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Caretaker Sentenced To 5 Years Probation for Solvang ALS Patient’s Death

Judge rejects defense motions in case stemming from death of Heidi Good

Wanda Nelson, left, was sentenced Friday to five years probation following her conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013.
Wanda Nelson, left, was sentenced Friday to five years probation following her conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The caregiver found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the death of a Solvang ALS patient will spend five years on probation and was ordered not to work in that role again by a judge who called the case “a real tough one.”

Wanda Nelson, 63, learned her fate Friday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria, where she also was sentenced to a year in custody, but won't wind up spending more time behind bars.

“This was a perfect storm of problems that happened that day,” Judge Rogelio Flores said, adding that Nelson, as the professional caregiver, was responsible for Heidi’s care.

A jury found Nelson guilty of involuntary manslaughter, after rejecting first- and second-degree murder charges for the death of Heidi Good on March 25, 2013.

Good had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Nelson, one of Heidi’s paid caregivers, and her mother, Marjorie Good, 90, were indicted by a criminal grand jury for conspiring to murder the ALS patient who relied on a ventilator to breathe.

Prosecutors alleged that the pair first sedated Heidi before disconnecting her ventilator, causing her death from asphyxiation.

When Heidi died, Nelson was running an errand  — at Heidi’s instruction — to pick up a prescription, with Good left to care for her daughter.

The ventilator alarm sounded for 30 minutes, with defense attorneys contending the elderly mother had some sort of episode that caused her to lose track of time.

A different jury found Good not guilty of first- and second-degree murder, but a mistrial was declared in that case due to concerns about jury misconduct. Prosecutors have since decided not to retry Good.

Before handing down the sentence, Flores rejected a defense motion for a new trial based on improper instructions to the jury and declined an invitation to dismiss the conviction.

“I find no error in the instructions of this case,” Flores said, adding that paid caretakers are held to a higher standard legally. 

“Heidi Good was Wanda Nelson’s one and only responsibility,” the judge said, adding the fact she left and was not present to deal with the ventilator means negligence. 

The elderly mother who is hard of hearing was regularly left alone with Heidi, typically during gaps between the paid caregivers’ shifts, Deputy Public Defender Lori Pedego said.

“That was a regular course of conduct by everyone,” Pedego said in arguing that Nelson was not criminally negligent.

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser said Nelson’s actions made her responsible for Heidi’s death, and contended the jury received proper instructions.

As she left to run the errand, Nelson saw the elderly mother walk outside to garden but the caregiver didn’t return to the house, Gresser said. Other caregivers didn’t leave if Good was outside the house, Gresser said. 

“Common sense, based on all of the evidence, would tell you that, yes, if you leave a woman who is ventilator dependent, and that ventilator malfunctions, that she is going to die,” Gresser said. 

Nelson, who faced a maximum of four years in state prison, was not sentenced to additional time in custody. She spent more than 10 months in custody after her arrest, a tally that comes up to more than a year with good-time credit.

The caregiver also was ordered to pay Heidi’s husband, Stephen Swiacki, $16,976 in restitution, but the judge reduced the request that had included attorney’s fees and a new computer to replace one seized by police.

The judge noted Nelson’s lack of prior criminal history.

“In our line of work, that’s pretty rare,” Flores said. 

During court Nelson spoke out about the case and said she never plans to work as a caregiver again despite her 30 years in the career.

“First of all, I would like to say sorry to the family,” Nelson said. “Of course, I couldn’t predict what happened.”

She has a grandchild she has not met, she told the judge.

“I’m at the age a long probation will break me down,” she said, adding she has health problems including a previous diagnosis of breast cancer plus issues from her incarceration.

“I am still traumatized from being away because I’ve never experienced that before. I’m just asking the court to go easy, help me to get back into life and with my family and my grandkids, who need me and are calling me all the time to be with them.”

“I truly loved Heidi and had a good relationship with her. I’m sorry this happened and I had no way, any idea, that this would ever happen in my life or her life.”

Nelson spent more than 10 months in custody, primarily in the Santa  Barbara County Jail. She has been free on her own recognizance since verdict.

Nelson’s attorney argued for a shorter probation so Nelson can move out of state to be close to family. While it’s possible to transfer probation to another state, the process can be time consuming and requires several approvals before it can happen, officials said.

"I just wish that this is over so I could get on with my life," Nelson said after Friday's hearing. 

Pedego said she intends to file an appeal on her client’s behalf, alleging improper instructions misguided the jury’s verdict.

“We are very disappointed in the judge’s ruling,” she said outside the courtroom. “We believe that had the jurors received the proper instructions, that they would not have convicted Ms. Nelson of the criminal negligence required for involuntary manslaughter.”

She added, "This nightmare is not over for Ms. Nelson. We will continue to fight until she is fully exonerated."

Pedego said she expected the judge to rule in favor of the defense motion and dismissal “because it has been clear from that beginning that Ms. Nelson is innocent of everything but being a wonderful caregiver for Heidi Good. She is guilty of that.

“This has been a horrible, scary, long ordeal for Ms. Nelson. Her life has been destroyed,” Pedego said, adding the jury verdict shows the panel did not believe the caregiver did anything intentional to harm Heidi.

Outside the courtroom, the prosecutor said a key concern was the lack of insight shown by the defendant throughout the proceedings regarding her responsibility in the case.

“I really respect the jury. This was a long complicated case filled with emotion on all sides …,” Gresser said.

She also praised Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department detectives Charlie Bosma and Matthew Fenske’s work on the investigation.

“They never turned away from such a complicated case,” she said.

Throughout the trial, defense attorneys criticized the investigation as being flawed.

Despite his nearly three decades presiding over trials, the double defendant case with dual juries hearing the evidence against the women made an impression on the judge, who has moved to Lompoc Superior Court. 

“Ms. Nelson, you indicated that you’re in pain. We were all in pain over this case. This was not easy for any of us,” Flores said. “I still think about this case every day. I think about what happened here. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Heidi and for you and for Marjorie and for Stephen … for everybody involved.”

“This is a real tough one …” he added. “I think about Heidi a lot. I would have liked to have known her. She seemed like a pretty interesting dynamic woman."

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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