Friday, January 1, 2010

Major criminal cases resolved in 2009

Judicial turmoil at an end for now in Blaine County

Express Staff Writer

Two criminal cases that brought national news media attention to the Blaine County area were resolved in 2009 in trials held in Boise and Shoshone. In one, a man accused of manslaughter in the death of his daughter was found not guilty. In the other, a man charged with rape was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Two other 2009 Blaine County criminal cases, both involving death, didn't gain national prominence but remained high in public awareness nonetheless. A case involving the vehicular death of a well-known Hailey woman is still pending in 5th District Court, while a case filed in the death of a man during a fight at a Sun Valley Co. employee dormitory has been dismissed and the suspect given his freedom.

Several different judges replaced Blaine County 5th District Judge Robert J. Elgee in presiding over criminal cases in 2009, when for various reasons Elgee was disqualified. The situation began to normalize midway through the year and the vast majority of the county's criminal cases are now back in Elgee's hands.

Aragon not guilty

A weight was lifted from the shoulders of Robert E. Aragon when a Lincoln County jury in October found him not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the Christmas Day 2008 death of his 11-year-old daughter. After a trial that lasted a week, it took the jury only about two hours to acquit Aragon, a 56-year-old farm equipment operator who lives in Shoshone.

Although it was a Lincoln County case, the death of Sage Aragon occurred on West Magic Road in southern Blaine County. She died of hypothermia after Aragon, whose vehicle became stuck in snow that day, allowed Sage and her 12-year-old brother, Bear Aragon, to attempt a walk of some nine miles to visit their mother in the West Magic Reservoir area.

The weather was mild when the children began the walk, but a windstorm blowing ice and snow set in before they had finished it. Bear was found that evening, cold but alive, in an unheated roadside restroom. Blaine County Search and Rescue crews found Sage dead alongside the road early the following morning.

The case was handled in Lincoln County because Aragon and the children were in Lincoln County when the children started their walk.

Marsalis gets life

Jeffrey J. Marsalis, a 36-year-old former Sun Valley Co. security guard, was sentenced in July to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of raping a 21-year-old woman in Sun Valley in 2005.

The case lingered in the Blaine County court system for more almost three years while separate criminal cases against Marsalis were under way in Pennsylvania and extradition proceedings took place to bring him back to Idaho.

Marsalis had already been convicted of two sex crimes in Philadelphia and sentenced to 21 years in prison in Pennsylvania by the time proceedings against him started anew in Idaho in 2008. The case was moved to Ada County because of pretrial publicity in the Wood River Valley and his trial was held in Boise in April. At the conclusion of a weeklong trial, the jury deliberated for several hours and decided that the woman was incapacitated when Marsalis had sex with her.

Senior Judge Daniel Hurlbutt Jr., who heard the case after Elgee disqualified himself, pronounced the life sentence because of Marsalis' prior convictions.

Manslaughter trial pending

A jury trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 3 in a vehicular manslaughter case against Cody William Stevens, a 28-year-old Twin Falls man accused in the March 10 traffic death of 53-year-old Bertilia Lyn Redfern.

The Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has alleged that Stevens was "under the influence of alcohol, drugs or any other intoxicating substances" at the time of the accident on state Highway 75 north of its intersection with Countryside Boulevard in Hailey. Stevens wasn't directly involved in the accident but is accused of causing it by swerving his vehicle into the opposite lane of traffic. He was allegedly involved in two other traffic accidents earlier in the day and a fourth in downtown Hailey following the fatal crash when he lost control of his vehicle and smashed into a building.

Stevens, who has served in both the Army and Navy, is currently free on bond.

Case dismissed

An involuntary manslaughter case filed against a former Sun Valley Co. employee in the death of his roommate was dismissed in February. No new charge has been filed by the Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office against Corey D. Drehmel.

Drehmel, a 19-year-old worker from Boise, was accused in the death of 49-year-old Jerome James following an alleged fight between them at the Oregon employee dormitory on the evening of Feb. 6. In dismissing the case, Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas explained that the cause of death had not been determined and that time limitations necessitated the dismissal. However, Thomas held open the possibility of filing a new charge depending upon the outcome of laboratory tests on blood and tissue samples.

Blaine County Coroner Russell Mikel determined in April that James had a pre-existing heart condition and likely died of a heart attack.

Judicial musical chairs

After several months of judicial musical chairs, Elgee is once again presiding judge for the majority of criminal cases in Blaine County 5th District Court.

For nearly six months, starting in November 2008, the prosecuting attorney's office disqualified Elgee from hearing nearly every criminal case to reach the district court level. Prosecutor Thomas discontinued the disqualifiications last spring after coming to terms with Elgee. However, neither Elgee nor Thomas has been willing to discuss publicly why the disqualifications were done in the first place and why the practice ended.

Counting Elgee, five 5th District Court judges were assigned to Blaine County cases in 2009. The Elgee disqualification cases initially went to Gooding County Judge Barry Wood, who transferred most of them to Jerome County Judge John Butler following Wood's announcement of retirement last summer. Wood retained the Sarah Johnson post-conviction relief case for a few months but finally transferred it in September to Twin Falls County Judge G. Richard Bevan.

Because of the potential for controversy, Elgee disqualified himself last winter from the Marsalis rape case, and it was assigned instead to Judge Daniel Hurlbutt, a retired district court judge who lives in Ketchum.

Wood's retirement becomes effective today, Jan. 1. He was presiding judge for numerous Blaine County civil and criminal cases, including the Sarah Johnson murder case. After Johnson was convicted by a jury of killing her parents in 2003, Wood sentenced her to two life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

Terry Smith:

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