A Municipal Court judge Monday dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against a Leucadia salvage yard owner in the strangulation of a man he accused of trespassing.
At the end of a four-hour preliminary hearing here, visiting Judge Vivian Quinn, on loan to Vista from Tuolumne County, ruled that there was insufficient evidence to require Eugene Chappee to stand trial in the death of Leucadia carpenter Gary King.
Quinn rejected prosecutors’ arguments that Chappee, 63, acted unreasonably and used excessive force in attempting to restrain the 23-year-old King while awaiting the arrival of sheriff’s deputies. The judge concluded that Chappee never suspected that holding King in a headlock “would cause any great bodily harm or lead to the young man’s death.”
Chappee’s attorney, Thorpe Nolan, praised the ruling as a recognition that “under the circumstances, anyone else would have acted just the same way my client did. It was a reasonable reaction to the situation,” he said.
But King’s relatives and friends, many of whom wept periodically throughout the hearing, declared Quinn’s decision an injustice.
“My husband always prepares us for the worst, but I wasn’t prepared for this,” said Lanora King, Gary’s mother. “We feel like we’ve worked for five months preparing for this day, all for nothing but a slap in the face.”
The Kings said they are considering civil action against Chappee. Meanwhile, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Kirkman, who handled the case, said prosecutors would decide by the end of the week whether to refile charges against Chappee, as permitted by state law.
Chappee, who lives in a pink stucco house next to the auto salvage yard he owns on Highway 101, has said he was attempting to make a citizens’ arrest when King, a lifelong Leucadia resident, died of asphyxiation in his grip Aug. 9. Chappee said he spotted King in his yard early that morning and, believing him to be a burglar, chased him several blocks over fences and through backyards.
After losing King briefly in the dense forest of homes atop the Leucadia bluffs, Chappee confronted him in a driveway on Neptune Avenue, west of the salvage yard. A struggle ensued. Minutes later, a passer-by came upon Chappee lying on top of King; the passer-by suggested that Chappee get off King, whom he described as already blue from the shoulders up.
After a routine investigation, sheriff’s homicide detectives handling the case concluded that the death was “accidental homicide” and did not merit prosecution. Initially, the district attorney agreed.
But King’s parents, believing the case was dismissed too hastily and without adequate investigation, protested. They hired an attorney and a private investigator, who collected new evidence and helped persuade Phil Walden, the supervising deputy district attorney for North County, to reopen the case.
On Nov. 27, charges were filed against Chappee. The semi-retired military veteran, who walks with a slight limp, was accused of using “excessive force” in restraining King.
In making his case Monday, prosecutor Kirkman attempted to prove that Chappee, while not intending to kill King, overreacted to the situation in a manner grievous enough to merit a trial in Superior Court. For one thing, Kirkman said, there was no evidence that King, who lived in the area, intended to burglarize Chappee’s yard.
“I can certainly empathize with a property owner . . . and Mr. Chappee has a right to protect his property, within reason,” Kirkman said in concluding remarks. “But once Gary King left his premises with nothing more than his shirt, pants and shoes on . . . then from that point on what Mr. Chappee did was unreasonable.
“The reasonable person would have left it to the Sheriff’s Department.” Initially, the judge issued a ruling that reduced the involuntary manslaughter charge against Chappee from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, later Monday the district attorney discovered that state law does not permit a judge to reduce such a charge. The hearing was reconvened and Quinn dismissed the case instead.
In explaining her ruling, Quinn called Chappee’s pursuit of King “the logical thing” to do and maintained that the salvage yard owner could not have guessed that his grip on the younger man would result in King’s death.
For Chappee’s wife, Margaret, the judge’s words were welcome.
“I’m glad someone finally realizes that my husband never thought holding the kid like that would kill him,” she said. “He was just trying to protect our property. Aren’t you allowed to do that in America anymore?”