Kern contest suits by heirs in Volpe deaths

Lawyers argue county had no reason to warn families that killer of three was dangerous.

By Lois Henry
The Bakersfield Californian

Two wrongful death lawsuits brought against Kern County on behalf of Ken and Cindy Volpe’s heirs faced a three-pronged attack Thursday.
The suits allege the county was negligent because the two deputy district attorneys who prosecuted Robert Courtney for savagely beating Cindy Volpe in 1991 did not warn the Volpes that Courtney was dangerous.
On the day the jury was to come back with a verdict in the beating case – Aug. 18, 1992 – Courtney sneaked into the Volpe home and gunned down Cindy and Ken Volpe and Cindy’s mother, Betty Reed. The Volpe children, Keith, then 14, and Andrea, then 9, were in the house at the time of the killings.
Courtney was killed the next day after he led law enforcement officers on a high-speed chase along Highway 58 east of Bakersfield.
In a motion to have the cases dismissed, attorneys for the county said Kern had no special duty to protect the Volpes, that prosecutors are immune from such liability and that the Volpe heirs have no right to sue since they already are receiving death benefits from workers’ compensation.
The Volpe children have been paid $26,000 to $190,000 in death benefits from worker’s compensation. The county has put a claim against both the Volpe and Courtney estates to be reimbursed for those benefits.
Superior Court Judge Arthur Wallace heard arguments from all sides Thursday and will issue a ruling in with to 10 days.
“The judge could rule in favor of the entire motion or against it all or do something in between,” said John Hall, the attorney representing the Volpe heirs. The second wrongful death suit was brought by Betty Reed’s heirs and is being handled by Nevada attorney Brian Sandoval.
Hall wouldn’t say whether he plans to appeal if the judge sides with the county. This case, along with the Volpe heirs’ wrongful death against Courtney’s estate, are scheduled to begin trial on March 14. Coincidentally, that also was Ken Volpe’s birthday.
Charles Collins, deputy county counsel, said Courtney never made any direct threats against the Volpes, so prosecutors had no reason to warn them of potential risks. The Volpes had Courtney’s extensive criminal record, saw his outbursts in court and knew he carried a knife in plain view, Collins added.
“If you find the District Attorney’s Office had a special obligation to the Volpes and the Reeds, there would be no end to the possible liability,” Collins said.
District Attorney Ed Jagels observed the hearing and agreed with Collins.
“If we have to protect or warn every witness in the thousands of cases we handle, I’d need to double my staff and prosecutors would be too terrified to do their job,” Jagels said.
Jagels predicted the case would change state law, But Hall disagreed.
“They should be thinking about the other way around,” Hall said. “Their concern should be that witnesses are not coming forward because they know prosecutors aren’t doing anything to protect them”.
But this case wouldn’t create broad change, he said.
“What we’re looking at is what happened when governmental entity becomes aware of facts that create a foreseeable risk.”
According to excerpts of depositions on the case, the original prosecuting attorney, Larry Fields, said he “absolutely” knew Courtney was dangerous and heard rumors Courtney may have been involved in a murder in the Pumpkin Center area.
The rumors were so vague, however, he discounted the information.
When asked if he had received similar information, sheriff’s Deputy John Solis said in a depositions that he might have.
A former apartment manager who worked for Courtney, Carl Garza, said Courtney threatened his life on numerous occasions, once in open court. Garza said he was waiting to testify in the Volpe beating case when Courtney began yelling and hollered, “I’ll shoot you.”
Garza said he told the District Attorney’s Office and Solis about the threats but was ignored.
Collins said even if all that information were true, it still did not constitute a direct threat against the Volpes.