Tree Trial Pivots On Motive, Police Work

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The prosecution is focused on motive, the defense on investigative lapses as the murder trial of Bodhi Tree, 28, of Arcata, enters its second week.

Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo told jurors in her opening statement May 14 that Tree’s long history of retaliatory and criminal behavior culminated a year ago this month in triple murder charges. Firpo asserted there was no good reason for the three shootings, according to the Times-Standard report of the trial’s first day. She alleged that Tree had a pattern of making unwanted sexual overtures to women and becoming angry when others blocked his advances.

Testimony in the first two days of the trial centered on Tree’s alleged attempt to murder his long-time friend Rhett August in a shooting in Eureka on May 15th, 2013. Tree reportedly blamed August for a severe beating he suffered at the hands of third parties in August’s apartment several days before the attempt on August’s life.

Bodhi Tree

Bodhi Tree

August survived, but three days later Tree allegedly murdered two more victims in Arcata. Christina Schwarz, 18, a Eureka High School senior, and Alan ‘Sunshine’ Marcet, 27, died of gunshot wounds when Marcet sought to thwart Tree’s attack on the teenager, according to the state’s case. Tree is accused of harassing Schwarz in prelude to the murders.

A Garberville native with a long record, Tree pleaded not guilty to two charges of murder and one charge of attempted murder. If convicted on all of them, he could be sentenced from 50 years to life in prison.

The co-defense team, Heidi Holmquist and Casey Russo, declared flatly in their opening statement that Tree is not the murderer. They reeled off what they claim are serious deficiencies in the state’s case:

• The murder weapon was never found.

• There were no eyewitnesses to the Arcata killings.

• Statements by a key witness for the state, Sean Butler-Smith, that purport to establish a link between the Eureka and Arcata shootings are not dispositive because he is on felony probation for armed robbery and a known heroin addict.

• Arcata Police mishandled Tree’s arrest, failing to inform him he was to be charged with murder and interrogating him while he was intoxicated.

The second day of the trial, evidence technicians from the Eureka Police Department supplied information that suggested the integrity of the crime scene at August’s apartment on J Street may have been compromised. Linda Schwend, a police services officer responsible for documenting the scene, told defense counsel Russo she saw unidentified civilians entering and exiting the apartment and its environs at will, unsupervised.

Further, the evidence Schwend photographed had not been secured, marked or numbered when investigators arrived right after shots were fired in the night time attack. That was her job later in the day, she said.

Apparently access to August’s apartment was not monitored in the intervening hours before the arrival of the second investigative team, sometime between 8 and 10 a.m.

It was at that time that Eureka police detective Bob Wilson searched the neighborhood for evidence, but found no shell casings. From that he deduced that the J Street shooting involved a revolver, because it doesn’t eject a casing when fired; it remains in the revolving chamber.

Under cross-examination, Wilson affirmed he is not trained as a professional crime scene reconstructionist. He also acknowledged that the Eureka Police Department does not have one.

Wilson testified that he found no on-scene evidence at the J Street location.

Defense counsel questioned another evidence technician, Amber Cosetti, about a bullet found lying on the bottom of August’s stairwell, apparently pristine. Cosetti’s photographs of the bullet were enlarged for display to the courtroom. She agreed with Russo that the bullet was in good condition. There were no visible blood stains or detritus around it.

The prosecution’s focus on Tree’s alleged retaliatory nature and on his criminal record is documented in part by two probation officer reports submitted to the court in January, 2012. They were first publicized by the North Coast Journal in April of this year and copies were obtained by the Mad River Union over the weekend. According to those two-year-old reports, probation authorities considered Tree at high risk at that time of future offenses. “There is no indication that probation has had any deterring effect on him,” one report stated.

Nevertheless, Tree was released a few weeks prior to the May 2013 shootings after serving 16 months for felony evasion of a police officer in connection with a 100 mph. highway chase in October, 2011 that began at the Bear River Casino.

Secured in the patrol vehicle, Tree was restrained with a hobble device to prevent him from thrashing around in the rear seat. In the run-up to his capture, he sought repeatedly to elude pursuing officers, ignoring a stop sign, driving on the wrong side of the road, fleeing officers when he stopped briefly and nearly hit one of them as he sped off. He then drove his Lexus down the center of the highway, crashed into a thicket of berry bushes, saw an officer with his weapon drawn, threw the car into reverse and proceeded back onto the roadway, where a spike strip deployed by the police disabled Tree’s car. Officers had to brandish shotguns to cow Tree into submission.

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