Judge: Insufficient evidence Truckee contractor at fault in carbon monoxide deaths (updated) | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Judge: Insufficient evidence Truckee contractor at fault in carbon monoxide deaths (updated)

TRUCKEE, Calif. — A Nevada County judge has ruled in favor of a local contractor who was accused of criminal negligence in the 2013 carbon monoxide-poisoning deaths of two men. Superior Court Judge John P. Kennelly on Wednesday determined insufficient evidence exists to bind the defendant, Kurt Schoemig, 42, of Truckee to a criminal trial to defend himself against manslaughter charges. "I'm delighted that the ruling ends the requirement of my client to defend himself," Schoemig's attorney, Stephen A. Munkelt, said Thursday. "While it was never really appropriate (to file charges) in the first place, in my opinion this was a tragic event that has been properly dealt with in the legal system." Kennelly's ruling came after a roughly three-hour-long preliminary hearing Wednesday in Truckee, 10 months after the Nevada County District Attorney's Office filed charges in March 2014 against Schoemig. At Wednesday's hearing, Deputy DA Glenn Jennings argued Schoemig played a key role in the deaths of Albert Senzatimore, 69, and Gary Trovinger, 57, whose bodies were found at a home owned by Trovinger at 13600 Weisshorn Ave. in Tahoe Donner on Oct. 23, 2013. Prior to their visit to Truckee from their primary residences in the South Bay, Trovinger and Senzatimore had reportedly turned a furnace on at the home remotely with a cellphone application. They died shortly after entering due to overexposure to carbon monoxide. Earlier that summer, Trovinger hired Schoemig — who at the time was president of the Truckee company Cedar Ridge Builders — to help build a second garage at the home, according to past reports. In July 2013, an employee of Schoemig's improperly cut two pipes in the furnace, which was located inside a crawl space, to make room for an overhead door to the garage. A Truckee Police Department investigation determined Schoemig's crew never finished the project, leaving one of the cut pipes to vent into the home when the heater came on. Because of this, prosecutors alleged Schoemig's negligence caused their deaths. However, evidence supplied by Munkelt, along with details discovered during an investigation in winter and spring 2014 by inspectors with the company AEI Engineers, found that the furnace was generating "extremely high levels of CO due to the partial blockage" of the pipe, likely by some sort of animal nest, according to an AEI report. Once the blockage was removed and tests were done, carbon monoxide levels circulating throughout the home "were insignificant … and would not generate the necessary levels … to cause a fatality." Therefore, the DA's "claim that the cutting of the combustion-air and vent pipes caused the CO event is unsubstantiated," according to the report, which Munkelt based portions of his arguments on Wednesday. "In our expert's conclusion, my client's conduct in leaving the vent pipe open was not a significant factor," Munkelt said Thursday. "Therefore, Judge Kennelly ruled that in his view, the element of manslaughter was not proven." The report also includes text messages, emails and other correspondence between Trovinger and Schoemig that led to Munkelt's overall argument that Schoemig was not at fault. For example, AEI provided evidence that Trovinger or someone removed the pipes to allow for garage door installation — after they were originally cut by Schoemig's employee. Trovinger "likely reconnected them to the furnace at a later date without correctly reinstalling the pipe and properly terminating them to the exterior of the structure," according to the report. Further, the report concludes the deaths likely could have been avoided had Trovinger's home been equipped with an approved carbon monoxide detector, pursuant to California's "Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act," which went into affect July 2011. Another issue the DA's office argued was that neither Trovinger nor Schoemig applied for a building permit with the town of Truckee to work on the home. Because of that, town officials did not inspect the home for red flags, one of which would have been toxic carbon monoxide levels due to the cut pipe, Jennings said. "I argued the licensed contractor was the responsible party, because he was the one doing the work," he said Thursday. "The fact that he didn't get a permit and knew it required a permit, that created substantial risk of injury or death." Jennings said an appeal is possible, but that's dependent on follow-up investigations from Truckee Police, which could take months. While the criminal portion of the case may be over, legal work continues on the civil side of things to determine who may be financially at fault for the deaths. Brian Hannon, an attorney for Trovinger's family, said he wouldn't comment Thursday on the wrongful death action Trovinger's wife, Linda Loew, filed against Schoemig, only that Loew "doesn't harbor any animosity toward Mr. Schoemig." "Mr. Schoemig will have to live with the consequences of his actions, and I believe that Linda believes that is punishment enough," Hannon said. The civil investigation will likely take several months, he said.

Murder victim found in Truckee

TRUCKEE – The death of a woman whose body was found Monday afternoon in a bag left at a Tahoe Donner parking lot is being investigated as a homicide, officials said. At about 3:40 p.m. Monday, a police dispatcher received a call from the Northwoods clubhouse about a bag with blood on it in the parking lot. After responding, Truckee Police cordoned off the area as a crime scene. “When they arrived it appeared there was a human inside (the bag),” said Gene Welch, Truckee Fire District spokesman. The body was in a bag, which was reported to the dispatcher as a duffel bag, on the pavement next to a brown Ford pickup. Three other vehicles were also in the taped-off area, but none was believed to be connected to the crime, officials said. Investigators used a ladder truck from the Truckee Fire Department to take aerial photographs of the crime scene “We are pursuing this as a homicide investigation,” said Alex Terrazas, assistant to the Truckee town manager. Officials were not able to identify the woman, determine her age or the cause of death. The body was being taken to a forensics laboratory in Auburn for identification Monday night. Investigators from the California Department of Justice were on the way to Truckee from Sacramento to aid local law enforcement. Police were taking names and license plates of people leaving the clubhouse parking lot on Monday. They were also handing out fliers in the Tahoe Donner area as the sun set Monday asking for tips about the case. Tahoe Donner is a 5,000-home upscale subdivision in Truckee. The Northwoods clubhouse is one of several clubhouses and recreation areas within the sprawling mountain subdivision. Eighty percent of the homes in Tahoe Donner are second homes, according to the homeowners association Web site.

Road-rage murder trial delayed a week

Jury selection is taking longer than anticipated in the Timothy Brooks murder trial, delaying the trial until at least March 20. Brooks is facing an open count murder charge in the stabbing death of Robert Ash, 47, outside Syd’s Bagelry in Tahoe City. The stabbing occurred 30 minutes after Ash allegedly cut off Brooks and his wife in his car on Highway 89 before Squaw Valley. Jury selection was scheduled to be complete by Thursday, when opening testimonies were supposed to begin. Now, the trial will take a break this week because of scheduling conflicts. Lawyers in the case have estimated the trial will take two weeks once testimony begins. Brooks was living in Truckee at the time of the August incident. Ash, of Newcastle, Calif., grew up in Incline Village and had been working on projects in Truckee the previous year and was spending time in town before his death. Brooks is free on $250,000 bail and living in the Bay Area with his parents.

Murder suspect back in jail

TAHOE CITY – A Placer County Superior Court judge ordered Timothy Brooks back to jail Friday, two weeks after denying the defense’s request to reduce the 25-year-old’s murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. Brooks, a part-time Truckee resident, has been charged in the stabbing death of Robert Ash in Tahoe City. Brooks is to remain in custody until a Feb. 7 hearing, unless he can post an additional $250,000 cash bail, said Deputy District Attorney Chris Cattran. Brooks was still in the Placer County Jail in Auburn Tuesday morning. He had been free since posting the original $250,000 bail in November. In December, Cattran asked Judge Richard Couzens to reconsider Brooks’ bail if the murder charge was sustained. Another judge in November lowered the initial murder charge to voluntary manslaughter and Cattran re-filed the murder charge, which was upheld Jan. 6 by Couzens. Brooks, who was living in Truckee at the time of the August incident, has been accused of stabbing and killing Ash, 47, of Newcastle, Calif., outside Syd’s Bagelry in Tahoe City after Ash passed Brooks and his wife in his car on Highway 89 before Squaw Valley, according to eyewitness accounts. Ash, who grew up in Incline Village, had been working on projects in Truckee the previous year and was spending a lot of time in town before his death. Judge Couzens set a Feb. 7 hearing for more information on international travel restrictions on Brooks. Cattran has painted Brooks as a flight risk since his wife, Susanne Brooks, is a German national. The trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 27 in Auburn.

Tough first murder case for Truckee

TRUCKEE – A woman found dead inside a bloody duffel bag left at a Tahoe Donner parking lot Monday night was killed at a different location and dropped at the parking lot, police believe. In their first homicide investigation as a department, Truckee police are using their entire force to turn up clues on the grisly death. A group of four golfers returning from a Reno golf game reported the body in the parking lot of the Northwoods clubhouse at 3:40 p.m. Monday, police said. “One of the gentlemen noticed a duffel bag placed next to his vehicle,” said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. “He felt the duffel bag and it did not feel normal to him, so he called police.” Police opened the bag and discovered a dead woman. The woman was clothed and did not appear to be dismembered, Johnston said. No one is reported missing within Truckee town limits, police said. Police are awaiting autopsy reports from the Placer County coroner in Auburn to determine the victim’s identity, age and cause of death. Although police opened the bag, all they were able to determine was that the victim was an adult woman. “This is going to be a very slow, painstaking process to take the bag apart with the body inside, and you have to do it layer by layer,” Johnston said. “And frankly her face is not readily visible.” Clues at the scene have police convinced the victim was not killed in the parking lot, but taken there in a duffel bag with straps and left on the pavement during the day on Monday. Police believe the person who dropped the body there did it during the day in a busy parking lot, and investigators are trying to locate eyewitnesses to the act. “This person inside this bag was placed there in broad daylight undoubtedly in front of someone,” said Johnston. “It is my belief that somebody had to see somebody carrying a duffel bag and putting it down beside a truck.” Although they are pursuing this as a murder case, police said residents in the area had little to be afraid of. “We have an interstate here that travels … between two metropolitan areas,” Johnston said. “Frankly, we get thousands of cars a day that come through on the freeway. We are not immune to this. However, it appears clear that this did not happen directly in that parking lot and I see no reason for the public to be concerned in the area.” But Tahoe Donner residents are still shaken by Monday night’s events, said Darren Shaw, general manager of the Tahoe Donner Homeowners Association. “Everyone is obviously concerned and disturbed that this sort of thing happened – and happened so close to home,” Shaw said. Police are looking at surveillance tapes from around town, following up missing persons reports from out of the area, and passing out fliers that may lead them to witnesses. Working with the state Department of Justice and other local agencies, the police have gotten 15 to 20 missing person reports from the Bay Area and outside of California, said Johnston. The fliers have also turned up some tips, he said. “Is it a mystery? Absolutely at this point, but that is why we work at it to solve it,” Johnston said. Anyone with information should call the Truckee Police Department at (530) 550-2323.

Tasers taken off table: Truckee police to wait for state study of shock devices

TRUCKEE – In light of concerns expressed by leaders and residents, the police chief here withdrew his request to outfit every patrol unit with electro-shock devices. Truckee Police Chief Scott Berry had initially sought the Town Council’s permission to spend $6,000 from $100,000 in Citizens Option for Public Safety funding from the state to purchase five Tasers, the dart-firing electro-shock devices that incapacitate suspects via 50,000-volt bursts of electricity. The department has had two of the devices for two years. In that time officers have used a Taser once. The South Lake Tahoe Police Department has 15 Tasers. Recent news reports and a study by human rights organization Amnesty International have raised questions about the use of Tasers by law enforcement personnel, particularly since a number of suspects who have been shocked by Tasers have died. Berry said that he would wait for the results of a study that Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has asked for investigating the use of Tasers in California and the possibility of negative side effects the devices might have. Taser International, the only company to manufacture the devices, has maintained that no deaths have ever been attributed to use of a Taser. But others are not so sure. In a press release issued by Leno about a year ago, he said, “The lone manufacturer of Taser guns continues to tout their weapons as perfectly safe, but the only significant studies into the effects of these guns were done by the manufacturer itself.” Leno said the effects of 50,000 volts on humans is unknown. He also questioned the training and protocols law enforcement agencies are using with the weapons. “We owe it to the public and the officers who are being told that these devices are safe and non-lethal to learn more about Tasers before we allow their continued use,” Leno said. Responding to concerns over the recent deaths of Northern California suspects who were shocked by Taser guns, Leno plans to author legislation to restrict the use of Taser guns until more data can be collected.

Get pumped at Truckee’s Bike Park

Now that most of us are starting to put away our winter boards and breaking out the bicycles, a visit to Truckee's super cool bike park is perfect for sharpening those cycling skills that often come in handy in the backcountry. Truckee's bike park, located off Joerger Drive near the airport, features a brand-new pump track that is a fun and easy way to learn better mountain bike handling for all types of conditions. Chock-full of banked turns, undulating rollers and a variety of jumps, the track is perfect for a quick afternoon workout or an all-day jam. Putting together a bike park is full of challenges and Truckee's success is the result of tremendous community involvement, financially, and with a lot of volunteer sweat equity. Various nonprofit organizations supported the project from the beginning, along with individuals and local businesses. An extensive irrigation system keeps down the dust and stabilizes the various terrain features. The family friendly park is free and open to all ages and abilities. On April 30 there will be a fundraising party for the bike park at the Bar of America in Truckee. The residents of Truckee have a long history of coming together to improve their community. One of the first to galvanize Truckee residents around a common goal was Charles McGlashan; an attorney, teacher and leading businessman, who proposed in the late 19th century that part of the economic future for Truckee and Lake Tahoe would be based on winter sports. In 1894 he constructed a 45-foot tall, cone-shaped wooden frame on the hill near his house above town. He wrapped the towering structure with chicken wire, and when temperatures fell below freezing he sprayed water on it until it eventually resembled a gigantic icicle. His neighbors had no idea what McGlashan was up to and rumors abounded. At local town hall meetings he proposed the community build a "spacious ice palace, illuminated during the day by a transparent roof of thin ice, but supported by thick walls of ice surrounding a large skating rink." It wasn't long before McGlashan's dream snowballed into what became Truckee's famous Winter Carnival, a major tourist attraction for snow lovers in California and Nevada. It was the first ice carnival in the West with bands playing music, concessions and more, and it led to summer events that continued the party year round. Three months before his death on January 6, 1931, Charles McGlashan wrote: "Now, in my eighty-fourth year, it is well known that I was the acknowledged leader of Truckee Winter Sports. I have always believed that the vast snowfields of the Truckee Basin, situated on a transcontinental railroad in sunny California, would annually attract tens of thousands of visitors." McGlashan was right on the money. Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at mark@thestormking.com. Check out Mark's blog at http://www.tahoenuggets.com.

Suspicious death in Truckee under investigation

TRUCKEE ” An investigation continues into the death of an elderly woman whose body was found inside a Truckee home. Police say they’ve been unable to determine the cause of death based on circumstances at the scene and are handling the death as suspicious pending the outcome of the investigation. A family member called police Thursday to the home in the Tahoe-Donner subdivision. Police released no further details.

Truckee officials urge carbon monoxide awareness after deaths

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Officials are urging carbon monoxide awareness after two men who were exposed to the gas died last month. Two Truckee Police Department officers found the men dead inside a home at 13600 Weisshorn Avenue in Tahoe Donner on Oct. 26. The officers soon began suffering respiratory issues and left the residence, which had "very high" levels of carbon monoxide, according to police. An investigation determined the deadly gas came from the home's heater. According to police, a contractor without a building permit or engineered and approved plans had previously installed a door in the mechanical room space where the heater is located. "When the heater was turned on by the residents after the work was performed, the house filled with carbon monoxide and ultimately was responsible for their deaths," according to police. On Tuesday, Sgt. Rich Fevinger, chief coroner with the Nevada County Sheriff's Office, identified the deceased as friends Albert Senzatimore, 69, of San Jose, and the home's owner, Gary Trovinger, 57, of Los Gatos. A criminal investigation into the incident is concluding. Truckee Police Chief Adam McGill said the case soon will be forwarded to the district attorney's office. McGill declined to reveal the name of the contractor or further details due to the ongoing investigation. Officials said the incident likely would have been prevented if the home had a carbon monoxide detector installed. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Officials recommend residents install detectors — which are as cheap as $20 — on every level of the home and near each sleeping area. They should be tested monthly, and batteries changed every six months. "The biggest thing is it's a silent killer. Most people die at night so they don't feel the symptoms," McGill said. "You have to take offensive precautions … $20 or so is well worth the safety of your family." With that in mind, officials are collaborating on a free CO detector program, while supplies last. Residents can get one at the building department at 10183 Truckee Airport Road during business hours Tuesday-Friday (closed Thanksgiving) or any of the five Truckee Fire stations. Since the program was announced last week, many home owners have come to get a free detector, said Truckee Fire Chief Bob Bena. Detectors were purchased through the district's nonprofit Truckee Firefighters Charitable Fund, meaning there is no cost to taxpayers. Similarly, detectors provided by the town were donated for free by the companies First Alert and Kidde, said Johnny Goetz, chief building officer for the town. There are roughly 200 to 250 free detectors left, he said, with more possibly coming. As of July 1, 2011, the California "Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act" requires owners of all single-family homes with an attached garage or a fossil fuel source to install CO detectors in the home. Further, owners of multi-family leased or rental dwellings had until Jan. 1, 2013, to comply with the law. California is reportedly among 25 states that have statutes requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain residential buildings. According to the CDC, more than 400 Americans die each year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized. Fatality is highest among Americans 65 and older.

Conservationists complete purchase of Donner Lake property

TRUCKEE, Calif. (AP) – Conservationists have completed the purchase of a 1,923-acre, forested ridgeline that forms the scenic backdrop to Donner Lake just west of this Sierra town. With the help of a low-interest loan from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Trust for Public Land bought 750 acres of Schallenberger Ridge in April and the remaining 1,173 acres last week. The property, valued at $3.1 million, was acquired from Croman Timber Corp. of Oregon. The trust and Truckee Donner Land Trust hope to add nearly 2,500 acres, including the ridge, to Donner Memorial State Park over the next year. ”The same rugged skyline that greeted the early pioneers to California is now protected forever,” said Mary Nichols, secretary of the California Resources Agency. ”And as part of the (state park) it will be cared for and made available for the general public to enjoy.” The 1,200-acre park along Interstate 80 attracts 150,000 visitors a year and commemorates the site of the tragic Donner Party of 1846-47. Dozens of the covered-wagon pioneers starved to death and others resorted to cannibalism to survive after becoming stranded by heavy snow in the Sierra. Forty-two of the group’s 89 members died. ”Schallenberger Ridge is a major public resource,” said John Knott, superintendent of the state park system’s Sierra district. ”The property has outstanding vistas and natural features, and will be an absolutely wonderful addition to the state park system.” Funding for the purchase will come from the state Habitat Conservation Fund, federal Land and Water Conservation Fund monies, and private sources. About $1 million now will have to be obtained through local fund-raising efforts. The purchase will extend public lands from Truckee to Donner Summit. Schallenberger Ridge is named for Moses Schallenberger, a member of the first party to take covered wagons over the Sierra – in 1844.