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