According to official records, 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 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.
Mr. Volarvich was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Mr. Zielesch, who was not there at the scene, was convicted of the first degree murder of Officer Stevens, and 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.
The Vanguard was first approached about this case in 2009. It is a long and complicated case, but it appears to hinge almost entirely on the testimony of one Rebecca Pina.
It was Ms. Pina who would testify in court that she had overheard Greg Zielesch ask Brendt Volarvich to kill Doug Shamberger. Mr. Volarvich, she testified, asked him for a “piece” and Mr. Zielesch agreed to provide a handgun. Ms. Pina would testify that she saw the same murder weapon in Mr. Zielesch’s home weeks before the shooting.
Following Mr. Zielesch’s conviction, he and his attorney Stephen Naratil filed declarations for a new trial, including the allegation that Rebecca Pina lied on the witness stand about Zielesch’s role in the shooting.
Part of that was a declaration by Doug Shamberger that he and Greg Zielesch had settled their dispute after a meeting in October 2005 – a month before the conspiracy allegedly occurred.
“After that meeting, the friction between us began to subside,” Shamberger stated in his declaration. “When the CHP officer was killed on Nov. 17, 2005, I had not any problems with Greg.”
Doug Shamberger also said that he met up with Rebecca Pina at a social gathering where Ms. Pina told him a completely different account of what happened. “Becky told me that Greg never hired Brendt to come kill him,” Mr. Shamberger stated in his declaration, “rather she and Brendt were going to rob Greg.”
This puts Rebecca Pina in the position of potential suspect and gives her strong reason to lie on the stand, lest she end up in the position of Greg Zielesch with murder charges.
This was known at the time of the trial, however.
One of the main causes of wrongful convictions is ineffective defense. The private defense attorney Stephen Naratil has been suspended by the State Bar since 2011, originally for improperly splitting fees with a non-attorney. That has been compounded by failure to comply with the terms of his rehabilitation.
On February 21, 2015, the Bar notes that Mr. Naratil, 48, of Benicia, “was suspended from the practice of law for two years and until he shows proof of his rehabilitation. He was also placed on three years’ probation and faces a three-year suspension if he does not comply with the terms of his probation. The order took effect Feb. 21, 2015. The State Bar Court found Naratil failed to comply with his disciplinary probation by not filing two quarterly reports to the Office of Probation on time and not filing one quarterly report at all.”
A critical witness, Rebecca Youngblood, was never called to the stand. In a video statement, she tells the Vanguard that she personally witnessed Rebecca Pina steal the gun from Greg Zielesch’s residence in 2005.
Now married, with the name of Rebecca Weinhardt, she tells the Vanguard that she was Greg Zielesch’s roommate at the time of the murder.
She said, “I was a witness that was never called for the case, I witnessed Becky Pina steal the gun that was used to shoot Andy Stevens.”
The Vanguard has not seen a direct statement from Brendt Volarvich. However, a text message from 2012 from Sheila Volarvich that the Vanguard acquired suggests that Mr. Volarvich has authenticated this account – that there was no conspiracy to kill Doug Shamberger and the gun was stolen from Mr. Zielesch, not given to him from Mr. Zielesch as part of a conspiracy.
There are three key points here. First, ineffectual defense by Stephen Naratil for failing to put a key witness on the stand. Second, there is evidence of a deal being cut with Ms. Pina by the DA’s office – as a potential murder suspect herself, she gave the key testimony which seems contradicted by evidence given by Doug Shamberger just after the trial. The judge allowed Mr. Shamberger to take the stand, but did not allow his declaration into evidence.
Is that enough to overturn this rather shaky conviction in the first place?
—David M. Greenwald reporting