Jeff Jardine

Souliotes’ ‘legal odyssey’ resumes in federal court

George Souliotes, 72, sits in the rose garden of a house that he was remodeling in Escondido in October 2013.
George Souliotes, 72, sits in the rose garden of a house that he was remodeling in Escondido in October 2013. Los Angeles Times

Nearly two years ago, George Souliotes walked out of the Stanislaus County jail a free man. A federal judge in 2013 overturned his conviction on murder and arson charges from a 1997 fire that killed three of his tenants.

The judge ruled that Souliotes had been convicted based upon evidence and conclusions by investigators that had been refuted by fire science, and ordered Stanislaus County prosecutors to begin a new trial by July 10 of that year or set him free. Instead, Souliotes pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain smoke detectors in his rental home in Modesto. He was released July 3, 2013, having spent 16 years behind bars, including time spent while awaiting two trials and 13 years in state prison.

Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Dolan interviewed Souliotes three months into his freedom and wrote, “The legal odyssey was over, but Souliotes’ journey back to life was just beginning.”

Except that his legal odyssey continues. Acting as his own attorney, Souliotes is suing the Modesto police and fire departments in federal court, charging that those agencies violated his civil rights in their investigations that led to his 1999 mistrial and 2000 conviction. He filed the lawsuit in the U.S. Eastern District Court, naming specifically Sgt. Mike Harden, who later became the city’s police chief; and Detectives Roger Lee, Dick Ridenour, John Buehler and Dodge Hendee and Officer Joe Pimentel from the Police Department. All have retired except for Pimentel.

The lawsuit also names Modesto fire investigators Bob Evers and Tom Reuscher, long retired as well.

Additionally, Souliotes lists “Does 1-10.”

“The Plaintiff will seek leave to amend this Complaint and give notice to the Doe defendants upon learning of their names and capacities,” the lawsuit reads.

Although Souliotes notified the city of Modesto by mail, he has not properly served the city with the lawsuit, City Attorney Adam Lindgren said.

Neither have Stanislaus County through the county counsel’s office, according to County Counsel John Doering, nor the District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Souliotes, been served, said District Attorney Birgit Fladager.

The case began Jan. 15, 1997, when the rental home Souliotes owned at 1319 Ronald Ave., in Modesto burned, killing tenants Michelle Jones, her son Daniel Jones Jr., and daughter Amanda Jones. Authorities arrested Souliotes later that same day, charging him with three counts of homicide and one count of arson. A jury in March 1999 ended in a mistrial with the jury leaning 11-1 for conviction. His second trial, in May 2000, resulted in a guilty verdict and he was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

Souliotes maintained his innocence. In April 2013, a federal magistrate vacated the convictions and returned the case to the lower court for retrial. But Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver ruled that witness Monica Sandoval, whose testimony was key to the first conviction, could not testify this time around.

“The judge called Sandoval’s account of whom she saw on the night of the fire at Souliotes’ rental home ‘way too speculative,’ ” the Bee reported in June 2013. Shaver also determined that “two former fire investigators who examined the evidence 16 years ago cannot testify that they still believe the fire was intentionally started.”

Consequently, Souliotes agreed to a no contest plea to involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain a working smoke alarm in the rental home and was released.

His lawsuit suggests Modesto fire investigators Reuscher and Evers immediately were convinced the fire was set intentionally and “failed to conduct any meaningful examination of the many possible accidental first causes present, failed to rule out such causes and failed to collect and/or document evidence pertaining to those possible causes.”

Rather than investigating the real cause, Souliotes claims, they began looking for a suspect, fixated on him and looked no further. The lawsuit also states that “The false arson evidence used to convict Plaintiff was based on outdated and unreliable theories that had been practiced by fire investigators for years. However, the scientific invalidity of those theories was firmly established at least five years prior to the fire at issue in this case.”

He’s asking for general and compensatory damages, special damages, “exemplary and punitive damages against each individual Defendants,” litigation costs, reasonable attorney’s fees and anything else “the Court may deem just and equitable,” according to the filing.

Can Souliotes win such a case acting as his own attorney?

Julie Davies, a professor at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said it raises questions.

“What are the odds he can navigate a federal court as a pro per litigator?” she said. “They do look out for them. There are clerks who are mindful that (pro pers) don’t have the legal training. They will try to see whether there is a glimmer of hope for a claim to stay in court.”

But by Souliotes representing himself, “it could indicate no (attorney) is willing to take it,” she said. “If you could win this, the damage – 13 years in prison – wouldn’t be insignificant.”

No matter. Assuming the named defendants are properly served and the lawsuit amended to include the Does, Souliotes’ “legal odyssey” is anything but over.

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