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Turlock defendants await decision on cheese plant fire charges
Clardy Erika
Erika Clardy

The three Turlock women accused of trying to kill a man by burning down the vacant cheese plant he had taken shelter in, will have to wait until Thursday to learn if they will stand trial on the charges lodged against them.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office contends Lanette Sullivan, Wanda White, and Erika Clardy set fire to the former Lactalis cheese plant in a concerted effort to end the life of Terry Sump, the former flame of Sullivan.

Sump escaped a fiery death barely unscathed, while the three women were arrested and charged with attempted murder and arson of an inhabited dwelling for the February fire that left the vacant cheese plant on W. Main Street a charred and ashy ruin.

Ending testimony and closing arguments were delivered Monday in the trio’s preliminary hearing. Judge Scott Steffen will render his decision on whether or not all three will stand trial on the charges against them Thursday morning.

In previous testimony, Sump said he and Sullivan had been fighting and that he had forcibly removed her from the plant. He said Sullivan came back with White — her sister — and Clardy, White’s daughter. Sump said he climbed up to the rafters to avoid the three women and that he was up there when Clardy stated they should start a fire to “smoke him out.”

Turlock Police Detective Frank Navarro testified Monday that White told him she started the fire by lighting some newspapers and debris and putting them under some boards up against the wall, directly below where Sump was hiding in the rafters.

When contacted by Navarro, Sullivan initially denied any knowledge of the fire, even though she had sent Sump a message on Facebook asking if he had any marshmallows to roast.

Sullivan eventually told Navarro she had been there when the fire started and hit Sump with a broomstick while he was in the rafters. The prosecution said this was an effort to keep him confined while the smoke built up.

Navarro testified he spoke with a woman who had been staying at the cheese plant and heard Sullivan and White shout out threats to Sump, including that they were going to kill him.

White’s defense attorney, Michael Scheid said the remarks were utterances said in the heat of the moment and not a real threat.

Deputy District Attorney Samual Getrich said in his closing remarks that the intent to kill Sump was shared by each woman and was shown through their actions of starting the fire and keeping him confined in the rafters while the smoke built up.

The three defense attorneys each argued that the women had no malice or intent to kill Sump.

“They didn’t have the willful malice,” said Peter Rodriguez, who is representing Sullivan. “They went to beat him up, not burn down the building.”

Clardy’s attorney Stephen Solano told the court his client had no intention of causing Sump harm, even though it was her idea to start the blaze.

“She said it was to smoke him out,” Solano said.

Solano said the fire was akin to a hunter or camper accidentally sparking a forest fire and that the flames spreading so quickly and causing so much damage was an unforeseen consequence.

“I don’t see how arson is there,” Solano argued.

Scheid acknowledged White’s role in starting the fire, but argued that the charge of arson of an inhabited dwelling was an erroneous charge because the cheese plant was a vacant building and not the dwelling of the transients taking shelter inside.

“By nature transients are transients. They have no permanent residence,” Scheid said.

Getrich responded back that Sump had called the cheese plant his home for five years and continues to stay at the site.

“All that is required is that it is inhabited,” Getrich said.

Judge Steffen said he wanted to review case law before making his decision and ordered all parties back on Thursday.

All three women remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center.