Former Modesto teacher receives jail time for firing gun

03/12/2013 1:14 PM

06/26/2013 2:32 PM

A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge sentenced a former Beyer High School teacher to three years' probation Monday for firing a gun after a heated argument with one of his neighbors 3½ years ago.

But before imposing her sentence, Judge Marie Silveira chastised Oakdale resident Ralph Bradley Keith for such failings as not taking responsibility for his actions and showing a lack of respect for others, including the sheriff's deputies who investigated the shooting.

"Plenty of people have trouble with their neighbors," she said, "but they do not take to shooting. Clearly, you lost control that day."

In October, a jury found Keith, 56, guilty of felony negligent discharge of a firearm for shooting a gun during a dispute with his Oakdale neighbor over a fence separating their property.

The jury also found Keith guilty of misdemeanor resisting arrest for failing to comply with Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies when they responded to the Oct. 23, 2009, shooting.

Prosecutors claimed Keith fired twice at his neighbor, Oakdale chiropractor Theodore Jasper Cummins, after the two had argued over the fence. But jurors found Keith was not guilty of felony assault with a firearm, making criminal threats and vandalizing the fence.

Silveira also sentenced Keith, who is not in custody, to 168 days in jail. Additionally, she ordered Keith not to have any contact with Cummins and his family, to take an anger-management class and other counseling classes the Probation Department orders.

Keith is due back in Silveira's courtroom June 12. She could order him to jail then if has not been able to get into one of the Sheriff's Department's alternative jail programs or failed to follow the terms of his probation.

The dispute between Keith and Cummins started shortly after Cummins bought nearly four acres of vacant land next to the Keith home on Orange Blossom Road. That stretch of Orange Blossom is along the north bank of the Stanislaus River and features large home sites, often with big houses set back from the narrow, two-lane road.

Prosecutors say the dispute centered over the fence between Keith's and Cummins' properties. A surveyor determined the fence encroached a few feet into Cummins' land, and Cummins hired a fence builder to build a new fence. The fence builder told authorities his work was vandalized and Keith had threatened to tear out the fence posts.

The dispute cost Modesto City Schools more than $250,000 after it placed Keith on paid leave while his case was being resolved. Keith said Tuesday the school district fired him after the jury convicted him in October.

He had been an instructor of adaptive physical education for special-education students at Beyer High and had been a teacher for more than a quarter century.

Keith and his wife, Debi Bonsack, have claimed Cummins harassed them and their five daughters.

But in court Tuesday, Cummins told Silveira that life for him and his family has been a nightmare since the shooting. "Mr. Keith has terrorized my family, tried to damage my reputation, maligned my character and otherwise endeavored to ruin my life through malicious personal attacks that have left me shaken and traumatized," Cummins said.

Bonsack launched an email campaign against Cummins in which she also accused local officials of corruption and favoring Cummins because his brother is an Oakdale fire captain and his sister works in law enforcement. Silveria said Tuesday she found Cummins to be credible and genuine as he spoke of the toll the shooting and its aftermath has taken on him and his loved ones.

Before sentencing Keith, Silveria denied his attorney's request for a new trial and to reduce the charge against him to a misdemeanor.

She also criticized Keith for his statement to the court. After briefly apologizing for his actions Tuesday, Keith then spoke extensively about why his actions were justified and tried to divert responsibility.

Silveria told Keith that if he had stopped after saying he was sorry for actions and would never do them again, you would have "served yourself much better."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.

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