Former Stanislaus sheriff’s detective Kari Abbey takes plea deal

Kari Abbey
Kari Abbey Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department

A case against a former Stanislaus County sheriff’s detective once accused in a deadly shooting has been resolved.

Kari Abbey initially was charged with murder in the 2010 shooting of Rita Elias. But Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova later dismissed the murder charge after determining Abbey fired her gun in self-defense.

What remained of the case against Abbey were felony charges that included allegations of embezzling from the Sheriff’s Department, cultivating marijuana, unlawfully evicting her tenants, child endangerment and illegal possession of steroids.

The embezzlement charge stemmed from allegations by investigators and co-workers who said Abbey spent half of her time at the Sheriff’s Department attending to personal business associated with her family’s rental properties.

With the plea deal, Abbey pleaded no contest to unlawfully entering a home and possessing steroids, both misdemeanors. The felony charges were dropped.

Abbey, 39, was sentenced to three years of probation, 40 hours of community service and $225 in restitution to the Sheriff’s Department, according to Assistant District Attorney Dave Harris, who prosecuted the case.

Michael Rains, Abbey’s attorney, said both sides took a more realistic and pragmatic approach to the evidence after further review of the case.

“Some of these charges, in my opinion, wouldn’t have held up in court in front of jury,” Rains said Friday.

He said he didn’t think Kari Abbey committed the crimes to which she pleaded no contest, but said his client did not want to spend more than $100,000 taking this case to trial. Rains said the taxpayers also would have had to pay for what likely would have been a three-week trial.

Rains, based in Pleasant Hill, has a connection to a case involving the prosecutor. A year ago, Harris and prosecution investigator Steve Jacobson faced contempt-of-court charges related to allegations of improperly contacting an alternate juror and failing to notify the court in a trial of Modesto bail bondsman Aleo John Pontillo. Rains represented Jacobson in that case.

“The contempt allegation was baseless from the beginning and certainly had no bearing whatsoever on how we handled this or any other case,” said District Attorney Birgit Fladager.

Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden dismissed the cases against Harris and Jacobson based on insufficient evidence. The judge said she believed the investigator and the prosecutor now recognize the mistakes they made.

Abbey’s father, James Robert Abbey, was prosecuted separately. He was charged with conspiring to forcibly enter rental homes owned by their family, cultivating marijuana and illegal gun possession.

His charges stemmed from the discovery of guns and an indoor marijuana garden with about 100 plants on property Kari Abbey shared with her parents. Because the former detective lived there, she also was charged with growing marijuana.

Harris said James Abbey qualified for Veterans Treatment Court, so his case was referred to that diversion program designed to help military veterans avoid jail by participating in drug or alcohol rehabilitation. Defendants have to volunteer for the program but must qualify through the types of crimes committed and also through an assessment by Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto or the Modesto Vet Center.

James Abbey pleaded no contest to felony charges of marijuana cultivation and illegally possessing a sawed-off shotgun. He was sentenced to three years of probation and community service. The conspiracy charge against him was dropped.

He must participate in drug rehabilitation and comply with the terms of veterans court. He is scheduled to appear in veterans court Aug. 8 for his next probation hearing.

Harris explained on Friday that James Abbey’s conviction affected the prosecution against his daughter. Had Kari Abbey been convicted, Harris said, the child endangerment charge would have produced the most time behind bars.

But that charge would be difficult to prove at trial, because her father had already admitted guilt to possessing the sawed-off shotgun found where Kari Abbey lived with her children, according to Harris.

Harris said a jury conviction on the remaining viable charges could have resulted in jail time, but not for Kari Abbey, who had no prior criminal record to warrant jail time.

Also, Kari Abbey’s embezzlement charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor because of Proposition 47. Approved in November 2014, the statewide initiative reclassified many nonserious and nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering believes Kari Abbey received a favorable plea deal from prosecutors, a deal a public defender client is not likely to receive in similar cases.

“I hope this level of discretion and understanding applies to other prosecutions,” Spiering said about the former detective’s case. “Forty hours of community service, that’s a joke.”

Kari Abbey’s husband, Bennie Taylor, faces felony charges of conspiring to forcibly enter rental homes owned by their family, marijuana cultivation, child endangerment and possessing an assault weapon, along with misdemeanor counts of illegally possessing steroids and illegally carrying a concealed handgun in a vehicle.

Taylor’s case is pending. He is scheduled to return to court July 6 for a continued arraignment hearing. Kirk McAllister, Taylor’s attorney, has argued that there is insufficient evidence his client was part of a conspiracy.

Harris has argued in court that conspiratorial behavior led to a deadly confrontation between Kari Abbey and Elias at a Donald Street home in west Modesto on Sept. 24, 2010.

An argument over late rent had ensued between Kari Abbey and Elias. Abbey punched Elias, and the two women struggled on the ground before James Abbey broke up the fight, according to testimony. Kari Abbey grabbed Elias’ backpack and threw it across the street, telling Elias she needed to get her stuff and leave.

Elias refused to leave and, according to testimony, continued to challenge Kari Abbey, telling her she knew where she lived. Another investigator testified that Elias threatened to get gang members to retaliate against Kari Abbey.

When Elias brandished a BB gun, a replica of a semiautomatic pistol, Kari Abbey shot Elias, authorities said.

Elias’ family filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Kari Abbey, her parents, Sheriff Adam Christianson and the county. The court’s website indicates the civil case is still pending and scheduled Aug. 1 for a case management conference.

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts