By Mella Bettag
SACRAMENTO – In Valentyn Stepanov’s preliminary hearing this Monday, Judge Delbert W. Oros was not a friend of the defense. In fact, he denied every motion the defense brought.
Stepanov’s hearing in Dept. 16 of Sacramento County Superior Court addressed alleged criminal threats.
The incident in question occurred on December 23, 2019, the same day Stepanov was taken into custody, and he has been in the Sacramento County Jail ever since.
Gina Truesdale, a Sacramento police officer who was involved in the arrest, laid out the incident in her testimony.
According to Truesdale, there were three witnesses—Jeffery and Michael Ortega, who were maintenance workers at Stepanov’s apartment complex, and Chelsea Borquez, the property manager. All three witnesses spoke to Truesdale, who relayed their accounts during the hearing.
The Ortega brothers said they were on the second floor of the apartment building when they heard yelling, and saw a woman being pulled into Apartment 427, the residence of Stepanov. Out of concern, they called Borquez, and the three knocked on the apartment door to investigate the commotion.
After knocking several times, Stepanov opened the door, holding what appeared to be a handgun. The handgun was later confirmed to be a fake, and could not fire any ammunition, a point highlighted by defense counsel Alan Donato during his cross of Truesdale.
In cross, Truesdale also discussed the differing accounts of what happened next. While all three witnesses agreed that Stepanov had waved a gun at them and shouted “get the f— away from my house,” Jeff Donato brought up something else–a specific, verbal threat that Stepanov was going to shoot and kill them.
In reaction to the alleged threats, the three witnesses then stepped away from the door and went down the steps to the bottom floor, where Borquez called the police. Despite the retreat of the Ortegas and Borquez, Stepanov came down to talk with them once again.
Stepanov, after provoked by Jeffery Ortega, began a physical fight. The Ortegas ended up restraining Stepanov in what Jeffery described as a “half nelson.” The Ortegas and Borquez told officer Truesdale that at this point, Stepanov began going in and out of consciousness, and that he continually said, “it’s fake,” referring to the gun.
When officer Truesdale arrived at the scene, she searched the backpack the defendant was wearing, and found an extendable baton and drug paraphernalia. She also observed that Stepanov was clearly unwell, dry heaving and bleeding from the mouth.
Valentina Babenko, Stepanov’s significant other, revealed that Stepanov had consumed an unknown amount of both heroin and cocaine within the past several days, and had been acting paranoid. According to Babenko, Stepanov had accused her of cheating and had looked in the Christmas tree branches to find the men who she’d been cheating with.
Babenko also said that while Stepanov had been temporarily sober prior to the time of the incident, he did have a history of drug use. Stepanov dealt with seizures, and used the illicit drugs as a form of self-medication, she said.
After the testimony of Truesdale, defense counsel Donato made his case on why the case shouldn’t move forward—there was no intentional threat made, arguing that only one of the three witnesses, Jeffery Ortega, had mentioned any verbal threat Stepanov made, and therefore the testimony was not solid.
Judge Oros rebutted this claim, reminding Donato that only one witness needs to hear something for it to be considered a threat.
Trying again, Donato said, if there was a threat made, it was not clearly intentional because Stepanov had been using an unknown amount of cocaine and heroin over the past several days, and was “disoriented” and “out of his head.”
Judge Oros also disagreed with Donato on this argument, saying Stepanov’s aggressive gesturing with what looked like a real firearm consisted of an intentional threat.
Finally, Donato insisted, the prosecution had not shown that the alleged victim, Jeffery Ortega, was in fear because of the threats. Donato pointed to Ortega’s direct physical confrontation with the defendant as proof that Ortega was not afraid of the defendant.
In response, the DDA pointed to Jeffery Ortega’s retreat to the staircase after his initial encounter with Stepanov. prosecutor Gong argued that this action showed Ortega’s fear, even if he never explicitly said he was afraid.
Judge Oro found that there was sufficient evidence to hold Stepanov to answer for the alleged acts of criminal threats.
Donato had two other motions to present as well.
First, a motion to reduce Stepanov’s charge to a misdemeanor. Donato argued that Stepanov was a changed man and therefore did not deserve a felony. Donato pointed out that the defendant has spent eight months in custody, in which he sobered up. In four character letters provided by the defense, people close to Stepanov affirmed that when he wasn’t on drugs, he was a kind, caring member of society, a family man and a loving friend.
Donato also brought up some of the facts of the incident—the gun was fake, and the defendant only fought after being provoked.
Gong was completely opposed to the motion. She referred to a previous charge that Stepanov had been convicted of a year before, in which he threatened a Kohl’s salesman with a fake gun as well.
Once again, Judge Oros sided with the prosecution, citing Stepanov’s previous behavior as a reason for denying the motion.
Finally, Donato brought his final motion, which was to lower the $1,000,000 bail of Stepanov. Donato noted that during his client’s time in custody, bail had not been discussed once, despite the COVID emergency bail schedule.
Gong, in opposition, revealed that Stepanov had several prior instances where he had not stayed in contact with probation or the court, and could not be relied upon to come back to court. Also, last time Stepanov was released he committed the same crime again. Gong argued that there was no way to release Stepanov safely and assuredly.
Donato attributed Stepanov’s prior failures to his drug issues, saying that when he’s sober he is extremely reliable. Donato suggested his bail be lowered to $100,000, so he could reasonably pay it. When he got out, he would be subject to drug testing and drug classes.
Judge Oros was not comforted.
He brought up the fact that the defense and the prosecution both offered different pictures of Stepanov, one being the kind, caring family man and one being the addicted repeat offender.
“(You are) asking me which of the two individuals are we going to get… if I grant the request for a reduction in bail,” said Oros. “There’s no way I can determine that… I can only look to his past in this case to determine his future, and his past is a past that’s been plagued by the use of narcotics that cause him to spiral out of control.”
By the end of the hearing, Judge Oros had denied every motion the defense brought to the court.
Stepanov’s case will return on Monday, August 17, in Dept. 63 for an arraignment on information and a trial date will be set.
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