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Trinity County will pay $7 million to settle suit brought by couple stabbed assisting sheriff

Jim and Norma Gund's home in Kettenpom
An aerial view shows the remoteness of Jim and Norma Gund’s home in Kettenpom, where the couple suffered major injuries after responding to a Trinity County sheriff’s office request for a welfare check on a neighbor and were attacked by an assailant.
(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)
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“Help me,” the caller repeatedly whispered to the 911 dispatcher before hanging up.

Sheriff’s Cpl. Ronald Whitman knew the call came from a woman who lived near an airstrip in the rural California town of Kettenpom , about two hours away from the nearest Trinity County sheriff’s station. But instead of sending a deputy to her home, Whitman called the woman’s neighbors.

Norma and James Gund lived on a small horse ranch about a quarter mile away. Whitman asked the couple if they could check on their neighbor, Kristine Constantino, who they had seen only a handful of times.

Whitman didn’t tell the couple that Constantino asked for help and would not pick up the phone when a dispatcher tried to call her back, according to court records. He gave Norma Gund his cellphone number and asked her to call him after they checked on Constantino.

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“‘There’s a big storm coming. That’s probably what this is all about. It’s probably no big deal,’” Norma Gund recalled Whitman telling her over the phone, according to an interview with FOX 11 News.

James Gund waited in the truck while Norma went inside their neighbor’s house, according to court records. Inside, she found Constantino, 32, and her boyfriend, Christopher “Sky” Richardson, 26, bound on the floor and bloodied.

Their assailant then attacked Norma Gund, slicing her throat, hitting an artery and her windpipe, according to court records. He continued to cut and shock her with a stun gun.

James Gund heard his wife’s screams, ran inside the house and confronted her assailant. He told his wife to run, and she jumped into their truck and drove off to get help, according to court records. During a struggle, the attacker also cut James Gund’s throat, but Gund was able to wrestle the knife away and escape. As he was leaving, he saw the man drive away.

A horizontal frame of two arms, pressed together at palms, facing up, with a tattoo of an angel on each forearm.
Norma Gund shows her tattoos of angels on her forearms in 2018.
(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)

The assailant, later identified as Tomas Pitagoras Gouverneur, 32, died in a car crash on Highway 101 in Medocino County while trying to flee from police on the day of the attack, March 13, 2011, authorities said. Sheriff’s officials said Gouverneur was responsible for killing Constantino and Richardson and for the attacks of the Gunds.

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Last month, Trinity County agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Gunds, who alleged that they were misled by Whitman and the Sheriff’s Department about the danger they might be facing when asked to check on their neighbor.

Norma Gund, who was 49 at the time, spent several days in a Sacramento hospital for her injuries, but both she and her husband survived their wounds. James Gund was also treated at the hospital, but he was not hurt as badly, according to court records.

“We will be living with this for the rest of our lives, but knowing we were finally vindicated helps,” Norma Gund said in a statement through her attorney. She said “almost every day something reminds me of the attack. But I will survive. It’s going to take baby steps.”

The Gunds sued Trinity County for negligence in state court. They filed a second lawsuit in federal court, claiming their constitutional rights were violated under the state-created danger doctrine, which is when a state actor, such as a law enforcement officer, creates a dangerous situation that results in injury.

Sheriff’s office officials and Trinity County administrative staff did not respond to requests for comment.

Benjamin Mainzer, the Gunds’ attorney, said that Trinity County has not implemented any policy changes since the couple was attacked. It’s unclear if Whitman still works for the Sheriff’s Department.

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Jim Gund saddles his horse in the remote community of Kettenpom in Trinity County
Jim Gund, 66, saddles his horse in the remote community of Kettenpom in Trinity County in February 2018. Gund and his wife Norma say they’re lucky to be alive after an unstable ex-boyfriend of her neighbor went on a killing rampage that culminated in the Gunds suffering stabbing injuries after they responded to a welfare check by the Trinity County sheriff’s office.
(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)

The Gunds’ case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that the Gund’s state courts claims were limited to workers compensation benefits and while they did not rule in their favor, they were allowed to pursue their federal suit. After 12 years of legal battles, the county finally agreed to settle the couple’s lawsuit on May 15.

“We are grateful to be done with the case. It took 12 years for us to get justice but we held on because we had to make sure that this never happened to anyone else,” Jim Gund said in a statement through his attorney. “Nobody who goes through what we did should have to wait 12 years for justice. We’re thankful that our lawyer hung in there with us for all this time.”

Mainzer said the Gunds’ case is the longest he’s worked on during his career. He said the case took so long because of appeals in the state and federal courts, but also because the county continued to fight against releasing documents from the sheriff’s office.

“The county admitted that a lot of documents that it should have preserved, it did not,” Mainzer said. “I think that ultimately, once that fact came to light, the case was in a posture where the county understood the gravity of the situation before it.”

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