Modoc cop killer found sane, gets life in prison

The trial of Jack Breiner in the 2016 murder of Modoc County Sheriff’s deputy Jack Hopkins began on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Sacramento. Behind Breiner is defense attorney Craig Collins.
The trial of Jack Breiner in the 2016 murder of Modoc County Sheriff’s deputy Jack Hopkins began on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Sacramento. Behind Breiner is defense attorney Craig Collins. rbyer@sacbee.com

Jack Breiner, the convicted sex offender who fatally shot a Modoc County sheriff’s deputy and tried to kill the county’s sheriff in a gun battle in October 2016, will spend the rest of his life in state prison, jurors decided Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court.

On Monday, the same jurors determined Breiner was sane when he fired the semi-automatic rifle shot that killed 31-year-old Modoc County Sheriff’s Deputy Jack Hopkins on Oct. 19, 2016. The jury convicted Breiner of first-degree murder and the attempted murder of Modoc County Sheriff Mike Poindexter. The sheriff traded gunfire with Breiner before stopping him with shots to his legs and hip.

Breiner, appearing flushed and watery-eyed and wearing orange jail fatigues for the first time in the weeks-long trial, escaped the death penalty with the afternoon verdict. But in the last of many emotional moments in the trial’s final days, Hopkins’ mother, Carol, rose from the gallery to meet the jurors as they left the jury box, embracing each one as they filed past.

“It was emotional for all of us. We knew it would probably be difficult to get a death sentence,” Carol Hopkins said. “It’s OK. He’s going to be away for a long time. He won’t be able to hurt anyone else.”

Hopkins was the first deputy killed in the line of duty in Modoc County. Breiner’s murder trial was moved to Sacramento from the Modoc County seat in Alturas out of publicity concerns.

Breiner will be sentenced March 18 in Alturas, Modoc Superior Court Judge Candace Beason ordered Wednesday. In expansive remarks from the bench, Beason thanked jurors for the “remarkable burden” they carried at trial: “I know that this will stay with you forever,” the judge said. Beason then singled out Hopkins’ family in a long statement.

“Every single one of us … shared the pain, wishes we could make you whole again - Jack’s presence, your closeness, your bond as a family — but these are the sorts of situations that have ripple effects for everyone,” Beason said. “I pray that over time your hearts begin to heal a little.”

Sam Hopkins, Jack’s brother and a police officer who attended the police academy with Jack, and David Cooksey, who the Hopkins family took in as a boy, were less charitable. Sam Hopkins wanted jurors to choose the death penalty. Cooksey said condemning Breiner to death was just punishment for Breiner’s misdeeds.

“The laws of our society were put in place to provide justice for all persons put into it,” Cooksey said evenly. “But what greater offense to our society is there than a (sex offender) and cop killer?”

Prior to the shooting, Breiner was living on his family’s ranch and had mental problems including elaborate delusions, his attorneys said: Russian and Chinese invaders; nuclear apocalypse; attacks on the nation’s water supply; government-led cloud poisoning; fears of being captured and imprisoned underground.

Defense attorneys argued that Breiner, who was treated for anxiety, endured head injuries as a child and adult and suffered from “major mental illness.” Doctors testified at trial that Breiner was under sway of those delusions when he killed Hopkins.

In a Sacramento courtroom Tuesday, Carol Hopkins and her husband Lance testified one last time about the son they raised, the man he became, the life he led and the void he left behind, as jurors dabbed at tears.

Hopkins was baptized in the waters of the Shasta River. He died behind the wheel of his sheriff’s cruiser on remote Modoc County ranchland, a single bullet piercing the windshield and his head. In between, Jack Hopkins was his mother’s favorite. In death, the family he left behind is in shambles, his parents lost without him, they said.

“I don’t want to live. I just want to be with Jack,” Carol Hopkins said from the witness stand. “If it weren’t for my grandkids, I wouldn’t care what happened to me.”

“I’ve seen people die. I’ve seen people die violently,” Lance Hopkins, a former U.S. Army captain and combat veteran, testified Tuesday. “Nothing prepared me for the death of Jack. I thought our family was strong and together as a unit. Our family has been torn apart.”

Lance Hopkins, prematurely aged by anxiety and loss, he said, a long gray beard hanging past his chest, remembered his son as a child. Jack’s favorite comic book character was Batman, Lance said, and he would sprint through their house dressed as the caped crusader.

“He wanted to push back the darkness. He wanted to be a hero. The one thing I regret is that he never had the chance,” Lance Hopkins said. “We’re kind of an old West family. He died with his boots on, but he didn’t have the opportunity to fight back. He just got shot.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.