A Butte County judge Monday declined to reduce the $1 million bail set for a Yuba County narcotics officer who was arrested last week on a charge of illegal possession of an assault rifle.
Judge Kimberly Merrifield said the bail amount for Deputy Christopher Heath was appropriate in the Butte County gun case because of Heath’s arrest in Pennsylvania on Dec. 29 on felony charges of transporting 247 pounds of marijuana to York County, Pa.
Heath, 37, a member of a Yuba-Sutter County narcotics enforcement team, was taken into custody with two other Butte County men after they were stopped as part of a drug investigation in Pennsylvania. Heath, his brother-in-law Tyler Long, 31, and Ryan Falsone, 27, were all freed in Pennsylvania after each posted $1 million in bail.
After their release, authorities in California raided Heath’s home in the rural Butte County community of Bangor. Heath was rearrested after local officers found two illegally modified assault rifles at his home. Authorities also seized 132 pounds of marijuana after serving a search warrant at a nearby property, where they arrested Ramona Long, 55, Tyler Long’s mother. She was released after posting $100,000 bail.
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In court Monday, Heath’s attorney argued that his bail in the local case should be $15,000 – not another $1 million.
“There is not a legitimate basis for this,” said attorney Roberto Marquez. “(Heath) is a Butte County resident. He owns property here. He has a pending case in Pennsylvania. He is not going anywhere.”
However, Butte County Deputy District Attorney Jessica Miller argued that Heath should be held on the enhanced bail amount because of the nature of the Pennsylvania case and the deputy’s knowledge and connections as a lead investigator with a five-agency narcotics enforcement team called NET-5.
“The people are concerned because of Mr. Heath’s access to weapons and cash from illicit drug trafficking,” Miller said. “Mr. Heath is aware of drug trafficking because of his employment as an investigator of the narcotics industry.”
Heath, his formerly shaggy goatee trimmed, appeared before Merrifield wearing a yellow Butte County jail smock as the judge refused to reduce his bail. “I’m inclined to grant the (bail) increase,” she said. But the judge said she will permit a hearing on the matter when Heath is to be arraigned on the felony weapons charge Wednesday.
Heath’s wife, Tatum Heath, 35, also was arrested on a felony firearms count after local authorities served a search warrant on their house. Freed last week in lieu of $15,000 bail, she watched from the courtroom audience, crying, as the judge kept her husband’s bail at $1 million.
Marquez said the Heaths’ arrests involved illegally altering assault weapons to allow for faster removal and reloading of magazines – a crime that he said is normally “a wobbler” that can be charged as misdemeanor or felony. He said one weapon was registered to each spouse.
Heath, an investigator since 2013 for the NET-5 team, was involved in more than 60 drug cases and prosecutions. Many of those cases are now being reviewed for potential dismissal, and convictions could be overturned, according to Yuba and Sutter county district attorneys.
Marquez said outside the court that he had represented a marijuana defendant who had been investigated by Heath. The pot suspect was given drug diversion last week in lieu of jail time, Marquez said.
Yuba and Sutter authorities say they have haven’t uncovered any evidence that marijuana they allege was trafficked to Pennsylvania by Heath and his accomplices came from narcotics enforcement operations in California.