Arson, stabbing victim testifies |

Arson, stabbing victim testifies

Susan Wallace stared at her alleged attacker Fred Engel in court Wednesday afternoon and told him she could feel the blade of his knife cut through her windpipe.

“I felt the pressure, not the pain,” said Wallace, narrowing her eyes as she looked at Engel. “I know you’re sorry about that.”

She said she wondered why the man who had cleaned her carpet just a week earlier was trying to kill her.

“Then I thought, I’m gonna die,” she said, looking at the jury. “I heard the crackling and crunch of cartilage.”

In day two of Engel’s attempted murder and arson trial, Wallace sat on the witness stand in Nevada County Superior Court, dressed in a black sweater decorated with a Scottish terrier pin, her platinum hair in a modern short cut.

She placed red spectacles on her nose when she needed to see evidence more clearly. Her tailored appearance and confident, spunky demeanor was not the stereotypical picture of a defeated, fearful victim.

When Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson asked her who cleaned her rugs the week before she was attacked, she pointed and glared at Engel.

“Mr. Engel,” she said. “Right there.”

She often testified as if she was narrating her story, instead of waiting for questions.

Engel’s defense attorney, Stephen Munkelt, objected several times, asking that the prosecutor ask questions instead of letting Wallace talk without direction.

Wallace testified that on the night of May 7, 2005, she woke up to her pet Chow Hercules bumping up against her bed.

“It was bizarre,” she said, “At first I thought there was a skunk (outside).”

She got up to let Hercules and her three other dogs out, then went into her office and “fiddled” with her computer, checking the weather and playing a game of solitaire.

That’s when she smelled gasoline, she said. She went to a foyer area near her stairs, flipped a light switch, and saw a gas can at the base of her stairs.

She said she thought it may have belonged to the man who rented a room from her, even though he was out of town for the weekend.

She called out for him, waited, then called again.

“Then there was this sense of foreboding,” she said. “I felt really frightened.”

She said Engel came around a corner from the entry way.

“He did some sort of movement that was strange and was making some noise.”

Her vocal chords, damaged from the injuries she sustained that night, would not allow her to yell in court Wednesday.

“Eek, eek, eek,” she whispered, imitating her attacker. “But it was loud.”

She said Engel was holding something covered in canvas, and she assumed it was a weapon.

She stopped, breathed deep, and tears came to her eyes as she composed herself.

“He took whatever it was, ran up and put it up against my throat.”

She put her finger behind her right ear and moved it in a cutting motion across her throat, stopping on the right side under her jaw.

“He got me from here to here.”

Dr. Jon Perlstein, the trauma surgeon who treated her at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, testified earlier Wednesday that Wallace sustained a 20-centimeter laceration across her throat, which cut her windpipe open.

She also suffered five other knife wounds, including an 8-centimeter-deep stab wound to her left side and 2-centimeter-wide cuts on her left shoulder, chest and left jaw.

Perlstein said the injuries to her side and neck were life threatening.

“An injury to the airway is one of the quickest things that can kill a patient,” he said.

He said Wallace’s colon was nearly cut in half, and her jugular vein barely missed the throat slash.

Wallace’s attacker came within one-fourth of an inch of the vein and her carotid artery, he said.

There was also major bruising on the right side of Wallace’s forehead, indicating blunt force trauma.

“I don’t remember being hit on the head,” Wallace said.

Worried she could have worsened Engel’s apparent rage at the time, she said, she yelled out to her son Zachary, who wasn’t there.

“I said Zack, get me the gun. It’s loaded,” she said. “I thought it might make (Engel) go away.”

She said she turned, went through the door to her office and closed it behind her, her fingers slipping across her own blood.

“For the first time in my life, I found my cordless phone,” she said.

She called 911 but didn’t get an operator. The call was recorded as a hang-up at the emergency command center, and emergency personnel were dispatched when an operator could not reach Wallace on a call-back.

She found her way to her home’s east exit and hurried to her neighbor’s front door.

“I think the dogs were still in the house,” she said. “I rang the doorbell and prayed they were there.”

Her neighbor answered the door, and Wallace immediately told him who attacked her.

“I said ‘my throat’s been cut, I’m probably dying and I need to tell you who did this and I don’t know why,'” she said. “I didn’t know Mr. Engel’s name at the time, but I said ‘it was the man who cleaned my carpets.'”

Her neighbor applied pressure to Wallace’s bleeding neck as his wife dialed a second call to 911.

Wallace was one of eight witnesses called to testify in court Wednesday.

Wallace will resume her testimony at 9 a.m. today in Nevada County Superior Court.

Defense attorney Stephen Munkelt is expected to call witnesses after Wallace completes her testimony.


To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail or call 477-4236.

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