Prosecutor: 3 women intended to kill homeless man in fire at defunct Turlock cheese plant

12/16/2013 6:38 PM

12/16/2013 7:56 PM

A prosecutor on Monday told a judge that three women intended to kill a transient man in a fire that burned down a defunct Turlock cheese plant.

Deputy District Attorney Sam Getrich said Wanda White and Erika Clardy started the fire, while Lanette Sullivan encouraged them in their attempt to kill Terry Sump. He said White and Clardy started the fire directly beneath Sump, while Sullivan kept Sump from climbing down from the building’s rafters.

The attorneys gave their closing arguments Monday afternoon in a preliminary hearing for the three defendants. The women are charged with attempted murder and arson in connection with the Feb. 19 blaze that gutted the former Lactalis USA building on West Main Street.

Sullivan and White are sisters, and White is Clardy’s mother. Authorities have said the defendants conspired to start the fire in an attempt to kill Sump, with whom they fought. Sump said they fought over a $20 debt. Sullivan said she and Sump also fought because she was dating other men.

Last week, Sump testified that the defendants left the burning building after the fire got out of control, and he fell to the ground while climbing down from the rafters before escaping without serious injuries.

Peter Rodriguez, Sullivan’s defense attorney, said his client had already climbed up near the rafters when the fire started, and there was no evidence that Sullivan asked the two women to start the fire. He said Sullivan was in as much danger from the fire as Sump was.

Rodriguez argued that Sullivan should not be charged with arson. He also said that his client should not face attempted murder charges, because the women intended only to assault Sump not murder him.

“They went there to kick his ass,” Rodriguez said, referring to the language used by the witnesses and the defendants during the confrontation inside the cheese plant.

Sump testified that he heard White or Clardy say, “Smoke him out,” and Sullivan appeared to make gestures encouraging the idea of starting the fire. White told Turlock police Detective Frank Navarro that she started the fire by using her lighter to ignite crumpled newspaper.

Stephen Solano, Clardy’s defense attorney, told the judge that his client and White started the fire to force Sump down from the rafters. He said that the defendants didn’t intend to kill Sump and that Clardy should face a charge of gross negligence for starting the fire.

“None of the defendants knew that the fire would take off so big,” Solano argued. “If he would’ve ran away out the door, the fire never would’ve happened.”

Michael Scheid, White’s defense attorney, also asked the judge to drop the attempted murder charge, because there is no indication they intended to kill Sump. He argued that the arson charge should not indicate the defendants started a fire that burned an inhabited home.

“This is an an abandoned commercial building, not a dwelling,” Scheid said in court. He was seeking a less serious charge of arson.

Fire officials said the blaze consumed much of the interior of the 59,000-square-foot building and its supports. Lactalis operated the plant from the 1980s until its closure in 2007, making brie and other specialty cheeses.

The plant, similar to other empty buildings, has attracted homeless people looking to avoid the elements without going to a shelter. After the fire, the building was torn down to its concrete foundation.

Getrich argued that Sump had lived inside the plant for five years before the fire and that the defendants knew that.

“That was Mr. Sump’s home,” Getrich told the judge. “In fact, he still stays there on whatever is left of that property.”

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen said he needed time to review case law concerning the arson charges before deciding whether there is enough evidence for the defendants to stand trial as charged. He scheduled the defendants to return to court Thursday for his ruling.

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