you as a former wrestler believe Genzler. I don’t know much about the sport, but I find it hard to imagine that Genzler had the upper hand in a struggle like that or that he would initiate a fight.

      1. I imagine that a crucial question was what was in Genzler’s mind in the choke-hold: did he think he could be killed? If so, any action to cease the hold would be deemed reasonable. If I thought I was being suffocated and there was no relaxation of the hold such that I reasonably thought I’d lose consciousness/die, I’d lash out with anything available — the potential damage that may do is understandably secondary to self-preservation. I presume that this is what the second jury thought…

  5. Why was Genzler carrying a knife in his pocket? Why was he trying to pick her up? Could it be he would have used his knife on her if she got into his car and rejected him after some sexual advances? For someone who supposedly never harmed anyone, he is pretty good at stabbing someone and doing a lot of damage. Suspicious of him of probably having experience in stabbing people.

    1. Interesting theory. I guess the fact that he had a clean record before the incident and hasn’t committed any crimes since makes me give him the benefit of the doubt.

    2. Carrying a knife is not illegal and indicates no intent. It’s irrelevant why he was trying to pick her up: that’s not illegal either! You engage in pointless speculation improper in court for good reason — pointless. There was no evidence of a violent background — frankly a foolish thing to state.

    3. According to the TV show Forensic Files, Genzler was only offering Flanders a ride because it was raining really hard and she was standing by herself on the sidewalk, he offered her a ride out of pure courtesy.

      1. There seems to have been a contested claim Genzler made a lewd remark. So what? That wouldn’t entitle Harless to intervene physically, though perhaps verbally. The issue is who initiated physical contact, and whether the response to that was reasonable in the circumstances.

    4. Genzler seems creepy to me…knife in pocket…. driving around asking a woman if she needs a ride at 2am. When Harless approaches the car he doesn’t drive away. Did he put the car in park in the middle of the road so it wouldn’t roll & then went out of the car?

  6. Shocked that there was no mention of Genzler’s black belt in Tae Kwon Do or his history of fights at Madison High School or any mention of all the crazy sh*t David was known for in Clairemont in the late 80’s! I guarantee Genzler had way more fights than Harless. Also shocked how clean cut and “nerdy” his defense team had him looking. I guess that’s smart on their part though.

    1. That would have been relevant evidence — certainly if there’d been any knife use. Nonetheless, there’s no evidence that Genzler STARTED the violence that night, and the one witness that eventually appears to have been truthful — the girlfriend — never suggested that Genzler was aggressive, rather Harless. She herself thought it looked bad for Harless, which is why she initially lied.

  7. Here’s a point to ponder….if Dusty Harless were black, Genzler would probably still be rotting in jail, methinks. Irrelevant, but there it is.

    1. I don’t think I would have either. It seems he may have gotten by with assaults before simply because he was a popular sports personality….His attitude just finally caught up with him…

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