Neven Butler will face trial on suspicion of murder and sex charges in the April 2017 beating death of an 86-year-old woman on a high school running track and attacks on three other women, a Sacramento judge ruled Friday.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin McCormick ordered Butler to return to court July 27 to be arraigned for trial. Butler is still being held without bail at Sacramento County Main Jail where he has been confined since his April 2017 arrest.
Sacramento County prosecutor Donell Slivka said District Attorney's officials last November decided not to seek the death penalty against the 19-year-old Butler, citing his mental health issues and his lack of a prior criminal record. She said that if Butler were convicted, a sentence of life without parole would be a "significant punishment."
Butler listened quietly as a sheriff's detective on Friday related the sudden, savage North Highlands attack that killed 86-year-old Fusako Petrus and sent her younger friend fleeing for her life early the morning of April 26, 2017.
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"There was urgency" that morning when Sacramento County Sheriff's detective Kelly Clark interviewed Petrus' friend about two hours after the attack at a Sacramento clinic, Clark recalled from the witness stand. Petrus' battered body lay dead and the attacker was still at large.
Petrus' friend said she could better express what happened to them in Spanish rather than English. With her doctor interpreting, she did, Clark recalled, giving voice to the terrifying moments that led to Petrus' death.
Petrus, her friend and a third woman were walking on the Highlands High School track when Petrus' friend heard the crunch of the track's decomposed granite underfoot behind them, Clark testified. It was a little after 6 a.m.
Petrus' friend heard someone coming up behind them. The attacker then grabbed her and started pulling off her clothes. He punched her three, four times, according to Clark's testimony. She tried to fight back. She described a man with hair thick enough to grab as she fought him. He reached into a pocket for a condom, tearing away the foil wrapper.
A crime scene investigator testified Friday he recovered a foil wrapper near Petrus' body. A thumbprint that matched Butler's was later lifted from the foil, another technician testified. Investigators also testified that security camera footage showed multiple images of Butler roaming the halls of Highland High School in the minutes leading up to the attacks.
Petrus tried to fight off her friend's attacker with the only weapon she had - her walking stick. Petrus' friend took the stick away and landed several more blows before the attacker set upon the 86-year-old.
"He was kicking her and stomping her even after she was knocked unconscious," Clark testified Petrus' friend told her at the clinic. Petrus' friend ran to a nearby church to get help as the attack on Petrus continued. The attacker soon ran for a nearby fence and was gone.
But the attacks weren't over. A third woman, six years older than Petrus and diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, was pummeled later that day in her wheelchair at the care home where Butler's mother worked. Sheriff's deputies arrested Butler without incident in the care home's parking lot.
Sheriff's detective Jeremy Day interviewed care workers at the facility, he testified Friday, including a nurse who said she and Butler's mother talked over lunch about Butler having bipolar disorder just hours before she said someone outside the facility was kicking the entrance's doors.
"She said the person turned toward her and had a horrible look on his face," then walked past her into the center and punched the wheelchair-bound woman several times in the face, Day testified.
As many as five people tried to pull the man alleged to be Butler off of the 92-year-old, but he broke free and threw more punches before the nurse moved between them. Day said the nurse told him the person looked like Butler.
After nearly three hours of testimony Friday, McCormick ordered Butler to face trial.
Butler's attorney, Linda Parisi, argued that the single latent print was not enough to hold Butler for trial, adding that DNA tests on the recovered condom had not yet been performed.
"The I.D. that links Butler to the act is lacking," Parisi said.
Parisi echoed calls from Butler's mother, Brandi Michalik, who attended Friday's hearing. She has demanded that DNA from the crime scene be processed and released. Michalik told The Bee in May that her son, a former Highlands High School student who played football, began to decline mentally after a 2016 head injury during a practice. He was diagnosed in 2017 with schizoaffective disorder, Michalik said. Impulse control and manic behavior are among the disorder's signposts.
Outside the courtroom, Petrus friend Vicki Butler quietly approved of McCormick's decision. "It's a relief that (the case) is finally moving. It's been more than a year since her death," Butler said. "She's missed by her friends, family and neighbors. She'll be remembered as a hero to her friend."