Nevada County link to serial killing suspect among top court stories of year
It can take months or even years for criminal cases to wend their way through the court system.
In the three-defendant case involving the 2014 murder of a marijuana grow caretaker, for instance, one defendant has died and an appeal is still pending after a Nevada County judge dismissed charges against another.
One of the strangest cases of the year is taking place in Reno — but hinges in large part on DNA collected by Nevada County authorities in a 2007 kidnapping and attempted rape case. That DNA has now been linked to the 1979 murder of a woman whose body was found in the Nevada desert.
These are the Top 5 court stories of 2019:
1) Sabrina Distura sentenced in vehicular homicide
In February, Merced County Superior Court Judge John Kirihara sentenced 22-year-old Sabrina Distura to 10 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to two counts of gross vehicular homicide while intoxicated in connection with the deaths of two Nevada Union High School students.
Authorities arrested Distura after the March 25, 2018, wreck on Interstate 5 near Los Banos that killed Tyler Nielson, 17, and Justin Gardner, 16.
The students were traveling to the beach when Distura’s vehicle crossed the median and collided with a car driven by Nielson. Deputy District Attorney Travis Colby said evidence showed Distura set her cruise control and passed out behind the wheel.
Over 50 supporters of Gardner and Nielson attended the sentencing. One by one, several people who knew the two students spoke to the judge about boys regularly described as extraordinary.
“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to correct this, but I will always fail,” Distura told the judge. “Not a day goes by that I do not wish it had been me instead.”
2) Man sentenced to 11 years for manslaughter dies in custody
Daniel Devencenzi’s court case lingered after his death.
Devencenzi, 34, sought a reduced sentence under a new law for his manslaughter conviction in Nevada County Superior Court. Sentenced early this year for the 2014 shooting death of Isaac Zafft, Devencenzi was transferred Jan. 4 to a state facility to serve his 11-year sentence. Officials said he died April 25 at California Medical Facility in Vacaville. His wife, who visited him regularly, said he died of colon cancer.
Three men faced murder charges in connection with Zafft’s death — Finley Fultz, 29; Nathan Philbrook, 35; and Devencenzi. Philbrook and Devencenzi pleaded guilty to manslaughter in April 2018. Fultz, who pleaded not guilty, went to trial on a murder charge. A mistrial occurred in autumn 2018, and was followed in December 2018 by Judge Tom Anderson dismissing the murder case, citing prosecutor error.
Prosecutors appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal. Fultz remained jailed Thursday pending the appeal.
3) Charles Gary Sullivan linked to cold case murder
A 73-year-old Arizona man made national news in November after his booking on murder charges in connection with a 40-year-old cold case.
But that same man, Charles Gary Sullivan, also dominated Nevada County headlines back in 2007 and 2008.
Sullivan was arrested near Bowman Lake in mid-September 2007 and went to trial the following January in Nevada County Superior Court in a kidnapping case with chilling similarities to the 1979 murder for which he now is facing charges.
In both cases, the victim’s legs were bound with plastic zip ties. Julia Woodward, the 1979 victim, was then bludgeoned to death with a rock.
The Nevada County victim managed to escape, cutting her ties with a pocket knife.
Sullivan was arrested in Nevada County on Sept. 15, 2007, and charged with kidnapping with a firearm, kidnapping with the intent to commit forcible rape with a firearm and criminal threats with a firearm. The jury found Sullivan not guilty of kidnapping, instead convicting him of false imprisonment and making criminal threats.
4) Trial set in Nevada County officer assault case
A Nevada County correctional officer accused of assaulting an inmate is scheduled for trial Jan. 21.
Adam Grizzell, 25, was placed on paid administrative leave after he reportedly slammed a handcuffed inmate against a wall, causing minor injuries.
Prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges of assault by an officer and battery against him in October 2018.
The June 2018 accusations are similar to those described in a civil lawsuit filed against Grizzell, Nevada County, the Sheriff’s Office and others. Christopher Howie in the suit says that in January 2018, Grizzell pushed his face into a wall and then forced him to the ground, which broke his leg.
In June of this year, the county agreed to a “substantial monetary payment” to settle that federal lawsuit. Prosecutors have filed no charges against Grizzell in that incident.
5) Wyatt Yoder facing charges in multiple chases
After eluding authorities on multiple occasions, Wyatt Yoder was finally taken into custody in August.
Wanted for fleeing officers a handful of times, Yoder ran from a house in the 17000 block of Crest Road in South County. Officers had a warrant to enter the home and arrest the 32-year-old Yoder, but it wasn’t needed. They’d formed a perimeter around the area and arrested him outside, authorities have said.
According to reports, Yoder in June 2018 ran from officers. He made bail, but then missed a May court hearing.
Yoder was spotted in June near downtown Grass Valley, leading to a police chase. Days later officers again saw Yoder, this time near Lodestar Drive and Dog Bar Road. He fled in a Toyota 4Runner. Officers later found the vehicle abandoned in a field, reports state.
On Aug. 14, Yoder fled from Grass Valley police, was involved in a hit-and-run and then left his vehicle behind a Kate Hayes Street apartment complex before stealing a pickup and fleeing, authorities have said.
Yoder is set to enter a plea in court Feb. 6.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
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