Sunday, 19 May 2024

DA seeks dismissal of murder, arson case

LAKEPORT – The District Attorney's Office on Thursday requested that Lake County Superior Court dismiss murder and arson charges against a Lucerne man held since March of 2006 for the death of his girlfriend.

District Attorney Jon Hopkins explained that his office was dropping its prosecution of Charlton Alexander Bruff, who turns 53 on Friday, for the death of Lucerne resident and nurse Julie Gilbertson.

Bruff, a landscaper originally form Jamaica, was to have gone on trial Jan. 15.

New evidence in the case presented by defense attorneys Stephen and Angela Carter on Jan. 8 caused prosecutors to conclude that they couldn't convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Bruff was responsible, Hopkins said.

However, Hopkins intimated that his office may re-file charges in the future.

The specifics about the evidence in question was not being released, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff, who had prosecuted the case. “We still need to treat this like a pending case,” he said, adding that he was not at liberty to discuss the facts.

Stephen Carter said in a Thursday statement that he was confident of beating the case that the District Attorney had planned.

“We were ready for trial and we were ready to win,” he said. “We had a team of experts, all of whom believed that Mr. Bruff was wrongly accused and all of whom have been working on fighting every detail of this case from day one.”

Bruff was accused of setting fire to the home he and girlfriend Julie Gilbertson shared at 6804 Frontage Road in Lucerne in the early morning hours of March 1, 2006. Also living in the home were Gilberton's daughter and the daughter's boyfriend, according to the District Attorney's Office.

A report from Hopkins' office said the fire took three hours to extinguish.

Gilbertson, who was trapped in the fire but later rescued, died March 4, 2006, at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco as a result of the smoke inhalation, according to the report.

Following a five-day investigation arson – which included investigators from the Lake County Arson Task Force, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and a private insurance investigator – it was determined that the fire had been intentionally set, according to the District Attorney's Office.

However, Angela Carter disputed those findings. “Our fire experts are definitive that this was not arson. There were not multiple sources to this fire. This was an accidental fire. All of the physical evidence confirms this.”

She added that there was a “rush to judgment,” and that Bruff – a Jamaican and resident alien with speech issues and learning disabilities, who was “emotional, afraid and fully cooperative” – was an easy target.

Angela Carter contended that the house fire resulted from a condition called “flashover,” or a firestorm, because the house “had an unusually high level of contents,” which amounted to fuel. She said defense experts found no presence of accelerants which an arson dog had allegedly detected in the original investigation.

Stephen Carter said Bruff left the home wearing only a pair of sweat pants, leaving his wallet, dentures and other belongings inside. Carter said the prosecution contended that Bruff was a “vanity fire setter,” who set the fire in order to be a hero, a contention Carter called “nonsense.”

Hopkins, however, responded by saying that his office's decision not to prosecute had nothing to do with the facts of the case, which he maintained upheld the idea of Bruff's responsibility.

Rather, the decision centered on whether certain evidence – in the form of witness testimony – would prove Bruff's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “Our view at this point is that it would not,” said Hopkins.

The central facts remain the same, said Hopkins.

“We did not arrive at a conclusion that an arson did not take place, and we have no doubt about the way the fire progressed,” he said.

He also dismissed the Carters' claims that Bruff did not make incriminating statements during the investigation. “We have no doubts about the defendant's statements, because we have a tape recording and can understand what he says.”

The Carters said that Bruff speaks a Jamaican creole dialect known as Patois. That, coupled with the fact that Bruff lost his dentures in the fire, led investigators to misunderstand his statements and take them out of context, the Carters alleged.

“Our speech expert did away with the idea that any sort of admission took place,” said Angela Carter.

Hopkins said the Carters divulged their information just days before the trial, although they had the information since last year. “Our view is that justice is not a game,” he said.

Angela Carter responded that the District Attorney's Office “was well aware of who their witnesses were from the beginning.”

She said the defense team wasn't going to tip its entire hand before the trial, because they didn't want to risk him going to jail for the rest of his life. “We don’t rely on the good will and good judgment of the very people who are responsible for prosecuting an innocent man.”

By dismissing the charges now, Hopkins said that he can refile later if new evidence supports it. If they had gone forward with a prosecution and the jury returned a not guilty verdict, it would have permanently barred Hopkins' office from retrying the case.

On Thursday evening Bruff was released from the Lake County Jail, where he has been held since March 13, 2006. Stephen Carter picked up Bruff from jail, Angela Carter reported.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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