By Nancy Martinez and Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Defense lawyers who don’t present any witnesses in their clients’ defense, probably believe the defendant will be acquitted because there is no case.
A calculated risk, and maybe the gambit works in the movies or on a television show…not so much in a real courtroom.
Nathan Yaffee discovered that firsthand when he was found guilty of felony arson after less than a two-day Sacramento County Superior Court trial.
His attorney, assistant public defender Noel Calvillo, apparently not wanting to risk Yaffee taking the stand, rested late last week without calling any witnesses in Yaffee’s defense.
Judge Allen Sumner even urged Yaffee to consider testifying, after Calvillo said he was calling no witnesses, noting that “you’re the defendant; the attorney does certain things, but this is your trial.”
In fact, there wasn’t much evidence presented by either side. Even Deputy District Attorney Ashley Pane didn’t put a big case on – she did call several witnesses.
Curiously, there was additional evidence, but the defense was apparently barred from presenting it to the jury after initially referring to it early on.
The defense said in opening arguments that the fire was staged by Nathan’s father, Elliott Yaffee – owner until recently of a well-known Restaurant Supply company – to frame Nathan because of sexual molestations accusations by Nathan against his father.
Calvillo argued that the sexual molestation accusations would cost him to lose his “good reputation,” and he had to set this fire to stop these accusations from coming to light.
The defense said a month before the 2018 fire, Elliott Yaffee had called the police department in an attempt to get his son arrested – after Nathan said he would speak about the sexual molestation he had suffered as a child at hands of his father.
Nathan Yaffee was charged with a felony for allegedly setting fire next to a fence inside his father’s yard in June 2018. Photos of the fire didn’t show a large conflagration – they showed a little pile of cinders next to the fence, which was lightly scorched about three quarters up. The fire was so small it was extinguished by a neighbor in seconds with a garden hose.
Calvillo told the jury in closing arguments that the case was “common sense,” and that they should not convict.
Yaffee’s father, Elliott, who testified that he would do anything for his son, had “no problem,” as PD Calvillo pointed out in his closing argument, telling the jury to convict his son for the felony.
“This is a set up. There is no evidence,” argued Calvillo, noting that there was no DNA evidence that Nathan set the fire and no fingerprints. “We’ve heard no evidence that Nathan did it,” he said.
“Who’s responsible? Elliot claims he was at his restaurant supply store, but he sold that and had retired. He’s playing loose with the facts. But there is circumstantial evidence that Elliot is responsible. He had no emotion, no problem incriminating his own son. It’s completely reasonable he set his son up,” suggested Calvillo.
Calvillo noted that Ken Patton, who said he saw someone resembling Nathan Yaffee starting at the fire, couldn’t positively identify him months later.
But Deputy District Attorney Ashley Pane disagreed with Calvillo’s assessment, which she called “a Hollywood story.”
“We heard from Ken Patton, a neighbor who is not involved. He told you he got a garden hose and gave it to the defendant, and he did nothing. It was the defendant’s knives found near the fire. There is absolutely no evidence of a setup,” Pane said in closing.
“It was not some alien who set fire and then beamed back up. You don’t need an arson investigator to tell you that…it’s common sense; there were matches, a lighter, accelerant and magazines. You don’t need expert opinion because it is common sense,” Pane added.
Patton, the neighbor, said he saw smoke coming from the front portion of the Yaffee residence, where a small fire was seen on the fence nearby. A few feet away from the fire, Patton said, he saw a man who identified himself as being the son of the owner of the house where the fire was burning. In the process of extinguishing the fire with a water hose, the man that was spotted feet from the fire disappeared.
The DDA told the jury that as the fire was finally being extinguished by the neighbor, the defendant simply fled the scene. He was picked up a few miles away and charged with the crime.
During the cross-examination, Patton testified that law enforcement never asked him to identify a suspect, but he did provide them with a physical description. When law enforcement later asked him how sure he was that the man was Nathan, Patton said he was “pretty sure,” but at trial could not say for certain that he is sure the man was Nathan. When Calvillo asked him if the individual he saw was wearing glasses (as the defendant does). Patton said he could not answer with 100 percent certainty.
The second witness called to the stand by the prosecution was the current partner of Elliott Yaffee, Sharee Tinti, who testified that on the day of the event, she was driving back home from work and spotted Nathan Yaffee walking away from the direction of her home.
As she approached the home, Tinti saw a firetruck and her neighbors outside of her home. As the neighbors were describing to her the details of the fire, she said turned around in her car and decided to follow Nathan, whom she had just spotted.
She said she called Elliott Yaffee, and then 911. Nathan Yaffee was subsequently picked up and arrested.
Tinti explained that the elder Yaffee had bought Nathan a condo in Sacramento, and helped him with furniture and utensils that Nathan may need. The two kitchen utensils include two knives that were gifted to Nathan by Elliott Yaffee – allegedly the knives found at the crime scene.
Elliott Yaffee, on the stand for the prosecution, described his and Nathan’s relationship as difficult leading to the days of the incident. He said he recognized the two knives from the crime scene to be the ones he had gifted Nathan when he was moving into his new condo.
Sacramento fire investigator supervisor Christopher Rogers also testified, as well as a forensic analyst, Jason Hook, for the District Attorney’s office.
Both said the fire was arson, but they could not provide any DNA or other evidence linking Nathan Yaffee to the fire.
Nathan Yaffee is expected to be sentenced next month, and is free on bond, said court officials.