Judge Holds Man to Answer for Allegedly Stabbing and Burning Car

By Isabelle Brady

MODESTO, CA – Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Shawn Bessey presided over a preliminary hearing here late last week for Thomas Lasater, who was held to answer for maliciously defacing his mother’s car and lighting it on fire, both felonies.

During the preliminary hearing, Lasater’s mother and the police officer who responded to the call testified.

The judge decided, based on their testimony and his knowledge of the facts, to hold Lasater to answer on both counts in the case and go to trial.

Lasater’s mother said that on Nov. 20, 2021, she was at home when she received a visit from her son. She could not remember whether or not she had invited him.

She said that she saw him outside, in her car that was parked on the street, noting, “He was stabbing the vehicle with a knife.

“He was using the knife to stab any part he could…he did everything in the car that he could totally destroy with the knife,” said the mother, adding she went inside the house for a moment after seeing him. She said that when she went back “down there,” she saw the vehicle “smoldering.” She said that she did not see the vehicle “on fire.

“I did not see the vehicle aflame. The vehicle was still smoking when I went out there,” she said.

After Lasater’s mother’s testimony, Officer Orrin Nelson of the Modesto Police Department took the stand and testified that Lasater’s mother’s boyfriend told him that, when he approached the vehicle, he saw the defendant stabbing the dashboard.

He also said that, when Lasater left, he saw smoke inside the vehicle and a small fire on the passenger floorboard.

According to Officer Nelson, the boyfriend confronted Lasater and said “You’re gonna catch the whole car on fire.”

Lasater allegedly responded by “saying it wouldn’t catch the whole car on fire.”

Officer Nelson also said that Lasater’s mother estimated the damage to be $1,000, though he did not follow up on the actual value of the damage.

He said that he himself saw “burn marks on the floorboard, and then there was broken–it looked like stab marks–on the whole front of the car.”

But Officer Nelson received no statements from Lasater’s mother or her boyfriend about what started the fire.

When Assistant Public Defender Jesus Mendoza asked about “smoking devices” recovered from the car, Officer Nelson told him that there was a meth pipe recovered.

PD Mendoza asked if, should the meth pipe fall out of one’s hand while smoking, one could start an accidental fire.

“I don’t know,” Officer Nelson said. “I wouldn’t think so, no.”

According to Officer Nelson, a fire investigator who spoke to him, wanted to add an arson charge. But the fire investigator never told him what caused the fire, in his opinion.

After Officer Nelson’s testimony, PD Mendoza protested the arson count.

“There’s no evidence that this was willful or malicious. We really don’t know how the fire started. There’s a lot of assumptions, but I think this is just as likely a reckless burning as it is intentional burning. I don’t think there’s enough evidence for this specific arson charge, the public defender argued.

Deputy District Attorney Timothy Keaton said after the boyfriend went outside “the defendant then exited the vehicle and left on foot and shortly thereafter the fire began.

“The assumption is, and it’s a fair inference, that the defendant caused that fire. And he was already previously in the vehicle, doing damage to the vehicle, with a sharp object, so it is a fair assumption that he also caused that fire in a malicious method,” said the DDA.

Judge Bessey concluded, “There is an inference that if you’re being malicious in one action, and you set the fire in the other action…there is sufficient reason to believe he’s guilty thereof.”

Judge Bessey adjusted Lasater’s bail from $50,000 to $25,000 and set the next pretrial hearing for March 3.

About The Author

Isabelle is a first year undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in philosophy. Her passions include writing, criminal justice reform and reading Kurt Vonnegut. She may or may not eventually attend law school.

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