Placer County DA Brad Fenocchio retires with good, bad memories

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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While Brad Fenocchio was working on the death penalty trial of Arturo Suarez, the trial was working on him. Fenocchio, 63, retired this past week as Placer County District Attorney after 16 years. His successor – and long-time supporter – Scott Owens, was to be sworn in Thursday at a ceremony in Roseville’s Santucci Justice Center. The Suarez case – particularly the horrifying evidence the trial dealt with and the emotional testimony of the lone survivor in a quadruple murder – is a memory that continues to haunt Fenocchio. “It seems surreal to people – the children buried alive and the rape of their surviving mother,” Fenocchio said. “You work with the victims in these cases and when I watched the victim on the stand, it was difficult to remain detached and unemotional.” A consummate prosecutor known for his unflappability during even the most heated of courtroom moments, Fenocchio recalled in an interview some of the most memorable cases that were tried under his watch. The Suarez memories stand out and almost a decade later, Fenocchio said he still wakes up in the middle of the night with visions of photos of the children killed in the murder spree and of their mother on the witness stand, her face buried in her hands. “It gets into your bones,” Fenocchio said. Fenocchio worked a killing pace during the trial, not only commuting to Napa daily but also leading an office that was, like the county he was keeping the peace in, experiencing unprecedented growth. Working with prosecutors Tom Beattie and Debra Oldziewski, Fenocchio secured a death penalty verdict in the Suarez case. Suarez, 43, remains in prison, awaiting execution. Fenocchio leaves after 25 years with the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, departing with a wealth of institutional memory. He can look back on cases that have captured widespread public attention and thousands more that marked the day-to-day work of a key figure in the county’s criminal justice system. The Suarez death penalty case was tried in Napa County in spring 2001 on a change-of-venue order precipitated by regional media attention toward a horrific multiple murder case. Emotions ran high in a Napa courtroom from March to June 2001 as a jury heard evidence in the trial of Suarez, a rural Auburn ranch hand found guilty of murdering four family members – including burying alive his 3-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew. The July 1998 killing spree Suarez was convicted of was not the worst in Placer County history. The 1943 murder of five family members near Loomis resulted in three consecutive life sentences for 18-year-old Ray Latshaw. And it wasn’t the most notorious murder case handled by Placer County prosecutors. That arguably would have been the 1904 Weber family murders in Old Town Auburn. In that case, Adolph Weber was hanged for the murders of his parents, brother and sister. For Fenocchio, it was one of the most memorable for him in a quarter century of prosecuting cases and serving as the county’s top prosecutor. Fenocchio can point to several other cases, including a three strikes prosecution involving a Roseville burglary by Steven Vincent Bell that caught the attention of TV newsmagazine program “60 Minutes.” Dubbed “The Bicycle Thief,” the segment questioned White’s third-strike felony conviction for a nighttime burglary in a garage that netted a $300 bicycle. But Bell’s life sentence stood. Fenocchio said that Deputy District Attorney Steve Dragland represented the office well in the “60 Minutes” segment and allayed any misperceptions about the prosecution. Two other cases – the murder conviction and 59-years-to-life sentence of Auburn’s Mario Garcia for the 2005 murder of Christie Wilson and the 2009 conviction of former Placer County Sheriff’s Sgt. Paul Kovacich Jr., in the murder of his wife, Janet Kovacich 25 years earlier – also stand out as examples of complicated, diligent and ultimately successful prosecutions, Fenocchio said. Fenocchio’s start at Placer County came after eight years in private practice in the Sacramento area. Then-District Attorney Jack Shelley hired him in an office that then comprised about 10 prosecutors. Now there are 40. Auburn attorney Mark Berg was working in the District Attorney’s Office and on the selection committee that hired Fenocchio. “The county got lucky to hire Brad,” Berg said. “And when he became DA, anyone who understands how the office was built knows how it was built by Brad Fenocchio. It became a vital cog in the justice system.” Roseville attorney Jess Bedore has known Fenocchio for nearly 40 years and said he’s observed a prosecutor who has brought an extra degree of integrity to the office. In 1994, when Fenocchio ran for district attorney against the incumbent Paul Richardson and won, Bedore was one of his key supporters. No decisions have been put aside because of prosecutorial misconduct during Fenocchio’s four terms in office, Bedore said. “Integrity is a key word for Brad,” Bedore said. “In other words, in his office, you don’t lie, cheat or steal to win a case. If anyone did that, they’d be looking for a job.”