Forgive Del Norte County residents if we feel the scales of justice are tipping dangerously in favor of the accused.
It was only four weeks ago that a Smith River man with a history of domestic violence was in essence given a 68-day sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the death of his mother, courtesy of the state Attorney General’s Office and a local judge.
Then came last week’s carnage in Crescent City, which didn’t have to happen.
Even before Jerry Wayne Steele was arrested for the repeated sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl, he had held a box-cutter to her throat in an attempt to threaten her into silence, according to Santa Clara County court documents. She courageously told the truth anyway.
Steele went to jail on suspicion of numerous charges, including lewd or lascivious acts on a child by force, violence, duress, menace and fear, as well as attempting to dissuade a witness by using or threatening to use force.
Cecilia Mortensen moved 400 miles north to Crescent City with her mother, Ashley Volore, who clearly believed there was still reason to be afraid.
How right she was.
The box-cutter threat was documented in court records along with the sordid details of four years of alleged abuse by this so-called friend of the family. And yet Steele’s bail was set at $250,000, and he actually had to post only a fraction of that amount to gain his freedom.
The freedom to equip himself with what authorities later called a “kidnap kit,” including a night-vision device, a stun gun, duct tape, rope and large zip ties.
And a teddy bear.
Exactly what further atrocities he intended will never be known. When he showed up at the Shangri La Trailer Court, the only tool he ultimately employed was a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol, with which he shot both mother and daughter in the head. Cecilia lingered on life support for days as her family made the decision to have her organs harvested for transplants. Volore miraculously recovered in time to be near her daughter when she died.
Steele eluded authorities for several hours, an armed killer loose in a small, traumatized town. When he was discovered, he ironically delivered the only justice to be found in this ordeal: He turned the gun on himself.
Throughout California, Victim Witness programs provide services to those on the receiving end of criminals’ misdeeds. Just what services Volore and Cecilia availed themselves of is unclear; it could have included notification of court proceedings, counseling and financial compensation, and even assistance with home security or relocation.
But in a case such as this — and the aforementioned death of a local mother at the hands of her son — those services no longer matter.
When it comes to Cecilia Mortensen, Santa Clara County failed miserably in supplying the most crucial victim assistance. It had a man behind bars charged with monstrous deeds, including the basest form of child-intimidation.
And it let him bail out, enabling his ill-fated road trip from Los Gatos to Crescent City. A report in today’s Triplicate indicates the bail could have been set much higher.
When the potential threat to a victim is clear-cut, there should either no bail possible, or it should be set at the highest possible level — prohibitively high, hopefully.