How the death of a sheriff’s deputy changed this county’s law enforcement practices
Convicted killer Jack Breiner believed bloodshed and nuclear devastation were coming to his remote Modoc County ranch, and that invading armies would imprison him and his family below ground.
“He felt that a war was coming. He was paranoid about a nuclear Armageddon. He feared he’d be taken as a prisoner of war into an underground cave. ... He had a number of paranoid delusions that were interconnected,” testified Melissa Piasecki, a University of Nevada forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Breiner in April, before concluding that Breiner was “incapable of knowing the moral and legal wrongness of his act.”
Piasecki testified as a defense expert Wednesday as jurors in Sacramento Superior Court hear evidence to decide whether Breiner was sane when he gunned down Modoc County Sheriff’s deputy Jack Hopkins and tried to kill the county sheriff in October 2016.
Sacramento jurors earlier convicted Breiner of first-degree murder in the Oct. 19, 2016 shooting death of Hopkins, 31, on the family’s ranch near Alturas and the attempted murder of Modoc County Sheriff Mike Poindexter, who traded gunfire with Breiner before taking him down with rounds to the hip and legs.
The same panel must now decide whether Breiner was legally sane or insane at the time of the crimes; whether Breiner knew his actions that October morning were morally and legally wrong.
Breiner faces the death penalty if he is determined to have been sane at the time of the shooting.
Attorneys said Piasecki and prosecutors’ expert Stanford psychiatrist John Chamberlain, who was scheduled to testify Wednesday afternoon, agreed that Breiner suffered from “major mental illness” but that the doctors differed on whether his illness was so severe that it impacted his ability to determine right from wrong.
Breiner’s mental illness came into sharp focus during the trial’s guilt phase. His brother Lonnie Breiner, who called 911 after Jack Breiner attacked their father and chased Lonnie away with a loaded rifle, told jurors of his brother’s paranoid ramblings and the family’s fear in the moments before Hopkins arrived.
Defense attorneys said Breiner had been treated for anxiety for years, that he feared the Russians and Chinese were poisoning the nation’s water supply and that he was convinced the federal government was seeding the skies with aluminum among other wild theories.
Piasocki on Wednesday said Breiner had sustained “several head injuries” in his youth and as an adult, had been treated for dementia and showed signs of what may have been a small stroke.
But Modoc County District Attorney Jordan Funk repeatedly challenged Piasecki’s testimony, suggesting Breiner knew that Hopkins was a Modoc County sheriff’s deputy and neither an alien nor a soldier of an invading army when he killed him with a blast from his semi-automatic rifle as Hopkins drove onto the ranch.
“He knew it was a police vehicle,” Funk said.
Funk questioned the timing of Breiner’s statements to the Nevada psychiatrist – 18 months after the deadly shooting and with murder charges and trial looming – saying Breiner exaggerated his symptoms.
Funk pointed to statements Breiner made to law enforcement after killing Hopkins about the ankle monitors he was forced to wear as a paroled sex offender and the apparent regret he expressed at a Redding hospital as he prepared for surgery as proof he knew what he was doing when he fired the fatal shot.
“He said, ‘Wherever I go, the (expletive) are tracking me,’” Funk told Piasecki, adding that Breiner meant law enforcement, not aliens, were monitoring him.
“I am sorry. I was scared. Just take my leg off. Just take me back to Modoc and I’ll go to jail,” Funk said Breiner said from his Redding hospital bed before heading off to surgery for the gunshot wounds he received in the gun battle with Poindexter.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Funk told jurors as the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing. “He knew what was wrong. He knew his conduct was morally wrong.”