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After responding to a fire in Greenwood, California on September 13, 2005, officials felt lucky they were able to contain the damage in a forested area popular for vacation homes.
But officials observed that a small structure had burned to the ground. At that point, Wes Norman, captain with the Garden Valley Fire Protection District, said he “got the scent of a sweet smell” that he couldn’t identify.
Then, disturbingly, it clicked, he told “Family Massacre,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “It was burnt flesh.” He saw a skull and part of a chest cavity. The area was cordoned off as a crime scene and sheriffs were notified. A second set of bones was found.
A Dodge truck near the crime scene, along with a two-axle trailer, was registered to Buchanan Construction and Adam Buchanan, 38, who had a home in Benicia, California. An officer went to the Buchanan home where Nolen Buchanan, Adam’s 16-year-old son from his first marriage, was home alone. His father, his dad’s fiancé, Molly McAfee, 37, and their 8-year-old son, Gavin Buchanan, were at their cabin in El Dorado County. Nolen stayed behind, he said.
By September 15, the burned area had cooled and investigators collected evidence, including trash from a nearby fire pit. More remains were found that changed the direction of the case, according to Det. James Peterson, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. Officials found a piece of a skull with a bullet hole in it.
“At that point, all of us realized that this was in fact a homicide,” said Det. John Conley, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. “It was no longer an accidental fire.”
The remains were collected for forensic analysis. In the first set of remains, a bullet was lodged in the victim’s hip. The skull with a bullet hole was that of a child. The crime lab confirmed the victims were Adam Buchanan, Molly McAfee, and their son, Gavin.
Digging into the victims’ histories, investigators learned that Adam and Molly had their share of rocky patches. “There were times when I worried that they would kill each other,” said Susie Slankard, Molly’s mother.
But investigators found no weapon at the crime scene, which helped rule out the theory of a murder-suicide. “The absence of a firearm means that there was somebody else that had been in the cabin and killed three people,” investigators said. But who?
Detectives turned to Nolen for leads. Nolen said the family had driven up in the old Dodge truck with stones in the trailer for exterior work on the cabin. The teenager also said that a neighbor growing marijuana on his property had butted heads with his dad. Investigators chased down the potential lead, which was a dead end.
But they also discovered that the Buchanan construction business was facing tough financial times and that some employees were laid off. It’s not unheard of for ex-workers to retaliate, but this line of investigation didn’t advance the case.
Over the weekend following the murders, officials caught a break thanks to a cleanup effort by students less than a mile away from Buchanan Construction in Benicia. A purse containing Adam’s ID card and a rifle were recovered.
The proximity of the evidence to Buchanan Construction compelled officials to obtain a warrant to search the family business. “As we looked through the financial records, we were able to confirm that the business was in debt and failing,” said Det. Damon Brown, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators knew that the family left on Friday to go to the cabin. They reviewed surveillance footage from the business and saw that Adam hooked the trailer filled with stones to an F-150 truck, not the Dodge pickup as Nolen had told them. Red flags rose up.
“If that same white F-150 pulled the trailer to the cabin,” said Brown, “then someone drove it back and parked it in Nolen’s driveway.”
More were raised when Nolen met with relatives and declared that he was the head of Buchanan Construction. “He kept saying, ‘I am the sole owner,’” said Rachel Johnson, Molly’s sister. “That’s when I knew he had done something.”
Investigators re-interviewed Nolen, who claimed that during the weekend his family was away, he had gone out on a date with his girlfriend. He’d paid for it using his dad’s ATM card, which Nolen said his father had left for him.
A warrant was obtained to search the Buchanan home, vehicles, and financial records. They turned up evidence that Adam Buchanan had used his ATM card on Friday, September 11 at a Taco Bell. Surveillance video from the fast food chain showed the Buchanans in the drive-through in the F-150, not the Dodge as Nolan told them. A Taco Bell receipt dated September 11, just days before the fire, was found in the F-150. Investigators were struck by the fact that the slip included a purchase of four drinks.
“If Nolan was telling the truth and stayed behind and only three people went up to the cabin, seeing a receipt for four drinks was very unusual,” said Brown. Evidence from the fire pit at the crime scene confirmed there were four drink cups.
The next transaction was Saturday, September 12. It was for a $40 withdrawal at an ATM at a bar about 30 minutes from the Buchanan cabin. Security footage from the establishment confirmed that Adam and Molly were there and that he got the cash. Video footage from another business showed the F-150 driving toward the Buchanan cabin around 2:30 on the morning of the fire. Later footage showed the F-150 heading back toward Benicia at 3:30 a.m.
On the morning of September 13, Adam’s ATM card was used at three Benicia businesses — Starbucks, McDonald’s, and a gas station. Investigators confirmed that Adam had only one ATM card.
Nolen was interviewed again at his high school on September 23. They confronted him with what they knew and placed him under arrest. In November 2015, Nolen was charged with murdering Molly, Adam, and 8-year-old Gavin Buchanan.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing that the 16-year-old had planned the murders before his family left for the trip, reported the Mountain Democrat.
The defendant tried to pin the crime on his father, who, he claimed, shot his brother and McAfee before turning the gun on him. In a fight for the gun, Nolen Buchanan said he shot his dad in self-defense. Using the bullet hole in 8-year-old Gavin’s skull, the testimony was determined to be “forensically impossible.”
Nolen Buchanan was convicted of the murders on June 13, 2018. He was sentenced to 150 years, with a possibility of parole in 25 years.
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