A community group on Tuesday called for the resignations of a local judge and Stanislaus County’s top prosecutor for a plea deal that resulted in no jail time for an ex-sheriff’s detective once accused in a deadly shooting.
Kari Abbey initially was charged with murder in the 2010 shooting of Rita Elias. But Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova in 2011 dismissed the murder charge after determining Abbey fired her gun in self-defense.
In the five years since that decision, Abbey awaited trial facing felony charges, stemming from the same case, that included allegations of embezzling from the Sheriff’s Department, cultivating marijuana, unlawfully evicting tenants, child endangerment and illegal possession of steroids.
With the plea deal, Abbey avoided trial. She pleaded no contest to unlawfully entering a home and possessing steroids, both misdemeanors. The felony charges were dropped.
“We’re asking for equal justice for everyone. This is not justice. I know that,” said Thomas Helme of Valley Improvement Projects. The Modesto nonprofit works on social and environmental issues.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager said Tuesday evening that when prosecutors resolve any case, they do it with the approval of a judge and in light of the applicable law and the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The Modesto Bee called Michael Rains, Abbey’s attorney, this week to respond to the group’s claims. But he did not return calls seeking comment for this report. Attempts to reach Abbey by phone also were unsuccessful.
Rains has said that both sides took a more realistic approach to the evidence and came up with the resolution. He also said some of the felony charges his client faced wouldn’t have held up in front of a jury.
Helme was joined Tuesday afternoon by about 20 protesters who gathered on the downtown Modesto courthouse lawn on I Street, directly across the street from the District Attorney’s Office. With picket signs, they marched in front of the prosecutor’s office, in front of the downtown jail, and around the courthouse building chanting “Justice for Rita. Jail for Abbey.”
Members of Rita Elias’ family did not join the protesters Tuesday. Helme said he contacted Elias’ family, who were supportive of their effort, but they did not want to participate.
Elias’ family has filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against 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.
Helme and his group called for the resignations of Córdova for dismissing the murder charge and Fladager for Abbey’s plea deal, which resulted in a sentence of three years of probation, 40 hours of community service and $225 in restitution to the Sheriff’s Department.
“A $225 fine is just an extra slap in the face,” Helme said about the restitution. “The whole thing stinks.”
He said the public can no longer trust any decision from Córdova or Fladager, so they should step down.
Abbey’s 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.
Her 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.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Harris, who prosecuted the case, has 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.
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.
Harris has explained 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 admitted guilt to possessing the sawed-off shotgun found where Kari Abbey lived with her children, according to Harris.
The prosecutor said a jury conviction on the remaining charges could have resulted in jail time, but not for Kari Abbey, who had no prior criminal record to warrant jail time.
Also, 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.
On Tuesday, Helme said the prosecution could have fought harder for a tougher sentence. He claimed Abbey and her father’s plea deals were orchestrated to benefit each other, so neither defendant would ever serve jail time.
Helme said had he been arrested in possession of 100 marijuana plants and a sawed-off shotgun, “I’d be in prison.”
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 set to return to court July 6 for a continued arraignment hearing.
The deadly confrontation between Kari Abbey and Elias occurred at a Donald Street home in west Modesto on Sept. 24, 2010.
An argument over late rent led to Abbey punching Elias, and the 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 and threaten Kari Abbey. When Elias brandished a BB gun, a replica of a semiautomatic pistol, Kari Abbey shot Elias, authorities said.
Helme’s group in part conducts outreach for homeless people and works for law enforcement accountability. Helme said Abbey knew how to legally evict tenants, but she ignored it.
“Had Abbey been successful, Elias would’ve been homeless that night,” Helme said. “You can end up homeless in one night without a proper eviction.”