A judge Thursday said there was enough evidence for a Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy to stand trial in the shooting death of a Modesto woman in a February 2017 pursuit that ended in Ripon.
Justin Wall is accused of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Evin Olsen Yadegar, 46. San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Xapuri Villapudua made her ruling following a preliminary hearing that began last month.
After the ruling, Yadegar’s husband, Hanibal, appeared to be overwhelmed with emotion as he hunched over and cried in his seat inside the courtroom. He attended each day of the preliminary hearing.
Wall exited the courtroom with more than a dozen supporters, some of them accompanied the defendant to the Stockton courthouse throughout the hearing, which was done in six days over the past three weeks.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
Before the judge’s ruling Thursday afternoon, the attorneys presented their arguments in court.
Authorities initially said Yadegar did not respond to commands to get out of her vehicle and then put her car in reverse, driving toward two deputies and a Ripon police officer. Wall told investigators he fired his gun in response to the car threatening the lives of the deputies and the officer.
San Joaquin County prosecutors say Yadegar stopped her Volkswagen sedan for several moments in the neighborhood off Main Street, before she drove off again. Then, Wall fired four shots at Yadegar.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau told the judge that any other reasonable law enforcement official in that same situation would not have fired his gun at Yadegar. He said there was no justification for Wall to shoot and kill her.
“There was no assault on a police officer,” Himelblau argued.
Judith Odbert, Wall’s defense attorney, said her client was responding to what he perceived as a deadly threat to his fellow deputies and the officer, when she backed her car toward them. She said Wall, as a deputy, is responsible for making split-second decisions that involve the lives of others.
“It was her choice and her movement toward the officers that caused him to make that split-second decision,” Odbert argued.
While announcing her ruling Thursday afternoon, the judge said this was not an easy case. Villapudua said it was not her role in the hearing to determine whether the defendant is guilty or make an opinion on the felony charge filed against Wall.
She reminded the prosecution and the defense that the hearing is simply for the court to decide whether there was probable cause that a crime occurred. Villapudua said the burden of proof in a preliminary hearing is the lowest burden the state’s judicial system has, even lower than civil court cases.
The judge said the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to meet that probable cause requirement. Villapudua scheduled Wall to return to court March 28 for an arraignment hearing.
The court — at some point — will schedule a trial date. Wall remains free on his own recognizance as he awaits trial.
The deadly shooting occurred in the early hours of Feb. 26, 2017. The incident began when Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call shortly before 3 a.m. at the Hampton Inn & Suites in the 4900 block of Sisk Road in Salida.
Authorities have said a security guard reported that Yadegar had begun an argument and a physical confrontation with him. Deputy Michael Sierra testified Thursday that the security guard spotted Yadegar in her parked car outside the hotel.
“She was mumbling to herself and didn’t appear to be making much sense,” according to Sierra.
Yadegar had Bipolar I disorder, which is described as episodes of extreme moods, particularly mania. Her husband on the night of the shooting had reported to Modesto police that she was missing and could be a danger to herself, according to previous testimony.
At the hotel, Yadegar said she was a guest in room 830, which didn’t exist. When the security guard stopped her from using an elevator, she said “Hit him, hit him,” before she hit the security guard, according to Sierra.
Then, she said “Push him, push him,” before pushing the security guard, Sierra said. She left the hotel while flipping-off the security guard and yelling obscenities at him.
The pursuit begins
A deputy arrived at the hotel and saw Yadegar’s Volkswagen Jetta leaving the area. The deputy gave chase. Sierra flattened the Volkswagen’s tires shortly before the pursuit continued north on Highway 99 into San Joaquin County.
The chase moved off the highway and into Ripon, heading south on South Manley Road and stopping near Tornell Circle.
Video footage from a Ripon police patrol car dashboard camera shows Yadegar backing up her car a few feet before moving forward and going around Wall’s Chevrolet Tahoe. Wall then shot Yadegar as she was moving the car forward again. Yadegar’s car continued down Tornell Circle, before it crashed into the front of a house.
Wall’s reaction time and whether he decided to open fire as the car backed up or later, when it moved forward, were at the forefront of testimony.
On Thursday, the prosecutor said there were six other law enforcement officials at the scene when Wall fired his gun, including four other Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies, their supervising sergeant and a Ripon police officer. Yet, Wall was the only one who fired his gun, Himelblau argued.
He told the judge that all other law enforcement officials saw the car move forward and “deemed her not to be a threat... Obviously as the car is moving forward, there’s no threat at this particular time.”
The defense attorney argued that Yadegar repeatedly refused to comply with orders from law enforcement during an 18-minute chase. While they might have some concern about physical health, they didn’t know if she was under the influence of drugs or simply intent on violating the law, Odbert said.
“All of three of them believed they were going to be killed,” Wall’s attorney said about the two other deputies and the Ripon officer who said they believed their lives were at risk when the car backed-up.
Wall told investigators that he called for an ambulance during the pursuit, because he had heard on the radio that Volkswagen’s driver might be suffering from seizures. Other deputies testified that the woman appeared to be behaving oddly when they encountered her that night.
The prosecutor said the defense tried to frame Yadegar’s actions as an assault with a deadly weapon, but she didn’t hit anyone with her car. Testimony indicated Yadegar’s car never moved faster than 35 mph. Himelblau said Yadegar’s car was not a danger to anyone during a slow speed pursuit.
He told the judge that it was Wall firing four shots into the car that created the danger to the public that night, after Wall disabled Yadegar and her car crashed into the front of a home on Tornell Circle. No injuries were reported inside the house.
The defense attorney told the judge that there was no evidence or testimony that indicated that Wall fired his gun as he perceived the car moving forward. Odbert argued that it was unreasonable to disregard testimony from the other law enforcement officials at the scene and the science regarding the timing of shootings.
A forensic video expert testified that Wall fired four shots in 0.9 of a second, and he fired the first shot 3.07 seconds after the car began moving in reverse. If Wall had fired his gun in response to Yadegar’s car moving forward, he would’ve fired the first shot 50 percent faster than the average reaction in a simplified shooting simulation in a lab.
The last Stanislaus County sheriff’s official to face a criminal charge for shooting someone was former Detective Kari Abbey, who shot Rita Elias during a confrontation in 2010. A Stanislaus County judge dismissed a murder charge against Abbey after determining Abbey fired her gun in self-defense.