Subscribe

A heartbreaking tale of madness and death on a quiet Santa Rosa street

How To Get Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780 for more information.

On a cool, clear evening in March, a woman flagged down a Santa Rosa police officer near the main station.

She had been working in the nearby garden at her brother’s house and wanted the officer to look at something.

“I think I found a skull in my bushes,” she said.

When investigators arrived, they found the skull had scrape marks on it and a sort of wire handle as if someone had carried it around.

An evidentiary file photo of the skull of Robert Enger. Police say the wire attached to the skull was used to carry it by the man who took it from Enger's body. The spike was part of the makeshift guillotine Enger used to kill himself.
An evidentiary file photo of the skull of Robert Enger. Police say the wire attached to the skull was used to carry it by the man who took it from Enger's body. The spike was part of the makeshift guillotine Enger used to kill himself.

It also had two holes in it, consistent with a bullet wound.

The discovery would lead to one of the most macabre investigations Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County prosecutors can remember.

It would lead police through the underground world of drug users, squatters and mental illness so fraught with demons that it apparently led a man to build his own guillotine-like device and use it to end his life.

And though the case would eventually lead to grave-robbing charges against another man apparently dealing with his own demons, it would leave more questions than answers.

House on Hendley Street

Robert Enger bought the 1906 cream-and-white bungalow at 318 Hendley St. in the Luther Burbank neighborhood in 1999, property records show. It has two bedrooms and a single bath and a white fence in front.

Before moving to Santa Rosa, he’d lived in California for at least four decades — public records list addresses in San Luis Obispo, Solvang, Santa Maria, Los Osos, San Anselmo and San Rafael.

At one point, he’d owned his own contracting business near Santa Barbara.

Luther Burbank neighbors say early on, he was friendly and would pay their teenagers to do odd jobs like wash his car and help with yardwork.

Janet Churchill, who lives a few doors down, said Enger helped her build a small extension to her home, and other neighbors marveled at his skills as a craftsman.

“He was an excellent carpenter and contractor,” said neighbor Toni Kaylor.

“An unbelievable craftsman,” added her husband, Dave Kaylor.

But there was another side to Robert Enger.

He told neighbors he’d struggled with mental health issues since he was a youth. He said a high-ranking Marine had kidnapped him and sexually abused him as a child.

At one point, Enger posted a handwritten sign describing that experience in his living room window, facing out so anyone on the front porch could read it.

Dave Kaylor, who may have known Enger better than any of the Hendley Street neighbors, said the man he knew as “Rob” feared the military was following him and might be poisoning his water when he was out of the house.

As Enger descended further into his delusions, his neighbors had less and less contact with him. He blocked out his windows and sometimes had groceries delivered by taxi.

The last time anyone saw him alive was July 2, 2019, when he showed up at the Kaylor home confused and bleeding from a head wound. They weren’t sure what happened, but they thought he may have fallen from his roof.

Enger, who was about 62 at the time, was treated and released from a local hospital.

Police concluded his injuries were likely the result of an accident.

Now, they’re sure they weren’t.

‘He starts living there’

On New Year’s Eve 2020, Robert Melvin Ross III, 25, invited some people he’d just met over to the house where he’d been squatting for several months.

The redheaded, small-time ex-con had some methamphetamine and was willing to share it, detectives and prosecutors say.

Months earlier, Ross had heard from other homeless residents in the area that a house on Hendley Street might be vacant.

Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Matthew Hubley said Ross made sure no one was using the house by posting a note on the front door asking the homeowner to contact him.

After the note sat undisturbed for a couple of weeks, “he starts living there,” Hubley said.

“There is a lot of methamphetamine use involved in this story,” he added.

Santa Rosa police were called to the house several times between late 2020 and March, mostly by neighbors reporting squatters.

The 115-year-old cottage was rundown and overgrown, and neighbors were concerned about the steady stream of homeless people.

“We caught people in there robbing it,” Toni Kaylor said. “The neighbors were concerned.”

Today, the house is boarded up and has shiny new locks on the doors. Some windows are covered from the inside with aluminum foil. A handwritten sign in one window warns trespassers to keep out.

Inside, the floor is littered with broken furniture and lamps, a discarded bottle of mayonnaise, a tipped-over gallon bottle of bleach and other trash.

On the wall in one room are taped several sheets of lined paper covered with a lengthy handwritten note that can’t be read from outside.

Regular visits

Police went inside the house at least once to investigate a squatting report in late December 2020, Santa Rosa police violent crimes detective Anthony Turner said.

“At that time, the house appeared to be secure,” he said. “There didn’t appear to be anybody inside.”

Dave Kaylor said he had been inside a number of times too, helping police check for trespassers.

He didn’t find any, but he could tell they’d been there.

“This fella had cleared a spot in the main living area. He had a futon-style couch and a good size stack of ramen noodles,” he said. “There were packages of meat that had spoiled.”

He also noticed a strange contraption built onto a rear wall, with a tall board and some wires. The base of it was piled high with trash, old clothes, rotten food and other debris. Kaylor thought the device was “part of a castle” Enger was building.

He didn’t know it then — and neither did police — but Enger’s remains lay at the bottom of the debris. To this day, no one really knows how long they’d been there.

“There was bleach bottles all around,” Kaylor said. “I guess we know why now.”

Police body-worn camera video from the time of Enger’s injury in 2019 showed the contraption in an apparently unfinished form, Turner said.

Investigators have called the device a homemade guillotine, though it doesn’t exactly fit the textbook definition.

An evidentiary photo of the base of the guillotine, which had a 10-inch spike protruding from the bottom.
An evidentiary photo of the base of the guillotine, which had a 10-inch spike protruding from the bottom.

Instead of a blade that slides down to behead the victim, it had a large metal spike.

“There’s a green board. … This was part of the board that was positioned vertically,” Turner said. “It was approximately 20 feet in length. Because of its length, a hole had been cut in the roof directly above it.”

The spike, he said, was 10 inches long, about 6 inches of it exposed. It had been sharpened at the end.

On the roof, detectives found a support post attached to the vertical board that protruded from the inside of the house. Two eyebolts screwed into the roof, still visible today, apparently held wires that connected to the post.

When police entered the home again on March 29, 2021, they found the device had been altered since their 2019 visit, apparently to improve its effectiveness.

“Attached around that board was a series of pieces of wood that ran up and down the main 20-foot piece, and (a) block had been added,” Turner said.

Picked through by scavengers

The hole in the roof exposed the back room of the house to the elements, allowing rain and debris to accumulate.

Trespassers, including a man later identified as “Red,” apparently went through Enger’s belongings and took items they could use or sell, Hubley said.

Enger had a piece of an antique train track mounted on the wall in his home, which Toni Kaylor suspects squatters stole.

On Jan. 2, police got a call from Enger’s son, Cody, who asked them to check on his father.

Records and court documents show Enger had three brothers, an ex-wife and a son. None of them could be reached for this story, and police say they had been long-estranged.

A nonsworn police employee conducted a “check the welfare” visit, but did not go in the house.

The following day, police responded to another squatter call. This time they went in. A person was found inside and was ordered to leave, Turner said.

“A search was done; a search of the whole house,” he said.

But they could not look under every pile of junk, least of all the pile of debris around the guillotine.

“If you imagine a hoarder’s house mixed with … it was just absolutely filthy and just filled with debris, trash, foods, piles of stuff,” Turner said. “There were buckets of urine and feces inside the house.”

While police didn’t see anything disturbing on their visits, one man who was invited to the meth party on New Year’s Eve 2020 did.

He told detectives months later that he had met Red earlier in the evening and accompanied him to the Hendley house to smoke methamphetamine.

“They entered via the back door of the residence, and he had observed the decomposed remains of what he believed was a human inside the house,” Turner said.

The man stayed in the house for several hours with Red.

At one point, he told detectives weeks later, Red went into the back room “and proceeded to remove the skull” from the remains “and was manipulating that skull in (the man’s) presence,” Turner said.

The man told detectives that Red pulled out a pocketknife and scraped flesh from the skull.

He then crafted a makeshift handle with wire.

“He then wraps it in his sweatshirt and they proceed to leave the house and go down to the 7-Eleven (convenience store) at Brookwood and Maple,” Turner said. “That’s when they separated.”

In early March, as the witness was being interviewed by police about an unrelated case, he told investigators what he’d seen on New Year’s Eve.

He described Red along with details of the house, including the guillotine.

Not long after that, the woman found the skull, just about half a mile away from the Hendley house.

“The lower jawbone was missing from the skull, and there were two holes in the top part of the skull, which was consistent with an entry and exit wound. Initially, it appeared that someone was shot through the skull,” Turner said.

On March 29, after receiving more information from another witness, police went back to the house on Hendley Street and found bones under mounds of debris in the shadow of the guillotine-like contraption.

Police then tracked down Ross, whose nickname is listed as Red in their database of prior interactions with him.

He was in Sonoma County Jail on a domestic violence assault charge.

Investigators wanted to find out what he knew — and whether they were dealing with a homicide, suicide, accident or something else.

“He gives us a description of the guillotine and how he’d found the body at the bottom of the contraption,” Turner said. “It was Ross who actually described the mechanism and how the body was impaled on this guillotine.”

Police went back to the house and “really examined the contraption as it was set up, really investigated how it could work,” Turner said. “We found it was actually an elaborate setup with guide ropes attached to the roof and the ridgeline. Everything about this contraption was consistent with what Ross said.”

Ross was charged with three criminal counts: unauthorized entry of a dwelling, unlawful handling of human remains, and removal or possession of a memento from human remains. Concerns about his mental health prompted a court-ordered psychological exam, which found Ross was competent.

On Nov. 3, he pleaded no contest to possession of a memento from human remains, a felony that carries a maximum three-year prison sentence, and Judge Peter Ottenweller found him guilty.

But in court last week, Ross told Ottenweller he wanted to withdraw his plea, saying he signed it “under duress, meaning the contract is null and void.”

Robert Melvin Ross III, charged with disturbing human remains. (Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office photo)
Robert Melvin Ross III, charged with disturbing human remains. (Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office photo)

Ross then launched into an elaborate tale about a car crash he and his father had been in, and how it “has to do with corrupt judges, the DA and other officials.” He said his father had reported the case to the White House in August and that former President Donald Trump had been advised.

Ottenweller rescheduled Ross’ sentencing for Dec. 20, when he will also hear the motion to withdraw the plea. Ross remains in jail in lieu of $30,000 bail.

Confirmation from autopsy

An autopsy identified the remains as Enger’s. It noted the scratch marks on the skull, which were consistent with the description of Ross using a knife to scrape it.

“We removed the bolt from the bottom of the contraption and compared that to the skull,” Turner said. “It was a perfect match.”

While the puzzle isn’t complete, police believe Enger’s initial injury in 2019 came from an unsuccessful attempt to use his guillotine, and that he modified it to make it more effective before trying again.

Then, “Robert Enger placed himself under that contraption, manipulated it, was killed, and then his body was manipulated later by Robert Ross and others,” Turner said.

That is the theory, at least.

According to the official coroner’s report, the manner of Robert Enger’s death is “undetermined.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter on Twitter @loriacarter.

How To Get Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780 for more information.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette