Feds take over Berry Creek arson case

The United States Attorney’s Office last week took custody of three Berry Creek adults who will be tried on federal arson charges.

If convicted, sisters Bernice and Danette Leonard and friend James Vieira could face upward of 20 years in prison. That’s more than double what they could have been sentenced to, had they been tried in Butte County Superior Court.

The three, along with a 13-year-old friend, are suspected of a rash of vandalism and burglaries in Berry Creek last year. The federal arson charge stems from accusations that the trio broke into the Berry Creek Post Office, stole food stamps and then burned the place down.

Originally, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office charged them with arson and was heading to trial with the case, but it dropped the charges after two court-appointed doctors examined the three defendants and found that they were mentally incompetent to stand trial.

But because the three are charged with arson of a federal building, said Deputy D.A. Marc Noel, the federal government stepped in and will prosecute the case instead. The accused still face state vandalism, burglary and theft charges, Noel pointed out.

“[The U.S. Attorney’s Office] actually has been involved with this case since the beginning,” Noel said. “We had to beg them to hold off [on filing charges] so we could get a chance at it.”

The three are now awaiting arraignment in the federal wing of the Sacramento County Jail.