Main Page - Return to previous page
Main > Resources > Archive > Night of Carnage in Canaan: Looking at the Death of a Family

Title: Night of Carnage in Canaan: Looking at the Death of a Family

Source: Times Union, December 28th, 1986

NOTICE: The following material is copyrighted as indicated in the body of text.  It has been posted to this web page for archival purposes, and in doing so, no claim of authorship is expressed or implied, nor is a profit being made from the use of the material.

(NY) Times Union


Jon Rabiroff Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, December 28, 1986

"The perfect kid." "Class brain." "The stereotype of the perfect student."

That's how classmates described 17-year-old Chatham High School senior Wyley Gates, a quiet collegebound student whose most striking attribute was his habit of wearing a tie to school. Second in his class, he was a member of the National Honor Society, vice president of the student senate, a trumpet player in the school's marching band and a computer whiz.

"He had everything going for him," classmate Paul Martino said.

All that changed on a chilly Saturday night two weeks ago, when four people were found murdered in their home on a quiet lane in this rural community 25 miles southeast of Albany.

Wyley Gates is spending this Christmas vacation from school in jail, charged with what authorities have called the most brutal crime in Columbia County history - the shooting deaths of his father, brother, 3-year-old cousin and his father's live-in girlfriend.

Classmates and neighbors have been stunned not only by the charge, but also by what authorities allege was the motive - the thrill of playing a computer fantasy game in which players assume roles, plan "assassinations" and use weapons to fight their way toward hidden treasures.

The crime, authorities say, may have been conceived as much as six weeks in advance, carefully planned on a personal computer stolen from Chatham High School and executed with a gun stolen earlier in the month from Gates' house.

"It's bizarre," said Columbia County Sheriff's Department Investigator Walter Shook. "It doesn't make sense. ... Something like this never makes sense."

The killings came to the attention of authorities just before 11 p.m. on Dec. 13, when Vivian Gates made a startling call to Columbia County Sheriff's Department Deputy James Sweet. She reported her grandson, Wyley, had discovered four members of his family murdered in his nearby Maple Drive home.

Vivian Gates later recalled that Wyley had arrived unexpectedly at her door that night.

"He said, 'Sit down,'" she told a reporter from the New York Times.

"I said, 'No, I'm not going to sit down. Tell me what happened.'"

"'They're all dead. They were shot,'" was her grandson's response.

After calling Vivian Gates back to verify the report, Sweet and Deputy Richard Ostrander dispatched a variety of law enforcement officials to the scene, warning that a killer might be on the loose in the area.

Arriving at the well-kept log cabin, they found a scene that shocked even the veterans of violent- crime investigations.

Scattered through the house were the bodies of Wyley Gates' 39-year-old father, Robert Gates Sr.; 19-year-old brother, Robert Gates Jr.; 3-year- old cousin, Jason Gates; and 36-year-old Cheryl Brahm, his father's live-in girlfriend of 10 years.

The murderer had fired a total of 15 to 20 shots and "each of them was shot several times," Coroner Angelo Nero said.

An autopsy would later reveal all four of the victims had bled to death.

"It affected me more than anything else I've ever seen," Columbia County Sheriff Paul Proper said. "I've seen people's throats slit and kids (that have been killed), but it just got to me emotionally. The little one looked so much like my grandsons.

"It got to everybody who was up there," he said.

Investigators questioned Wyley Gates, who initially told them he last saw the family alive when he left at 6:30 p.m. Saturday to go to the Crandell Theater in Chatham with 16-year-old Damian Rossney of Colane Road. The two saw Clint Eastwood's new film "Heartbreak Ridge," he said.

When he returned home, the 17-year-old said, he discovered the bodies and ran a quarter-mile down the road to tell his grandmother what happened.

Initial examination of the bodies and the crime scene, however, did not support elements of the youth's story, law enforcement sources say.

Investigators determined the four victims were killed at, or before, the time Wyley Gates said he left the house, sources said. "For a guy that smart, he made a lot of mistakes," one source alleged.

"The last thing in the world I thought was that he did it," Vivian Gates said. "But, the police kept questioning him and questioning him and it dawned on me - 'They think he did it.'"

Under intense questioning by investigators from the sheriff's department and State Police, Wyley Gates eventually made a statement about his actions the night of the slayings. He later was charged with four counts of second-degree murder.

Rossney was charged with first-degree hindering prosecution for allegedly serving as Wyley Gates' "alibi witness" and hiding the suspected murder weapon after the slayings, authorities said. Rossney is free on $50,000 bail, and the pistol has been recovered.

From statements made by the suspect and evidence at the Gates house, authorities say they have retraced Wyley Gates' steps in the two to three minutes during which they allege he murdered his family.

What follows is what police allege occurred that night:

Gates "got the drop" on his father and Brahm in a basement living room, and shot both repeatedly with a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol, authorities allege.

Robert Gates Sr. was found lying on the floor with an outstretched hand beside a telephone, the receiver of which had been pulled from its cradle. Authorities believe the suspect's father may have tried to telephone for help just before being shot, or as he died after being hit.

From there, Wyley allegedly went upstairs to a garage-turned-recreation room, where his 19- year-old brother, Robert Gates Jr., was practicing on his drum set.

Robert Gates Jr. was found lying behind the drums, clutching a drumstick in one hand. Investigators believe either the sounds of the drums or the music he was playing along with at the time, muffled the sounds of the shots fired in the basement.

A radio was still on when investigators arrived.

After returning to the main section of the house, authorities allege, Wyley Gates spotted the bleeding Brahm attempting to crawl up the stairs from the basement. Her body was found slumped at the base of the stairs.

Three-year-old Jason Gates was able to hear what was going on from a room adjacent to the basement living room, and was crying when Wyley Gates found him sitting on the floor in front of a television set, authorities allege.

Several more shots were fired and the young boy was dead. The television was still on when investigators arrived.

Authorities believe the suspect may have had to reload the weapon twice during the course of the shootings.

Confronted with such carnage, authorities looked for a motive and were surprised by what they say they found - evidence of a computer game based on a nationally distributed game known as Dungeons and Dragons.

The "code name" for the game, authorities said, was "Infierno" - the Spanish word for hell.

"The real payoff was just playing the game ... the thrill of it," a law enforcement source said of the killings. "(Gates) was into thrills and taking risks."

Authorities suspect a number of youths were involved in the initial stages of the "Infierno" game, but are investigating whether they knew the plan would actually lead to murder. Friends of the suspect told investigators about the macabre game and alleged that Wyley Gates talked to others about his plans prior to the slayings, sources said.

Authorities said the plan initially called for the Gates residence to be "burned down or blown up," but the idea was eventually scrapped for some unknown reason.

Sheriff's Department Investigator Walter Shook said authorities believe the rules of the game were the brainchild of the suspect.

Apparently as part of the game, psychological profiles of the participants were drawn up. Authorities said a computer printout has been recovered, on which profiles of both Wyley Gates and Rossney are written.

"It's sort of a small biography about each person and the way his mind works," a source said. "It just seemed to be a general explanation of the kind of person each one was. It's sort of off the wall."

The two were "into" taking risks, and were given to aggressive behavior, according to the printout, a source said.

In Dungeons and Dragons, each player assumes the identity of the character he creates - including elements of strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity and charisma.

The game has drawn the ire of a number of organizations nationwide, which have blamed it for an assortment of teenage murders and suicides. Critics complain that impressionable youngsters sometimes cross the line from fantasy into reality while playing out their roles.

According to the rules of the game, "If (an) assassination is being attempted by or on behalf of a player-character, a complete plan of how the deed is to be done should be prepared by the player involved, and the precautions, if any, of the target character should be compared against the plan."

Investigators have been told that a blueprint for Wyley Gates' alleged game of murder may be found on a computer. "It was a consensus of the kids from school that if plans were made, they were made on computers," a source said.

Howard Hatch, the suspect's uncle, said Wyley Gates' "biggest interest was in the computer he had at the house. ... He spent a great deal of time with the computer."

Among his favorite pastimes, Hatch said, was playing Dungeons and Dragons.

An estimated 300 computer floppy disks have been seized from the homes of Wyley Gates, Rossney and a third youth, and volunteers are in the process of reviewing them in the hope of turning up the plan to kill the Gates family.

Law enforcement officials believe the theft of three personal computers from Chatham High School and a Dec. 4 burglary of the Gates residence were elements of the game plan. Stolen in the burglary were a variety of rifles and handguns, including the murder weapon.

The stolen computers were recovered at the homes of Gates, Rossney and a third youth.

While authorities are citing the "thrill" of the game as the primary motive for the four murders, other factors involved allegedly include a "six- figure inheritance" the suspect stood to gain from the death of his father, and Wyley Gates' professed hatred for both his father and brother, sources said.

Brahm and Jason Gates "were not primary targets," according to one source. "They just happened to be there."

Authorities are at a loss when asked to explain what was at the root of the suspect's hatred for his father and brother.

Robert Gates Sr. ran his own trucking business in East Chatham, where Robert Gates Jr. was a full-time employee. Wyley Gates worked at the family business on weekends and holidays, and was often called on to help with chores around the house, Hatch said.

Hatch, who has served as family spokesman since the massacre, said that although "Wyley was not overwhelmed with having to do physical labor ... he never seemed disgruntled" when called upon to do it.

Any differences the suspect and his father had were the sorts of disagreements "typical" to father-son relationships, Hatch said, and there was never any evidence of sibling rivalry.

While Robert Gates Sr. "wanted Wyley to go out more and do things outside his computer," Hatch said the father was proud of his son's scholarly accomplishments.

"Wyley was a gifted child," Hatch said. "His father purchased things to develop those gifts, and he would always attend things like school concerts."

"Something must have gotten mixed up in (Wyley's) head," Vivian Gates said.

District Attorney Eugene Keeler, Sheriff Proper, State Police Senior Investigator Robert Brenzel and Public Defender Paul Czajka, Wyley Gates' attorney, have all declined to discuss specifics of the case.

Keeler did say he expects to put the matter before a Columbia County grand jury some time in the next month. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 6 at 10 a.m. in Canaan Town Court.

Despite what Wyley Gates is alleged to have done, the members of his family have vowed to stick by him.

"You just don't desert family. ... You just don't," said William Gates of Massena, another of Wyley's uncles. "It's not like he was hated. He was loved."

Hatch added, "We don't want anything bad to happen to Wyley. It would be like the loss of another member of the family."
Main Page - Return to previous page