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.