Sunday, 19 May 2024

Teenager receives seven-year prison sentence for stabbing classmate

LAKEPORT – A teenager convicted of stabbing to death a classmate last summer received a seven-year state prison sentence on Monday.

Gabrielle Rachel Varney, 19, a former Carlé Continuation High School student, pleaded guilty on April 27 to voluntary manslaughter and the use of a knife in killing 17-year-old Heather Valdez following an argument on June 5, 2008.

Judge Arthur Mann, decided Varney – who has no previous record – is not likely to be a repeat offender or a danger to others, and sentenced her to the middle term of six years in state prison and one year for the use of the knife.

She will receive 369 days of credit for time served and 55 days for good conduct credit, Mann said. As a result, Varney likely will serve just over five years in state prison. She also was ordered to pay more than $20,000 in restitution.

Varney's 80-minute sentencing resembled a miniature trial. There were victim impact statements and, in an unusual touch, Varney herself was called to the stand to discuss the case.

Victim-Witness advocates escorted into the courtroom many members of Valdez's family, who sat on the left side of the courtroom. Many of them wore black t-shirts with pictures of the victim. One young man's shirt read, “RIP Heather Valdez.”

Tammy Davis, Valdez's aunt, read her own victim impact statement as well as those of several family members.

The stories the statements told were of a devastated family, stricken by fear, economic hardship, foreclosures, job loss and despair.

“On June 5, 2008, the lives of an entire family changed forever,” when Heather Valdez's life was “brutally” taken by Varney, said Davis.

Davis called Varney, sitting at the defense table with Stephen Carter, a “cold-blooded murderer.”

The main question of why Varney killed Valdez, remains unanswered, said Davis. “We only know your side. We will never know Heather's side.”

Valdez would have turned 18 on April 7, and this Friday would have graduated from high school, said Davis. “You have taken something very special from us.”

Davis told Varney, “I have never hated a person more than I hate you,” and said she wished Varney would die in the gas chamber, a comment which caused one of Varney's family members to break down in tears.

Cheryl Valdez, Heather Valdez's mother, said “You think this sort of thing isn't going to happen to you.”

She said the lives of the family members have been destroyed. “I can't even convey to you the pain and loss in my life,” she said, explaining that she can look out her window every day and see the spot in the street where her daughter died.

Valdez said her daughter was not a violent person or a bully, and asked the judge for the full 12-year sentence for Varney.

Tammy Davis also read statements from several other family members, including Judith Davis, Heather Valdez's grandmother; the girl's father, Tom Valdez; uncles Jim and Jeff Davis; aunt, Donna Davis; and sister, Jennifer Valdez.

Judith Davis, who helped raise Valdez, recalled spending time with the girl, whose death she has lived over and over each day.

Her statement noted that she saw Varney laughing in court one day. “I hate you with every inch of my being,” she wrote, recalling how Varney had visited her house and had dinner with her family when the girls were still friends.

Tom Valdez wrote in his statement that his days are filled with sadness and fear. He's been unable to work and afraid to leave his home.

He added, “I feel let down by the justice system.”

Jim Davis was business partners with Tom Valdez. But Valdez's inability to work resulted in the failure of their business, and the loss of two houses and three cars, leaving Davis homeless.

He criticized both the District Attorney's Office and the Clearlake Police Department for their handling of the case, and said he plans to leave Lake County and take his business with him.

Jennifer Valdez wrote to the court that she had attended college in Sacramento where she was studying fashion design. When Heather Valdez graduated from high school, she was supposed to move in with her sister.

Her sister's death caused Jennifer Valdez to suffer an emotional breakdown and return home to her parents. She wrote that she's watched her young brother lash out at friends, her mother get thinner with grief and her father – who she'd never seen cry before – weep for her dead sister.

“My sister was a good person,” she wrote. “She was not the person she was made out to be.”

Heather Valdez had a hard life, and also had been bullied, but she never decided to handle problems with a knife, Jennifer Valdez wrote.

Varney tells her story on the stand

Following the statements, Carter called Varney to the stand.

Wearing a black and white jail jumpsuit, with her wrists shacked at her waist, Varney answered questions in a soft voice.

“This case has hurt me emotionally, too, and I know a lot of people aren't going to believe that,” she said.

Varney said the fatal incident haunts her every day. “I am so sorry for what happened,” she said, adding that she would trade her life for Valdez's.

She stabbed Valdez because she was scared of getting hurt, and she couldn't fight but knew Valdez could.

Varney said Valdez pushed her as they were getting off the bus. While on the bus she had taken a knife out of her purse and put it in her back pocket. After being pushed, she took out the knife and said to herself, “You think you're funny?”

Valdez didn't hear the comment and came toward her. Varney said she had the knife out and hoped Valdez would see it. But after Varney had the folding knife open she said Valdez punched her in the face several times, causing her to bleed.

Varney said Valdez pinned her left arm behind her and was pulling her hair. At that point Varney – who had no experience fighting with a knife – said she began to throw the knife wildly in the air but didn't think she had made contact.

But, according to statements in court, she did make contact – striking Valdez in the neck, chest and abdomen.

Carter asked Varney what she wanted to say to Valdez's family. “Where do I begin? There is so much I wanted to tell you,” she said.

Varney added, “I wish that I could take this back more than anything in this world.”

Prosecutor John DeChaine questioned Varney about how long the disagreement between she and Valdez had been taking place. Varney estimated about six months, with the issue initially arising over a cigarette. Under questioning, she admitted that Valdez hadn't previously assaulted her but she had tried.

About three months previous to the stabbing Varney started carrying the knife, she stated.

DeChaine asked Varney is she had ever asked adults for help in dealing with the tension with Valdez. She said she told then-Carlé High Principal William MacDougall and teachers. She conceded she wasn't assaulted afterward but Valdez would say “very, very mean things to me.”

The prosecutor questioned Varney about a written statement by a fellow student who witnessed a conflict between Varney and Valdez. Afterward Varney had allegedly said, “I swear I'm going to kill that bitch.” Varney said she didn't recall saying it.

The final deadly conflict between the two teenagers had reportedly been over a mutual friend, who Valdez had asked to choose between them. Varney told a probation officer that she was upset about the issue, but on Monday she said she hadn't been upset enough to hurt Valdez.

As DeChaine's questioning continued, Varney said she hadn't mean to stab Valdez, only to scare her. DeChaine asked her if it was happenstance that she just happened to hit Valdez in vital areas with the knife. Yes, Varney replied.

Carter said the Valdez family's story was compelling, and he was sorry for their loss.

“I must come here to give the other side of this story, and there is another side to this story,” he said.

Varney, whose school nickname was “Mouse,” is a bright but troubled teenager who was described by witnesses as someone who had been making “leaps and bounds forward” before the stabbing, he said.

No one can blame Valdez's family for their anger and pain, said Carter. “But Gabrielle Varney is not a monster. She, too, is a human being, and she acted that day out of fear.”

She's not a murderer, he said; she's been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and from the beginning had admitted her guilt and didn't try to hide it or run away. “She just didn't know what to do in the aftermath of what had happened.”

He said she has an excellent chance of moving forward with her life once she's out of prison, and wants to move to New York to live with her father. “She does care. She is insightful. She is intelligent, and she wants to succeed,” he said, adding she's “extremely remorseful.

A report Carter had submitted to the court said a doctor who has been treating Varney in jail found that she “does not pose a significant risk of future offenses.”

Recalling the victim, Carter said, “Heather didn't deserve what Heather got. You'll never hear me argue that she did.”

Mann turned down the option of giving Varney probation rather than a prison sentence, saying she wasn't overly provoked. But neither did the crime demonstrate planning, he said. He said it was a “tough call” about whether or not she would be a danger to herself or others; he found that danger to be moderate.

DeChaine argued for the 12-year prison term because of the great violence and bodily harm of the crime. He accused Varney of goading the conflict, and said if she truly had been scared of Valdez she wouldn't have made some of the comments that fueled the argument.

Replied Carter, “The only thing my client planned was to not get beat up.”

Carter – who argued for the lower, four-year term – called the stabbing “a violent act” that arose out of “genuine teenager fear.”

DeChaine responded by attacking the presumption that the final fight resulted from bullying, once again drawing attention to Varney's statements about being upset with Valdez over the disagreement regarding a mutual friend.

Mann found that there was “great violence” in the death of Valdez, who was stabbed three times. However, he didn't find it was planned, and considered it a one-time occurrence.

He also gave her credit for pleading to the voluntary manslaughter charge. “From day one she was admitting her guilt.”

Mann then passed sentence on Varney. As the filled gallery emptied out of the courtroom, Varney was placed in the jury box, where she sat alone, sobbing.

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

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