Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley is relieved to put 2013 in the rear view mirror due to the peculiar — and sometimes heartbreaking — resolution of several major cases.
“It’s been somewhat of a bizarre year and I’m glad it’s over,” he said.
Nisley and his two deputy district attorneys — Leslie Wolf and Sally Carpenter — handled about 1,200 misdemeanor and felony criminal cases this year.
He said the two cases that troubled him the most involved the “unnecessary and tragic” deaths of young men from The Dalles during confrontations with friends that turned violent.
In January, Carlos Medina, 20, was sentenced to almost two years in prison for striking Mark Labonte, also 20, in the head during a physical altercation Sept. 9, 2012. The blow that severed the vertebral artery in Labonte’s head was delivered by Medina during a fight in the parking lot of Fred Meyer.
Two weeks ago, Scott Olenick, 26, pleaded guilty to stabbing his roommate, Josh Davitt, 23, in the chest during an April 29 confrontation at their apartment near the intersection of 10th Street and Dry Hollow Road. Olenick will spend 60 months behind bars for inflicting the knife wound that took the life of Davitt, who died May 7 from complications related to the injury.
“These deaths were so horrible that it just makes you shake your head and wonder why people behave like they do,” said Nisley.
He said Medina and Olenick immediately exhibited remorse for their actions and fully cooperated with authorities during the investigation into their crimes and subsequent legal proceedings.
He said a defendant’s willingness to be accountable for his or her actions is one of the factors that a prosecutor must weigh when seeking justice for a victim’s family.
“If somebody makes a mistake and feels badly about it, I think most people would take that into consideration,” he said.
When deciding upon what charges to pursue, Nisley said consideration must also be given to the circumstances surrounding the incident, the reason why it was committed and the suspect’s criminal history. He said it is very important that the victim of the crime be allowed to weigh in on any potential plea deal to ensure he or she gets closure.
“A prosecutor has an absolute duty to be fair, that’s the nature of our system,” he said. “The judge is obligated to be neutral and the defense attorney advocates for his or her client. But we have to balance everyone’s rights and that is the most ominous and enormous responsibility there is.”
He said that sense of responsibility is most strongly felt while waiting for the jury or judge to decide upon the innocence or guilt of a defendant.
“The burden of proof is on the state and it should be,” said Nisley. “You try to stay emotionally detached from cases because you have to, but right before the verdict comes in, there is a pang in your gut.”
In August, his office suffered a blow when the verdict rendered by Judge Janet Stauffer exonerated a teenage rape suspect of all eight charges against him. That ruling highlighted problems that had been brewing for months between Nisley and the judge and he took legal steps to stop her from presiding over any other cases from his office.
That action drew the attention of Judge Paul Crowley, who presides over the Seventh Judicial District, and he arranged for a resolution of issues that Nisley and Stauffer have kept confidential.
During an interview last week, the district attorney would only say: “The justice system is moving forward; we’re operating efficiently.”
He also ended up in a dispute this year with Wasco County Sheriff Rick Eiesland over the early release of an inmate convicted of major theft. The sheriff let Lori Fiegenbaum, 51, go free about four months into her one-year sentence to avoid going over the county’s 50-bed-per-day allotment at the regional jail.
Nisley disagreed with that decision because Fiegenbaum had admitted in January to the theft of more than $90,000 from the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center during the five years she worked as the bookkeeper.
The district attorney said her sentence had already been structured with less time behind bars than usual so that she could begin working and repay the funds.
The conflict highlighted the lack of a policy at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities regarding early release of inmates. The jail board set criteria that Nisley said is now followed when the county reaches its maximum daily inmate population and needs to release someone.
In another unusual occurrence, Nisley ended up helping county officials resolve the issue of a murder suspect’s huge medical bill.
Roark David Smith, 56, died of a heart attack Jan. 15, less than one month before he was scheduled to go to trial for two murders that had occurred almost four years earlier. He had undergone surgery without complication a few days earlier to have a small brain tumor removed.
The price tag for Smith’s surgery was $250,000 and caused major consternation among county officials, who feared that budget cuts might have to be made to pay it.
They then learned that most of the charges on the bill were for treatment of Smith’s health problems at the Oregon State Hospital. The actual amount paid by the county turned out to be less than $10,000, which Nisley said was a major relief to the local government.
Smith had been accused of walking across Chinook Street from his home to shoot Patti Hong, 46, in her driveway on the morning of Feb. 25, 2009. He then allegedly kicked in the front door of her residence and shot Patti’s son, Randy, 23, in his bed.
Another unusual case in 2013 began Jan. 23 when Brian DePriest, 37, took a hammer to the home of an ex-girlfriend in The Dalles and attacked her and the father of her 5-year-old boy before kidnapping the child.
The Amber Alert issued by law enforcement officials drew national attention and DePriest, also from The Dalles, was tracked down hours later at the home of relatives in Dufur, who detained him until police arrived.
He pleaded guilty in August to the crimes of assault and kidnapping and was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison.
Then there was the case of Taylor Arthur, 38, of Warm Springs, who drove the wrong way on Interstate 84 and led police on a high speed chase Sept. 6, ramming three patrol cars.
Arthur was convicted in November of DUII, attempt to elude, reckless endangerment and kidnapping of a female passenger he refused to let out of the car.
Another unusual case that landed on Nisley’s desk involved an elderly woman from Antelope who helped herself to money from the checking account of a widower she was assisting after the death of his wife.
Jeannie Peggy Essie Adams, 72, was also accused of counterfeiting a deceased man’s signature to obtain the deed to his property.
She was arrested Feb. 6 and pleaded guilty in October to two counts of aggravated theft in the first degree, and is now behind bars for 24 months.
Although Nisley is hoping for a “quieter” 2014, he could soon find himself on the witness stand at the trial of a jail inmate who tried to have him killed in 2012.
“When the police officer came in and started talking about the guy making death threats against me, I said, ‘Well, we can’t talk about this anymore because I
have a legal and ethical
conflict’,” he said.
The district attorney had prosecuted Dustin Kimbrough, 34, of The Dalles, for burglary and identity theft, the conviction that had put him behind bars.
His trial is scheduled to begin in February and the state’s case is being handled by Bumjoon Park, the senior assistant attorney general for the Oregon Department of Justice. Kimbrough’s legal team is led by attorney Amy Margolis of Portland.
Nisley was one of three targets of an alleged murder plot that Kimbrough is accused of orchestrating from his cell. According to an informant who claims to have been offered payment to commit the murders, the defendant also wanted to have his father-in-law and brother-in-law killed.
He has also been charged for using threats to intimidate two females that he believed might be called as witnesses against him to lie about what they knew.
“This year has gone well because of the great staff in this office, everyone works very hard,” said Nisley. “I am just hopeful that 2014 is a little more quiet.”