A federal judge Friday strongly signaled that she may not allow seizure of the home belonging to the adoptive parents of the man who killed Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Robert French, but declined to issue a final decision until she studies the case further.
In a dramatic 45-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said she understood the magnitude of the tragedy that left French dead and two California Highway Patrol officers wounded in an Aug. 30 shootout with Thomas Littlecloud in Arden Arcade.
But she said she was not wholly convinced by the government’s argument that Littlecloud’s parents must forfeit their Castro Valley home because he skipped out on bail in July, after they had put up their house to cover his $100,000 bond.
“Like most of the criminal cases that we hear, this is a really tragic situation,” Illston said, noting that she was thinking of Deputy French’s family.
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“His death is a loss to the community and a tragedy for his family,” she said, adding that Littlecloud’s parents, Nichole and Robert, also have faced a tragedy with the loss of the son they adopted when he was 10.
“Mrs. Littlecloud is here, her family is suffering,” Illston said. “There’s nobody in this room who is happy about these circumstances.”
The judge noted that French and the wounded CHP officers were “just out doing their jobs” when they were shot during a stolen-car investigation at the Ramada Inn at Fulton Avenue and Auburn Boulevard.
She also noted that Nichole Littlecloud, who walked into court slowly with the aid of a cane, and whose husband is suffering from dementia, had adopted three Native American children, including Thomas, who had been abused as a boy.
“You’ve been heroic your whole life in adopting these children,” she told Nichole Littlecloud as her son John watched from the gallery.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Faerstein has argued that Illston had no choice but to order the forfeiture of the bond, because the law requires it.
Illston appeared to accept that, saying, “I believe it is mandatory that I forfeit the bond, so the bond is forfeited.”
But the judge immediately said she was considering setting aside that order and asked for input from both sides.
Faerstein suggested for the first time there may be an option for the Littleclouds to avoid losing the home the family raised their children in, saying they could take out a $440,000 loan by refinancing it and paying off the $100,000 bond.
He added that there has to be some consequence to ensure defendants know that when a bond is posted, it can be lost if they don’t show up for court.
“He killed a member of law enforcement and shot two others,” Faerstein said.
But Littlecloud attorney Erin Crane said Nichole Littlecloud did not know the depths of her son’s problems from his abusive childhood before he was adopted, and said the government has no way of knowing what finances the family will need to care for Robert Littlecloud.
She also argued that Nichole Littlecloud actively searched for her son in hopes of turning him in, and Crane noted how she herself scoured the Tenderloin and other parts of San Francisco trying to find Thomas Littlecloud.
Finally, she said, she came within an hour of determining that he might be in Sacramento, but that information came too late to stop the shootout.
Illston acknowledged that whatever she decides, there will be some who don’t agree with her, and she told the lawyers that she will take yet another look at their filings and issue a written decision at a later date.
“I feel such empathy and sorrow for the families of the people who were injured by Mr. Littlecloud,” the judge said.