Top stories of 2020: Opioid ODs headline public safety beat
This was a tumultuous year for Nevada County on a number of fronts, with COVID-19 causing disruptions in the criminal justice system and causing major changes in how law enforcement handles arrests and detentions. Some would argue, too, that a marked spike in opioid overdose deaths could be linked to COVID. But violent deaths remained big news all year. Here are the top five stories for 2020:
1. Fentanyl overdoses spark community concern
Over the last several years, deaths related to opioid overdoses have risen sharply across the nation, and COVID-19 may be amplifying that trend both nationally and in Nevada County.
Between January and October, 23 people from Nevada County died of an opioid overdose. By September, the alarming rise in these drug overdoses — and the link in many cases to fentanyl — led to several warnings posted online by the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re seeing fentanyl in almost every death right now,” said sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pettitt.
As of the end of September, the county had recorded 23 fatal opioid overdoses, 14 of which had fentanyl in their system.
“The demographics are all over the place,” Pettitt said. “Some are homeless, some live in expensive homes. Some are in their 20s, some in their 50s. It is literally touching everybody (in this county). It’s spanning the gamut.”
2. Officer-involved fatal shooting of Gabriel Strickland
The new year started off with a tragedy, as Nevada County resident Gabriel Strickland was shot and killed after a standoff with multiple law enforcement officers Jan. 1.
Nevada County sheriff’s deputies and Grass Valley police officers responded to reports of a man walking with a shotgun on his shoulder on Squirrel Creek Road. For six minutes, they worked to convince Strickland to drop his weapon, which was later found to be an Airsoft rifle. An officer deployed a Taser, but it was ineffective. Strickland then pointed his weapon directly at officers, who discharged their weapons. First aid was rendered, but Strickland was pronounced dead at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.
Nevada County sheriff’s deputies Brandon Tripp and Taylor King, and Grass Valley police officer Brian Hooper, were placed on administrative leave following the shooting. In October, the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office released its report that found the officers’ actions were “clearly reasonable and legally justifiable under the circumstances.”
“No criminal charges will be filed against any of the peace officers as a result,” Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh wrote in the memo.
3. Five defendants charged with murder in 2020
The District Attorney’s Office filed five separate homicide cases this year, one of the highest homicide rates in the last decade for Nevada County.
Dennis Lee Wallace, 60, was charged in May with the murder of his mother and stepfather, Robert and Patricia Breedlove. A doubt has been declared as to Wallace’s mental competency to stand trial and he has been committed to a state mental hospital.
Mark Yeager, 43, was charged in June with the murder of a fetus in connection with a February domestic violence assault, authorities said. The victim, who was 17 weeks pregnant, subsequently suffered a miscarriage.
Aaron Nicklaus Sullivan was arrested in July in connection with the 2019 death of Nathan Alwin, after the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit began investigating a possible homicide in the 11000 block of Lime Kiln Road.
Michael Raymond Stine, 60, of Grass Valley, faces a murder charge in connection with the stabbing death of his friend, Shelby Comeaux II, 48, in October. Nevada County sheriff’s deputies had responded to the 14000 block of Garden Bar Road and found Comeaux, who was later pronounced dead.
Trey Rondal Richard, 22, was charged with murder in connection with the fatal shooting of 36-year-old Shanta Olsen in November. Richard’s five co-defendants also face felony charges in Olsen’s death after a drug deal gone bad on Nov. 7.
4. Convicted murderer paroled
Sam Strange, in state prison since he was convicted in 1996 of murdering two 16-year-old Nevada County girls — Crissy Campbell and Dawn Donaldson — was released in January to supervised parole in Alameda County. He will remain on supervised parole until 2022.
Both girls were last seen alive at Strange’s Retrac Way home on July 23, 1994, and their bodies were found more than a week later on South Ponderosa Way. Strange, now 45, was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder, and was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of 15 years to life.
5. Court proceedings stall during COVID-19
In March, the COVID-19 shutdown hit just as jury selection was set to start in a high-profile, two-defendant murder case.
Most cases ended up postponed for weeks or even months as Nevada County’s criminal justice system struggled with COVID-19 protocols.
The trial of Sean Bryant and Michael McCauley now has been postponed until early next year, after an order issued by California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye suspended jury trials.
Civil and criminal jury trials, small claims trials, all traffic matters and all collaborative court hearings were postponed. Some hearings still were being scheduled, including restraining orders and criminal preliminary hearings. In-custody criminal arraignments, bail review hearings, mental competency hearings and sentencings are being heard by video, unless a request is made to appear in court.
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