Strange twists to Berry Creek arson and burglary cases

Although investigators are certain that they have in custody those responsible for a string of property crimes committed in the Berry Creek area over the past few months, it is far less certain that those involved will spend time in jail.

In a strange twist to an already strange case, a Butte County Superior Court judge recently ruled that a hearing be held to determine whether three adults charged with helping to burn down the Berry Creek Post Office are mentally competent to stand trial.

On April 3, Butte County sheriff’s deputies arrested sisters Bernice and Danette Leonard, 25 and 21 respectively, of Berry Creek; Jimmy Vieira, 18, of Cherokee; and an unnamed 13-year-old, also from Cherokee, on suspicion of setting fire to the post office earlier that morning. According to the Sheriff’s Department, subsequent searches of the suspects’ homes turned up evidence linking all four to earlier crimes committed in Berry Creek, including a burglary at the Berry Creek School and an attempted arson at the Berry Creek Grange. The fire at the post office caused more than $110,000 in damage and forced Berry Creek residents to drive more than 20 miles for postal services.

The suspects are each being held in lieu of $135,000 bail until they can be tried on several counts of arson, burglary, theft and vandalism. They also face similar federal charges that can carry huge potential fines and up to 40 years in prison.

All four of the suspects confessed to the crimes, reports an attorney for one of the defendants. But the adults in the case—Vieira and the two Leonard sisters—all have long histories of mental problems, leading some to suspect that the 13-year-old, who is being held in Juvenile Hall, was the ringleader and instigator of the crimes.

This puts prosecutors in the unenviable position of attempting to show that the three adults, whom defense attorneys are sure to characterize as so feeble-minded that they took instruction from a 13-year-old, are competent to stand trial.

Vieira’s attorney, Jodea Foster, said his client, who was living with the 13-year-old when the crimes were being carried out, has “a low-functioning IQ.” Reading from a competency report prepared by the Far Northern Regional Center in Redding, Foster said his client is “mildly mentally retarded, substantially handicapped and developmentally disabled.”

Foster also said that statements given to police at the time of the suspects’ arrest led him to believe that the 13-year-old, who apparently stole his grandmother’s car in order to shuttle the other defendants to and from the crime scenes, was the most mentally astute of all four suspects.

The Leonard sisters have proven mental difficulties, each having an IQ below 70. They both attend special-education classes in Oroville, as does Vieira. All have been declared incompetent to stand trial by the Far Northern Regional Center, the agency designated by Butte County to determine so-called “1368” cases. (The number refers to the section of the California penal code that lays down rules for determining whether defendants are able to understand criminal proceedings against them.)

The case prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Marc Noel, questioned the validity of the report, saying that the center has worked with each of the adult defendants in the past, putting the center in what might be seen as an advocacy position.

“There’s some inconsistency between what I believe to be the facts and what the report says,” Noel said. “I don’t believe that [Far Northern] would do anything intentionally, but my concern is whether someone who has been an advocate of their clients in the past can put that aside and do an unbiased report. When you get to know someone and get involved with their life, that’s a tough thing to do.”

Noel said he worried the report might carry “the appearance of impropriety.” He also said that his personal hunch was that defense attorneys were using the report to try to shift the blame from their clients.

“Everyone seems to be pointing their fingers at the 13-year-old,” he said. “Personally, I find it hard to believe that someone who is able to drive a vehicle, who is able to shop for themselves, and who is able to commit these crimes, is unable to understand the charges against them.”

The report is being examined by an expert in the District Attorney’s Office and may not have been evaluated by the time of Thursday’s hearing, Noel said. If that is the case, he plans to ask for a continuance, or he may ask that a new report be prepared by a more impartial agency.

If the suspects are found incompetent, it doesn’t mean they won’t face a trial. State law allows for them to be institutionalized until they are declared mentally able to participate in their own defense. Not only is there no way of knowing when or whether they could be declared competent, but they typically are not declared as such at the same time. This could force the D.A.'s Office into prosecuting the trial three separate times.

"If they were to be declared incompetent, they would be individually tested, monitored and instructed, and they’d be on individual schedules." Noel said. "We’d much rather do this case as one big thing [as opposed to] the witnesses being called down to testify three different times."