Brendt Volarvich is sitting on death row for shooting and killing CHP Officer Andy Stevens in Yolo County. Prosecutors allege that on November 17, 2005, Greg Zielesch bailed Brendt Volarvich out of jail and in return asked Mr. Volarvich to kill Doug Shamberger, who reportedly had been sleeping with Mr. Zielesch’s estranged wife. In the process, Mr. Volarvich was given a gun, but when he was stopped by CHP Officer Andy Stevens, he shot and killed the officer.
While Mr. Volarvich was sentenced to death, Mr. Zielesch, who was not there at the scene, was also convicted of the first degree murder of Officer Stevens, as well as conspiracy to commit the murder of Doug Shamberger. He was sentenced to state prison for an indeterminate term of 50 years to life (two consecutive terms of 25 to life), plus a consecutive determinate term of seven years.
In a July 2017 letter, Mr. Volarvich writes, “An innocent man is current(ly) doing life in prison for a crime he didn’t do. His name is Gregory Zielesch. That crime is murder of a police officer. Specifically CHP officer Andy Stevens.”
In his letter he lays out the events that happened between November 16 and November 17 of 2005 that led to the death of Andy Stevens.
He said that once his direct appeal, which is mandatory, is denied by the courts, he plans to waive his other appeals.
He writes, “I write this statement due to the fact that an innocent man is being kept from his family due to my actions and the lies perpetrated by Becky (Pina) mainly, and to a lesser but equally damning party, Lindsey Montgomery.”
He adds, “I have no reason to lie or hide facts. I had always intended to testify to this under oath in trial, but my attorneys were so opposed that they lied to me about my rights to testify, making it seem like if I did the DA would label me a rate, a snitch, etc.” He says he was “worried about my prison reputation/safety.”
On November 14, 2005, he was arrested at a motel with Becky Pina for possession of methamphetamine and a steel knuckle set. He writes, “As promised, Becky got me bailed out. She told me outside the jail that Greg had ‘pulled strings’ and gotten me bailed out.”
In a key detail, he described Becky Pina going to the bathroom in Greg Zielesch’s place. “Then she came back out. She had a fanny pack looking bag in her hand. After looking back over her should to ensure Greg was asleep she said quietly to me and Lindsay “check this out.” Inside the bag was a resolver. A .357. She knew I liked weapons of all sorts. So she showed it to me. I wasn’t that impressed. So she told me that that was the gun Greg kept ‘in case Doug Shamberger came back’ which I took to mean Greg was afraid of Doug.”
Then Ms. Pina “took the gun back. I watched where she put it. Underneath the sink, there was a kind of shelf space.”
Becky Pina and Brendt Volarvich then had a fight. At this point, Brendt went to use the bathroom. He describes, “Inside the bathroom, I remembered the gun. I knew a guy who would pay me $200.00 or trade me a half ounce of meth for such a gun. So I put it in my pants down the front. Then quickly exited the bathroom.”
Later Brendt, high on meth and not thinking clearly, having broken up with Becky Pina, was in the car with Lindsay Montgomery when he called Becky Pina who told the story that Greg Zielesch had attacked her. Even though Lindsay Montgomery warned him that Ms. Pina “is a liar,” he decided to go back for her and to get Greg.
It is there that he encountered the cop car with Officer Andy Stevens inside. He writes, “When Officer Stevens got behind me, his lights up top went on.”
He thought it was a “set up.” He writes, “I began to panic.” He says, “I thought that Becky and Greg were luring me there so Greg could kill me. But I wasn’t sure. I figured if it was a real cop, he’d ask me for license and registration.”
So he pulled over. He says, “He got to my car. He said ‘step out of the car.’ Deadpan voice. Then his hand began lowering, I panicked. I didn’t even realize I had pulled the gun out at first. But I did as soon as his hand lowered and his voice was deadpan. I thought it was all a set up. And he was there to kill me or take me to Greg.”
He writes, “So I reacted. I fired once. And unfortunately I killed him in what I believed was self defense. It wasn’t until moments later, driving away as fast as I could that I saw no one else lurking, lying in wait to get me that I realized I just killed an innocent man. I’ll never forget any of that.”
He said, “It was a paranoid/delusional meth fueled bad decision, I took the life of a good man, But I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Mr. Volarvich’s account contrasts with the prosecution’s belief that he had been given the gun by Mr. Zielesch himself. Given the volatility of Mr. Volarvich, the prosecution believed that the killing of Mr. Stevens was a probable and foreseeable consequence of Mr. Zielesch’s alleged actions.
The prosecution’s theory was that Mr. Zielesch had given the gun to Mr. Volarvich for the purpose of committing the separate crime to kill Doug Shamberger. Rebecca Pina testified that she had overheard a conversation in which Mr. Zielesch asked Mr. Volarvich to kill Mr. Shamberger and offered him a gun.
The testimony of Ms. Pina and Lindsey Montgomery, which Mr. Zielesch believes was perjured, was the only piece of information linking Mr. Zielesch to the crime. During the trial, attorney Stephen Naratil called several witnesses to challenge the credibility of Ms. Pina, but ultimately, after the jury initially hung, they would convict Mr. Zielesch.
The defense had always maintained that the weapon found in the field was indeed his, but believed that Mr. Volarvich “must have taken it without his knowledge.”
Following the conviction, the defense sought a new trial asserting that a letter written by Mr. Shamberger addressed to the court expressed the belief that Mr. Volarvich was actually on his way to rob Mr. Zielesch with the gun. The prosecution countered that the letter “offers nothing more than additional impeachment evidence” against Pina; it was “cumulative” because several defense witnesses had already impeached Pina; and the letter is “unreliable and clearly unlikely to produce a different result at re-trial.
The trial court agreed and did not grant the defense motion. An appellate court ruled that the decision did not amount to an abuse of discretion. Mr. Volarvich never testified during Mr. Zielesch’s trial.
—David M. Greenwald reporting