Officials have not been able to determine what caused the house fire that killed a prominent Sacramento forensic psychologist whose testimony helped decide a heated probate case earlier this year.
An autopsy showed that the psychologist, Christopher Heard, 63, died of smoke inhalation and thermal burns in the June 17 blaze at his residence on East Country Club Lane in the Arden area.
The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, however, classified the death as “undetermined” in the final report of investigation completed last week.
According to the autopsy report, “Sacramento Metro Fire Arson Investigator Bryan Thomson stated that he has not been able to determine the source/origin of the fire and will be listing it as Undetermined. Based on the circumstances and cause of death, the classification of this case will be ‘Undetermined.’ ”
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Heard had been a longtime figure in the Sacramento criminal justice community. In the probate case, his testimony in the Sacramento Superior Court retrial over the estate of Joseph Herb O’Brien played a critical role in Judge Christopher E. Krueger’s decision to invalidate a verbal deathbed will that local attorney Kenneth L. Rosenfeld said he transcribed from the decedent.
Heard testified that he visited O’Brien two days before the decedent’s death and found him to be “really incoherent.”
Krueger said in his ruling that finalized the O’Brien estate that there was “very significant doubt on Mr. O’Brien’s capacity at the time of the execution” of the will that was taken by Rosenfeld.
In the will that the judge threw out, O’Brien left almost all of his estate valued at $611,000 to Sacramento area veterinarian Kenneth Pawlowski, a close friend of Rosenfeld.
The judge, however, did not sustain allegations of undue influence or fraud against Rosenfeld and Pawlowski that had been filed by attorneys for the will’s contestants – O’Brien’s stepson and brother.
Heard did not testify in the first trial, in 2012, in which Krueger accepted the will. After the judge’s ruling, however, Sacramento attorney Clark Head, a former associate of Rosenfeld’s, informed the contestants’ lawyers that the psychologist had examined O’Brien two days before the decedent’s death and found him to be incompetent. Based on the new evidence, the judge granted the contestants’ motion for a new trial that featured Heard’s testimony.
With the will invalidated, the estate reverted to a trust that O’Brien set up for the stepson, Glenn Slattery, 44, who is now in prison for vandalism, terrorist threats and burglary, among other offenses.
The autopsy report said Heard suffered his fatal injuries in the fire that was reported around 5:47 a.m. Firefighters found Heard unresponsive in his home and transported him to Kaiser Hospital North, where he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival, according to the autopsy.
The fire took place five days after Krueger took the probate case under under submission after the retrial.
In the blaze, Heard suffered second- and third-degree burns over half his body, mostly to the head, chest and upper extremities, the autopsy report said.
His blood-alcohol level was reported at 0.18, according to coroner’s officials, or more than twice the legal limit to drive an automobile.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.