Suspect pleads insanity
In an opening statement lasting approximately 90 minutes Tuesday morning, the prosecution in the case against accused attempted murderer Fred Engel presented video of the defendant filling four gas cans with gasoline shortly before his alleged victim Susan Wallace’s home went up in flames.
“The only intent Engel could have had was to kill Ms. Wallace,” said Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson. “Through the grace of God and the trauma team, her life was saved.”
Engel is charged with six felony counts, including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, arson and two counts of animal cruelty.
He pleaded innocent last August by reason of insanity.
Engel appeared calm in Nevada County Superior Court Tuesday, wearing a light green button-down shirt, khaki pants and wire-rimmed glasses; a far stretch from his mug shot from May 7, 2005 – shown several times in court projected onto a large screen – where he appeared gaunt, pale and tired in his orange jumpsuit.
Wolfson played surveillance video from the Flyers gas station at Brunswick Road and Sutton Way in Grass Valley, showing Engel filling the gas cans and placing them in the trunk of his mother’s red Ford Mustang at 2:36 a.m. May 7, 2005.
Susan Wallace’s Nevada City home was set ablaze approximately 40 minutes later, according to testimony from Wallace’s neighbor, Gloria Reilly, who also said Wallace, bleeding profusely from knife wounds to her neck and abdomen, clearly announced to Reilly’s husband that “the man who cleaned my carpets” was the man who tried to kill her.
In an opening statement lasting 20 minutes, defense attorney Stephen Munkelt urged the jury of seven men and five women to ask themselves if evidence proved Engel made a deliberate and premeditated decision. He also painted a picture of his client as a delusional, mentally unstable man who was not behaving rationally before the crime.
Prior to his arrest, he said, his client had no criminal record.
“He was a passive, peaceful young man,” Munkelt said. “In the months leading up to the event, he was doing and saying strange things.”
He said Engel told people he thought people were after him and wanted to kill him, and complained to his family that video surveillance equipment had been installed in his bedroom light fixture.
“What was he thinking,” Munkelt told the jury to ask themselves. “Did he intend to commit a felony?”
Engel’s former employer Karl Ragsdale, owner of ChemDry of the Gold Country, confirmed Engel did clean Wallace’s carpets one week before the attack.
Ragsdale’s office manager Susan Evans testified Wallace called to complain that after Engel cleaned her carpet on April 29, he forgot to take her area rugs to the ChemDry office to clean them.
“She said he did a good job, but he forgot the area rugs,” Evans said. She said she did not remember if Engel seemed annoyed when she told him to pick them up.
Ragsdale said Engel gave him notice he was quitting his job two days after he cleaned Wallace’s carpet.
“(Engel) said he wasn’t cut out to be a carpet cleaner,” he said.
Engel’s mother, Lois Engel, testified that at approximately 2:30 a.m., an hour before Wallace was stabbed multiple times, she noticed a butcher block full of knives was missing from her kitchen.
Paramedic Sarah Ricketts, who responded to the 911 call made by Wallace’s neighbor, said Wallace’s trachea, or windpipe, was sliced open, and Wallace had lost approximately a pint of blood by the time life-saving measures were started.
Ricketts said Wallace asked her why her throat was vibrating, and to evaluate her chances of survival.
“I’m sure she saw fear in my face,” Ricketts said. “I gave her no promises.”
Ricketts said Wallace pulled an oxygen mask from her face and announced her killer’s identity.
“She wanted us to know it was the very same man who came and cleaned her carpet,” Ricketts said.
A representative from Verizon Communications also testified that three cell phone towers in the vicinity of Wallace’s home picked up a call made from Engel’s cell phone at 3:31 a.m. that morning.
The call, she testified, was made to Engel’s voice mail.
At approximately 9 a.m. that same morning, said Nevada City Police Sgt. Dan Badour, Engel was located and held by guards at the Grass Valley entrance of Beale Air Force Base.
Badour said when he arrived to the gate, he could smell a strong odor of gasoline coming from the trunk of the car Engel had been driving; his mother’s Ford Mustang.
Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s Fire Marshal Vernon Canon testified the fire at Wallace’s house was intentionally set from the inside with an ignitable liquid.
He said the joints, or cracks, between floorboards in the house were more severely burned than the floorboards themselves, confirming that a flammable liquid had pooled in those joints.
He said the fire originated by the base of the stairs, where Wolfson alleges the attack occurred.
Witness testimony is scheduled to resume 9 a.m. today in Nevada County Superior Court.
To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm@the union.com or call 477-4236.
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