A local defense attorney is asking a Del Norte Superior Court judge to drop the homicide case against David Soldano, alleging investigating officers botched evidence that would have assured a fair trial.
David Soldano, 57, was arrested in March 2017 at the scene of what responding Del Norte County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ed Fleshman called a “chaotic situation” at Crivelli’s Bar in Klamath Glen.
Soldano was charged and jailed in the stabbing of two men, Timothy Thompson and Todd Burhus, along with several other charges. Thompson died of his injuries and Soldano has been in county jail awaiting trial since.
Superior Court Judge Darren McElfresh considered several hours of testimony from officers on the scene of the investigation, to lab experts at the Department of Justice.
On Oct. 1, Defense Attorney Karen Olson filed for dismissal of charges on a Trombetta motion, which alleges evidence favorable to the defense was destroyed as a result of mishandling by investigating officers. Olson filed a 20-page report, alleging that arriving Sheriff’s personnel did little to secure the scene or prevent loss of evidence, were careless in securing and preserving that evidence, and arrested Soldano based upon hearing only one side of the story at the scene.
“The appalling level of incompetence displayed by the Sheriff’s Office during the investigation of the death of Mr. Thompson precludes defendant Soldano from receiving a fair trial,” said Olson’s motion.
However, responding law enforcement personnel said on the stand that they were doing the best they could with an unsafe and chaotic situation, limited personnel and the introduction of a second, unrelated homicide only a few miles away on the same night.
On the stand
By phone DOJ Criminalist Jyoti Malik was questioned during a court hearing by Olson about the condition of Soldan’s blood samples submitted to her lab by sheriff’s investigators. When McElfresh questioned the relevance of the testimony, Olson said law enforcement officers have a duty to keep evidence in good condition and blood samples were collected in a trampled crime scene and some were coagulated upon arrival at the lab.
Mailk confirmed some samples were clotted and one sample was not enclosed in a typical DOJ container. However, when Olson questioned Malik on whether clotted blood can be tested, it wasn’t an issue.
“All I have to do is homogenize it,” Malik said. “Clotted samples still give valid, accurate results.”
Malik said it is common for a lab to receive clotted samples and that those from the crime scene were reliable as evidence. Olson questioned the results, which said Soldano’s blood samples contained a measurable amount of acetaldehyde and showed a blood alcohol level of .11.
Much discussion surrounded the handling of Soldano’s truck, which was later sold at a lien sale. Olson claimed a shirt Soldano was wearing at the time of the incident was inside the truck, while Deputy District Attorney Todd Zocchi contended there was no evidence to indicate the shirt was involved in the stabbing. Olson quipped that the evidence was provided at Soldano’s preliminary hearing.
Questioned on the stand by Olson, private investigator Charles Rafferty replied that he found no indication that the sheriff’s office was hiding information about the case.
A chaotic scene
Sheriff’s Sgt. Ed Fleshman described the scene at the bar parking lot as chaotic, with several angry people on the scene who were known to local law enforcement, and who had just been separated by officers assaulting Soldano at the scene.
“I was unsafe,” Fleshman said, noting that only himself, Deputy Justin Gill and a Yurok tribal officer were trying to handle the situation.
In response to Olson’s assertion that officers should have immediately roped off the scene to prevent contamination, Fleshman said emergency personnel and firefighters were still there trying to save Thompson’s life.
“I was outnumbered by three or four people who have a history of violence,” Fleshman said.
Questioning lingered around one subject Buck Scott, who, along with others, had to be pulled off of Soldano. When Olson questioned why Scott wasn’t arrested at the scene, Fleshman said he instead chose to try to calm the volatile situation by speaking to Scott instead. Questioned as to why blood spots in the parking lot were not immediately marked, Fleshman again said he was more concerned with the safety of police, fire and medical personnel on scene.
Footage from Fleshman’s body camera was admitted into evidence after it was played in the courtroom. While Olson said the scene was not “chaotic,” the footage showed that just over nine minutes after his arrival, officers had to break up a fight with multiple subjects who appeared to be attacking Soldano.
Once separated, officers took Soldano into custody. When McElfresh noted the audio of the footage was indiscernible from the laptop speaker, Olson said the submission was to give a visual representation of the scene. Despite poor audio and lack of narration, several incidents of yelling and movement could be observed. At one point, McElfresh noted hearing one subject tell another he was going to “kick his ass.”
Footage showed Fleshman speaking to several people and concluded with him getting into Gill’s truck and driving away with Soldano in custody. Fleshman said he chose to transport Soldano in the other truck, rather than attempt to transfer him to another vehicle, for his safety.
Olson questioned the handling of other evidence, including the way involved clothing was placed together in bags, questioning of people at the scene, custody of the suspected weapon and unanswered requests for the DA’s office to test items of evidence.
Zocchi said the defense has every right to test items themselves and evidence is still stored and available at the sheriff’s office.
“The defense has never tested any of them,” he said. “They’ve only complained.”
At one point, when Olson was instructed to “lay the foundation” for her questioning, she said, “Every piece of exculpatory evidence was either mishandled or destroyed.”
“Everything you have just heard contradicts what she just said,” Zocci responded.
The other scene
A couple hours after the stabbing incident, a second homicide took place only a few miles away in Klamath. Fleshman said that as he was finishing his investigation, the suspect vehicle from to other homicide showed up at the scene in a car, and displayed a weapon, forcing him to take cover.
Soldano’s original trial date was set for October but was postponed to allow a hearing on the motion. McElfresh set the matter for continuation to resume 10 a.m. Dec. 6.