Amid a throng of media, protesters and supporters, Kari Abbey, the former Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputy, appeared in Stanislaus County Superior Court on Wednesday to plead not guilty to the charges against her, including one of murder for the death of Rita Elias, 31.
Abbey, 34, is facing charges of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to forcibly enter a home, embezzlement from a government entity, receiving stolen property, cultivating marijuana and permitting a child to be endangered.
Abbey came under investigation after an off-duty shooting in the 1700 block of Donald Street in Modesto on Sept. 24, 2010, which resulted in the death of Elias.
Abbey was at the residence to collect rent when the two women got into a verbal argument that soon escalated into a physical fight. At some point the two women separated and Elias went back into the home. Abbey retrieved a pistol from her vehicle and Elias came out of the home with a gun in one hand and a branch in the other. Abbey fired her pistol, striking Elias multiple times. Elias was taken to Doctors Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead. It was later revealed the gun in Elias’ hand was a bb gun.
The shooting was investigated by the sheriff department’s homicide unit and then turned over to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.
Investigators served a search warrant at a home belonging to the Abbey Family Trust, which includes Abbey at the end of March. During the search investigators found a cache of weapons, cash – both real and counterfeit – steroids, and a “sophisticated indoor marijuana grow.”
In court documents the district attorney’s office stated Abbey engaged in a pattern of intimidation of her and her family’s tenants and was operating as if she was above the law.
Harry Stern, the defense attorney representing Abbey for the arraignment, entered a not guilty plea on her behalf. Abbey left the courthouse without speaking to any of the media, but her attorney made a few brief statements on what he believes is a “textbook case of self-defense.”
“Whether you are a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy, on or off duty or a regular citizen, you have the absolute right to defend yourself,” Stern said.
Stern called the other charges lodged against Abbey “minor” issues that have “an explanation” and “will be resolved.”
The inside of the courtroom was packed with supporters of Abbey sitting on one side and Elias’ family and friends on the other. In addition, some of Elias’ friends and family members stood outside the courthouse and chanted “justice” and questioned why Abbey wasn’t in jail and given a relatively low bail amount in consideration of the charges against her. Abbey has been out on a bail of $300,000.
The question of the bail amount was also raised inside the courtroom. Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris asked Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Cordova to review the bail because it appeared to contain an error in the amount ordered. Other high profile cases in Stanislaus County involving a murder suspect have bail amounts set at $1 million and higher. Shanna Wills, the 17-year-old Denair teen accused of stabbing her father to death has a $3 million bail and Michael Hoyt, the Turlock man suspected of beating to death a Hilmar man, is out free on a $2 million bail.
At the conclusion of Hoyt’s preliminary trial, defense attorney Frank Carson argued Hoyt should be given a lesser bail amount, given the low amount assigned to Abbey, but Judge Cordova declined to alter the amount at the time.
During Wednesday’s arraignment Cordova said Abbey had been employed by the Stanislaus County Public Defender’s Office during the same time period he worked there, but he did not see a reason to recuse himself. Both the prosecution and the defense agreed.
Abbey is next scheduled for a pre-trial hearing at 8:30 a.m. on June 30.
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