Officials celebrate expansion of Fontana courthouse

FONTANA — One judge called the courtroom “a closet.”

Another described it as “notorious.”

Fontana Superior Court’s tiny Dept. 6 — created to ease excessive case loads at the courthouse — was so small that the audience area consisted of only three narrow benches.

With space so tight, defendants’ family members were forced to wait in the hallway, and could enter the courtroom only when their cases were called, Judge Arthur Harrison recalled this afternoon.

But with a Fontana courthouse expansion project nearly completed, Dept. 6 is gone.

Its former space is unrecognizable, having been converted into a conference room and office space for court reporters.

“With this expansion we’ve had the opportunity to undo that,” said Harrison, the supervising judge in Fontana.

County officials celebrated the expansion of the courthouse today with an open house, dedication ceremony and unveiling of a plaque to mark the $8.3 million project.

The number of courtrooms has been increased from six to eight, and construction of a ninth courtroom is expected to begin Monday, Harrison said.

The project also includes an expanded clerk’s office and a newly constructed jury assembly room.

“I think it is indeed show-off material,” Harrison said.

When the courthouse in Fontana first opened in the 1970s, it had only two courtrooms — enough to accommodate the city’s population at the time of about 20,000, according to a San Bernardino County news release.

With the city’s population booming in recent years to nearly 200,000, the courthouse became increasingly cramped, forcing Presiding Judge Douglas M. Elwell to create Dept. 6.

“Our courts were exceedingly overworked,” Harrison said.

In a brief speech during Thursday’s event, Elwell praised the expansion project’s “phenomenal changes and improvements.”

San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane said funding for the project was divided 50-50 between the county and the state.

Prosecutors dismiss case against truck driver in fatal crash

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — Prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against a commercial truck driver whose runaway dump truck crashed into another vehicle, killing its driver.

Adam Ahlberg, 30, was acquitted of felony vehicular manslaughter in June, but jurors deadlocked on a lesser misdemeanor count.

During a Sept. 21 hearing in West Valley Superior Court, prosecutors moved to dismiss the remaining misdemeanor against Ahlberg.

Ahlberg’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Charles Feibush, said the misdemeanor couldn’t be refiled because the statute of limitations has expired.

Angel Calzada, a 51-year-old Rancho Cucamonga city employee, was killed June 16, 2006 when Ahlberg’s runaway dump truck collided with his Ford F-250 at Archibald Avenue and Arrow Route in Rancho Cucamonga.

Ahlberg testified at his trial that his truck’s brakes failed at the northern end of Archibald, where the street has an unusually steep grade.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Ahlberg and his employer, Clark Grading, Inc. of Riverside, knew the truck had faulty brakes but failed to maintain them.

Clark Grading, Inc., still faces criminal charges in connection with Calzada’s death, and has a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Nov. 4.

Mother, boyfriend plead no contest in death of Ontario infant

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A mother and her boyfriend have pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the death in 2007 of the woman’s 8-month-old son.

Authorities said the mother, Elizabeth Reta, swabbed Samuel Reta’s nose with a Q-Tip tainted with methamphetamine. Her boyfriend, Juan Antonio Sanchez, then beat the child to try to get him to come down from the high.

Reta and Sanchez both accepted plea bargains from prosecutors on Friday, Sept. 24 that carry prison sentences of more than a decade.

Reta’s plea bargain carries a sentence of 11 years, said Deputy District Attorney Jason Anderson. The 31-year-old Ontario woman is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 21 in West Valley Superior Court.

Sanchez, 35, of Pomona, was sentenced the day of his plea to 27 years in prison. His sentence is longer than Reta’s because he has a prior conviction for robbery, Anderson said.

According to a police report attached to her court file, Reta told authorities that in August 2007, she swabbed her son’s itchy nose with a Q-Tip in their home in the 1500 block of South Euclid Avenue.

When the boy began behaving strangely, Reta told Sanchez, who called the woman “stupid” and told her he uses the Q-Tip to clean his methamphetamine pipe.

For the next four days — before Reta called paramedics Aug. 29 over Sanchez’s objection — Sanchez repeatedly spanked and slapped the boy, threw him onto the floor and tied him to a bed, according to the report.

Reta pleaded with Sanchez to call for paramedics the day she swabbed her son’s nose, but Sanchez told her not to because he feared police would arrest him on drug charges.

Samuel Reta was in a coma when he was hospitalized. He was suffering from pneumonia, and doctors said he had a broken arm, broken rib, an apparent bite mark on his arm, and injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome, according to the report.

Reta and Sanchez were arrested Aug. 30, and Samuel Reta died Aug. 31.

Drunk driver’s plea bargain carries three-year sentence in fatal crash

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A driver who killed 64-year-old Paul Martin in a June traffic collision has pleaded no contest to felony DUI as part of a plea bargain that carries a three-year prison sentence.

Albert Gilbert Ruiz, 23, is set to be sentenced Oct. 21 for the June 13 crash on Church Street in Rancho Cucamonga, in which witnesses said Ruiz drove over a landscaped median into opposing traffic and collided with the car driven by Martin.

Martin, a Rancho Cucamonga resident since 2001, was pronounced dead the night of the crash at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland.

Ruiz, whose blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.16 — twice the legal limit — agreed to the plea bargain Sept. 20 in West Valley Superior Court. The conviction will count as a strike, according to minutes of the court hearing.

One of Martin’s daughters called Ruiz’s expected three-year sentence “an insult.”

“He gets his life back in a few short years,” Erika Giffing said. “We’ll never have our father back. We’ll never be the same.

Giffing said she believed that because Ruiz has no criminal history, the maximum sentence he could have faced was not much longer than three years.

“That’s just our judicial system,” she said. “I don’t agree with it. But it is what it is.”

Ruiz’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Mary Izadi, could not be reached for comment.

Ruiz’s attorney, Richard Escobedo, did not return calls seeking comment.

During an interview after the crash, Ruiz told a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy that before the collision, he drank about seven beers while watching a Lakers game at a friend’s house.

Ruiz said his friends tried to keep him from driving because he was drunk, but he snuck away, according to a transcript of the interview attached to Ruiz’s court file.

Giffing said she plans to read a three-page victim-impact statement during Ruiz’s sentencing hearing.

She said she will describe “how hard it was to relay all this information to our children — because he was such a good grandfather.”

“Seeing my kids cry and my mom cry was the hardest thing I’ve had to do, and I’m a cancer patient,” she said.

Giffing said her father didn’t drink and drive, and he tried to keep family members and friends from doing so.

“Maybe someday I can find it in my heart to forgive (Ruiz),” she said. “I can’t right now.”

Woman pleads not guilty to embezzling $720,000

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A former branch manager at a company that supplies San Bernardino County jails with phone cards and other materials pleaded not guilty Monday to embezzling $720,000 from the company.

Carmen Ascencio, 37, is accused of embezzling the funds over the last five years. She was arrested last week at her home in the 36700 block of Solvay Street in Palmdale.

A police report attached to Ascencio’s court file alleges she embezzled money from the Rancho Cucamonga branch of Canteen Corrections in the following ways:

– Falsifying invoices for inmate phone cards and cashing the checks for herself. (Total loss: $401,000.)

– Underreporting vending machine sales at local jails and keeping the balance. (Total loss: $95,000.)

– Stealing sacks of quarters meant for use by inmates in jail pay phones. (Total loss: $224,000.)

Ascencio remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. She is next due Thursday in West Valley Superior Court.

Canteen Corrections is a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based Compass Group, according to the report. Canteen Corrections provides supplies to many prisons and jails in Southern California, according to the report.

Ascencio managed the Rancho Cucamonga branch of the company from 1999 until she quit without notice in February.

“Canteen Corrections attempted to contact her with negative results because she had disconnected her personal cell and home phone,” the report says.

Ascencio quit amid a San Bernardino County sheriff’s department investigation into possible “selling and smuggling of contraband into the jail facilities,” the report says.

The company completed an audit after Ascencio quit, and discovered she falsified documents in the course of embezzling $720,000, according to the report.

Bail set at $7 million in Chino Hills murder case

CHINO — A judge set bail at $7 million today for a man accused of stabbing his wife to death in the street outside the couple’s Chino Hills home.

The bail amount for Samir Wahid, 39, is higher than the $2 million that Judge Gerard S. Brown originally said he would set.

The judge also further restricted Wahid’s movements should he post bail.

Wahid, if released, will be restricted to his home in Chino Hills, his attorney’s office in San Bernardino, and job sites in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties for his air-conditioning installation business.

Wahid will have a GPS tracking device fixed to his ankle if he is released from custody.

Wahid is charged with murder for the May 20 killing of 33-year-old Iman Wahid, who was stabbed to death in the 15700 block of Sedona Drive.

When Samir Wahid was arrested, Brown ordered him held without bail, granting a request from sheriff’s detectives who believed Wahid was a flight risk because of his assets — estimated at $8 million — and because he holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Lebanon, which does not have an extradition agreement with the U.S.

Wahid has turned over his passports to authorities, Brown said today.

Wahid’s attorney argued in a written bail motion that the husband acted in the “heat of passion” in killing his wife, and should be convicted at most of voluntary manslaughter.

Wahid was enraged at his estranged wife because he believed she had cheated on him, attorney Grover Porter wrote in the motion.

Wahid was also reportedly upset because he was ordered by a judge to make $13,000-a-month support payments to his wife and children.

Wahid’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Steve Mitchell, had originally asked that Wahid’s bail be set at $15 million. Today he said he would be satisfied with bail set between $7 million and $10 million.

Mitchell has said he agrees with Brown’s statements that Wahid has a Constitutional right to bail.

The prosecutor said he was unsure whether Wahid will be able to post $7 million bail.

Wahid’s family members declined to comment to a reporter today, and his attorney, Porter, said at a previous hearing that he does not grant interviews to reporters.

Wahid’s is scheduled to next appear in Chino Superior Court on Dec. 2.

Chino Hills man accused of killing wife may be offered bail

CHINO – A man awaiting trial for allegedly stabbing his wife to death in Chino Hills could be released from custody next week.

A judge has tentatively agreed to set bail at $2 million for 39-year-old Samir Wahid, who has been held without bail since he allegedly stabbed his wife to death May 20.

If released on bail, Wahid would be required to turn in his passports, and his travel would be limited to Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and Corona, where his children live. He would also be required to wear a GPS monitoring device, Judge Gerard S. Brown said.

Wahid is accused of fatally stabbing 33-year-old Iman Wahid at about 1:30 p.m. in the street outside the couple’s home in the 15700 block of Sedona Drive.

The couple was in the midst of a divorce, and Samir Wahid was reportedly angry over $13,000-a-month support payments he was ordered to pay his wife, according to an arrest report attached to Wahid’s court file.

Brown previously granted a request from San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives that Wahid be held without bail because they believed he was a flight risk.

Detectives estimate that Wahid, part owner of a successful air-conditioning business, is worth upwards up $8 million. He also holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Lebanon, which does not have an extradition agreement with the U.S.

“I think he’s an extreme flight risk and a danger to the community,” said Deputy District Attorney Steve Mitchell, who believes Wahid’s bail should be set at $15 million.

Brown is set to make a final ruling on Wahid’s bail conditions Wednesday in Chino Superior Court.

In a written motion asking Brown to set bail at $500,000 or $1 million, Wahid’s defense attorney, Grover Porter, outlined the couple’s relationship and the circumstances of Iman Wahid’s killing.

Porter wrote that he believes Iman Wahid’s killing amounts at most to voluntary manslaughter, not murder as prosecutors have charged.

“I am informed and believe that (Samir Wahid) killed his wife Iman while in a rage and under classic ‘heat of passion’,” Proter wrote. “He believed that Iman was having numerous affairs with other men.”

According to Porter’s motion, the couple wed when Iman Wahid was 18 and living in poverty in Lebanon. After the marriage, Iman Wahid was placed into “a life of luxury and wealth” by her husband, Porter wrote. The couple had three children together.

“The case against (Samir Wahid) regarding the charge of first-degree murder is insubstantial in that there was clear provocation by the behavior of his estranged wife, Iman, who apparently abandoned the defendant for other men despite all he had done for her materially and by being a loyal and faithful husband,” Porter wrote.

Mitchell said he will ask the judge on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to set Wahid’s bail at $2 million. The prosecutor said he argued unsuccessfully at an earlier hearing that bail be set at $15 million.

“It’s a situation that concerns me, and concerns the district attorney’s office a great deal,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said Wahid has a constitutional right to bail because his case is not a capital case – meaning he isn’t eligible for the death sentence or life in prison without parole – and there isn’t evidence that he’s threatened to harm anyone besides his wife.

“He has a right to bail,” Mitchell said. “I just think it should be $15 million.”

Jurors begin deliberating in accused gang member’s murder trial

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A jury began deliberating this afternoon in the trial of an alleged Montclair gang member charged with murdering an Ontario man last year in a supermarket parking lot.

Jose Ramon Lopez, 26, is accused of shooting and killing 38-year-old George Salsgiver on July 24, 2009. Prosecutors believe Lopez killed Salsgiver because he felt disrespected.

The men didn’t know each other prior to the incident, but witnesses said that before the shooting they appeared to have a brief verbal confrontation outside Stater Bros. at Central Avenue and Palo Verde Street in Montclair.

“The man was on a mission,” Deputy District Attorney Thomas Colclough told jurors today before they began deliberating in West Valley Superior Court. “He got disrespected in public and wanted to deal with it.”

In his closing argument, Lopez’s attorney said he didn’t believe prosecutors proved in the 10-day trial that Lopez was the shooter. Gary Ablard also said Salsgiver was heard shouting obscenities shortly before he was killed.

“We have a human being sitting over here and the government says he did something,” Ablard said. “We say he didn’t.”

Ablard said he believes Montclair police handled evidence poorly and may have inadvertently “contaminated” test results that showed Lopez had gunshot residue on his hands 12 hours after the shooting.

“The defense has some issues to be dealt with – a lot of them,” Ablard said.

Jurors deliberated today until about 4:15 p.m., and are set to resume deliberations Friday morning.

If the jury convicts Lopez of murder, it has the option of convicting him of first-degree murder — which is premeditated — or second-degree murder.

Colclough argued today that although the killing happened quickly, it was premeditated.

Witnesses recalled hearing Lopez’s girlfriend shout, “Hey babe, don’t,” as the accused gunman left his car, Colclough said. The prosecutor said that shows Lopez’s killing was premeditated.

“She didn’t want Mr. Lopez … to go out there and kill someone,” Colclough said.

Detectives investigating the shooting were led to Lopez by a woman who witnessed Salsgiver’s killing and wrote down the first six digits of Lopez’s license plate, Colclough said.

The witness also identified Lopez as the shooter when she was shown a picture of Lopez alongside pictures of five other men, Colclough said.

The prosecutor dismissed defense claims that Salgiver’s killer could have emerged from the back seat of Lopez’s car, as one witness recalled to police.

Colclough called the back-seat shooter “a phantom.”

After the hearing, Colclough said Lopez could face a prison sentence of more than 100 years if he is convicted.

Woman pleads no contest to bribing deputy

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A woman accused of offering a sheriff’s deputy a bribe last year during a drunken driving arrest has pleaded no contest to misdemeanor bribery.

Marizella Perez, 28, was sentenced to 140 days in jail after offering her plea Tuesday in West Valley Superior Court. She was also fined about $2,000 and placed on probation for three years.

Perez, of Rancho Cucamonga, allegedly offered a $1,000 bribe to a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy after she was arrested Sept. 27, 2009 on suspicion of drunken driving.

A deputy pulled Perez over after he saw her driving a gray BMW without license plates in the area of Foothill and Day Creek boulevards in Rancho Cucamonga, according to an arrest report attached to Perez’s court file.

Perez’s blood-alcohol level was measured by a breathalyzer at 0.287 — more than three and a half times the legal limit — and she was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a patrol car, the report said.

As a deputy sat in the front seat of the patrol car filling out paperwork, Perez allegedly offered the $1,000 bribe.

In order to bolster the evidence for a felony bribery arrest against Perez, the deputy initially went along with the woman’s plan.

The deputy drove Perez to an ATM and removed her handcuffs. She withdrew $200 and promised the deputy the rest the next day, the report said.

Prosecutors initially charged Perez with a felony count of bribery, plus two misdemeanor related to drunken driving.

Perez pleaded no contest to misdemeanor bribery, and the two drunken driving counts were dismissed as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors.

Judge Michael R. Libutti ordered Perez to report to Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore on Oct. 14 to begin serving her jail sentence, according to online minutes of Perez’s sentencing hearing.

Accused killer claims insanity in Pomona stabbing

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POMONA — A woman accused of stabbing a romantic rival to death with a kitchen knife pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity this morning to murder charges.

Nicole Ann Stewart, 34, is accused of killing 49-year-old Robin Ridgeway on July 23, 2009 at Pomona mental health facility Hamilton Villa.

Police said Stewart attacked Ridgeway because she falsely believed Ridgeway was romantically involved with Stewart’s boyfriend.

After Stewart entered her plea in Pomona Superior Court, Commissioner Wade D. Olson appointed two psychiatrists to interview her and submit reports by Oct. 26, which is Stewart’s next court date.

Olson warned Stewart that by pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, she could spend the rest of her life in a mental institution.

Olson set a tentative trial date for Dec. 7.

Stewart remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood.