In a significant development, a Kern County, California jury has found 23-year-old Daniel Gunnarsson guilty of first-degree murder and mutilation of a corpse. The victim, Katie Pham, was remembered by hundreds at a vigil last year, where her father, Tom Pham, expressed his hope for justice to be served.
Gunnarsson’s conviction comes after a series of events that painted a picture of a tumultuous relationship between him and Pham. Friends of the victim reported that Gunnarsson had shown aggressive behavior towards Pham during their brief relationship. One instance involved Gunnarsson driving recklessly and at high speeds after picking Pham up from Las Vegas, reportedly upset that she was on her phone and not paying attention to him.
The relationship took a darker turn when Gunnarsson began to insult Pham over the phone, particularly when she refused to visit his home. Pham’s lack of reciprocation to Gunnarsson’s feelings seemed to have triggered a negative reaction in him.
According to prosecutors, Gunnarsson had been dating Pham for a month before the murder. On the night before the crime, he reportedly displayed hostility towards Pham and exhibited what his friends interpreted as suicidal behavior. The next morning, he visited his stepfather’s residence in Ridgecrest and discussed his failing relationship with Pham.
In May 2021, Gunnarsson called Pham to apologize and asked to pick her up. He then took her to his stepfather’s residence in Kern County. There, he led her to the RV garage where the crime took place. Painters working at the residence reported hearing a woman scream, followed by the sound of items being shuffled.
Investigations revealed that Gunnarsson had worn gloves and used a 24-inch ice ax to strike Pham 10 times in the head, neck, and face. He then proceeded to touch her remains inappropriately and partially undress her. The painters discovered Gunnarsson covered in blood when they opened the garage to resume their work.
Gunnarsson’s behavior during his interaction with detectives was described as odd, but he claimed he was “putting on an act.” His defense attorney, Lexi Blythe, argued that her client was innocent, stating that there was no evidence of his DNA on the ax handle or other items from the crime scene. She suggested that Gunnarsson might have entered the garage after hearing screams and discovered Pham’s body. Blythe also argued that even if Gunnarsson did kill Pham, it did not constitute first-degree murder.
However, the prosecution dismissed these claims as “absurd.” Prosecutor Samantha Allen argued that Gunnarsson had willful, premeditated intent to kill Pham, and there was no evidence to suggest that Pham had provoked him. Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer described the crime as “despicable” and called for a life sentence to ensure justice and public safety.