Jeff Jardine

Another unchallenged element in Souliotes murder case saga

George Souliotes, 72, sits in the rose garden of a house that he is remodeling in Escondido on Oct. 11, 2013. Three months before, the former general contractor who loved ballroom dancing was set free after 17 years behind bars.
George Souliotes, 72, sits in the rose garden of a house that he is remodeling in Escondido on Oct. 11, 2013. Three months before, the former general contractor who loved ballroom dancing was set free after 17 years behind bars. Los Angeles Times file

In 2000, Modesto landlord George Souliotes went to state prison on the 1997 murders of a mother and her two children, in no small part because his legal counsel failed to present a defense during his second trial.

It took more than a decade before a federal judge overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Souliotes, 75, instead pleaded to a lesser charge and walked out a free man rather than endure another lengthy murder trial. Feeling vindicated and victimized, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year against the city of Modesto in an attempt to recoup the financial part of his life lost from the time of his arrest in January 1997 until his release in July 2013.

On Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno dismissed what remained of the lawsuit against the city, its police and fire departments, and individuals involved in his prosecution.

And just as in his second murder trial, this one ended badly for Souliotes because his legal team declined to put up a fight. His Chicago-based attorneys have 30 days to appeal the dismissal, but on what grounds if they didn’t oppose the dismissal to begin with? In all likelihood, so ends a case spanning nearly two decades.

It is a tragedy that began during the New Year’s flooding of 1997. Behind on the rent and facing eviction from a Ronald Avenue home owned by Souliotes, Daniel Jones bought a mobile home in a trailer park on River Road along the Tuolumne River. But before the family could vacate Souliotes’ rental and move into the trailer, New Don Pedro Dam spilled for the first and only time since its completion in the early 1970s. The trailer park went underwater. The family stayed put in Souliotes’ Ronald Avenue rental, where a fire on Jan. 15 killed Jones’ wife, Michelle, and their children Daniel Jr. and Amanda. Authorities believed Souliotes started the blaze and arrested him that day; he was tried twice, the first ending in a mistrial in 1999, the second in conviction a year later.

Souliotes never wavered in proclaiming his innocence. The Innocence Project took up his case, arguing that the fire science technology authorities used to convict him since has been refuted by more advanced technology. A judge agreed, but more so because Souliotes’ legal team put on no defense during the second trial, claiming the prosecution had not made its case. New evidence that refutes old evidence or testimony alone doesn’t guarantee a new trial. It took the error in representation for the judge to order a new trial.

Rather than retry the case, Souliotes pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain smoke detectors in his rental home. He walked out of the Stanislaus County jail a free man in July 2013.

In April 2015, Souliotes filed his federal lawsuit against the city, the police and fire departments, and against the individual police and fire investigators who worked on the case, among others. He claimed his conviction and incarceration resulted from their use of “false and unreliable forensic/scientific evidence, unreliable witnesses,” calling the investigation “reckless” and more.

Judge O’Neill in June dismissed three of Souliotes’ claims. This past week, he dismissed the rest. I could not reach Souliotes or his attorney in Chicago, Russell Ainsworth, to find out why they didn’t oppose Modesto’s motion /to dismiss or whether they plan to appeal.

Kevin G. Little, a Fresno attorney who handled some of the motions for Souliotes, said the outcome is mind-boggling.

“Its just unfathomable that Mr. Souliotes’ lawsuit was dismissed,” Little told me. “There’s no doubt he was wrongly accused. It is a sad state of affairs when there is no remedy for losing such a long part of his life.”

Modesto City Attorney Adam Lindgren said, “This court decision validates the diligence and professional work of police and fire (investigators) and the prosecutors,” but he reserved further comment until the 30-day appeal period has elapsed.

Presumably unopposed.

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