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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 10:03 pm | Fair 49º


Santa Barbara Judge Rules Nicolas Holzer Was Sane When He Murdered His Parents, 2 Sons

Verdict means Goleta-area man will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole

defendant led out of court Click to view larger
Nicolas Holzer, right, is led out of a Santa Barbara County courtroom during a break in his trial Friday. A judge ruled Holzer was sane when he killed his parents and two sons in 2014, which means he will be sentenced to life in prison without possiblity of parole. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Brian Hill ruled Friday afternoon that Nicolas Holzer was not insane four years ago when he brutally murdered his parents and two sons in the home they shared near Goleta.

Holzer, 48, had already been found guilty of stabbing to death his parents, William Charles Holzer, 73, and Sheila Garard Holzer, 74, and his two sons, Sebastian, 13, and Vincent, 10, on Aug. 11, 2014. 

He had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges, so the two-phase, non-jury trial included a guilt phase, which ended May 21, and a sanity phase that ended with closing arguments on Friday. 

Deputy Public Defender Christine Voss, who represents Holzer, outlined her client's long history of mental illness, including multiple suicide attempts and involuntary hospitalizations, in her closing statement as she argued for Hill to find him insane at the time of the murders. 

Prosecutor Ron Zonen countered that while Holzer clearly suffered from mental illness, the defense had not met the legal burden for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Both sides brought in psychologists and psychiatrists — 16 in all — as witnesses in the case, some of whom have treated Holzer, and Zonen called Holzer's ex-wife and siblings to the stand. 

Testimony revealed that Holzer had spoken about killing members of his family months before the murders.  

Holzer will return to court on Aug. 24, when he is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

If he had been found insane, he would have been sent to a state mental hospital. 

The insanity question hinged on whether Holzer was incapable of understanding the nature and quality of his actions, or was incapable of knowing that his acts were legally or morally wrong, according to testimony.

Hill said the defense did not meet the burden of proof for insanity, and that he found Holzer was sane at the time of the murders and the killing of the family dog.

The most important piece of evidence that Holzer has a serious mental illness is that he methodically murdered his family, Hill said.

However, the judge did not find that Holzer’s mental illness meant he was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.

Hill read several exchanges from the interview between Holzer and two Sheriff’s Department detectives, which happened shortly after his arrest, as support for his verdict, including passages where Holzer said he had to commit the murders, and thought it was something he was supposed to do a long time ago, and had only just worked up the nerve.

He later told psychologists that he had to kill his family to save them from eternal damnation, and that killing them was a command from God. Hill said claiming a command from God later, but not at the time of the crime, was “arguably suspicious and convenient.”

In closing, Hill praised both attorneys for their work on the case, which lasted almost four years.

“They both did great service for their clients,” he said.

Voss started her closing argument by showing a photo of Holzer from 1993, on his graduation day from UC Santa Barbara.

Smiling and robust, Holzer is standing next to a family member near the campus lagoon.

Voss contrasted that photo with an image of Holzer in 1995, gaunt and disheveled upon his return from Japan after he suffered a total mental breakdown, and from 2018, when he looked similarly thin and troubled.

“It doesn’t look like the same person,” Voss told Hill.

“He’s not always that way,” Voss said, “but when he has major breaks from reality, that’s what he looks like.”

Voss asserted that Holzer’s mental illness is a “cyclical disease” that has not always been obvious.

“It waxes and wanes. It comes and goes,” she said, “but his underlying disease is still there.”

Holzer’s ongoing delusion, Voss said, is centered around an unshakable belief that he is a terrible person who deserves to be severely punished for a litany of horrible crimes — virtually all of which he could never have committed, including the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, the AIDS epidemic, and killing multiple people around the world.

“He believes he is the most evil person in the world…” Voss said. “He believes everything he does makes him wretched.”

She argued that Holzer did not have the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, and to determine what was legally or morally wrong.

“His entire delusion is about being wrong, it’s about being evil,” she said.

She also argued that there is a difference between Holzer knowing what he did – he told detectives he had stabbed his family members – and understanding the nature of the act.

“He killed the four people he loved the most and he did it for no reason. He may or may not understand that now,” Voss said.

Voss recounted examples from the mid-1990s until present day that show Holzer had a persistent belief that he “had done bad things and committed terrible crimes,” and that “there was no escape from the consequences of his deeds.”

On the day after Holzer killed his family, “he believed he would be eternally damned for all the things he had done,” Voss said.

Voss contended that Holzer loved his family and didn’t want to kill them, but paradoxically felt he had to to save them.

“He had to do it in order to protect them from greater pain later,” Voss said. “Letting them live, in his mind, was the wrong thing to do.”

In an attempt to counter mental-health witnesses called to testify by the prosecution, Voss drew a distinction between “forensic experts” who only examined Holzer for a couple of hours, compared to psychologists and psychiatrists who treated him on an ongoing basis.

The latter, she said, consistently diagnosed Holzer with having delusions and suffering from schizo-affective disorder.

Zonen instead argued that Holzer had a personality disorder, possibly with psychotic or delusional disorders on top of that baseline diagnosis.

Zonen asserted that schizophrenia would not account for Holzer’s 10-year gap in treatment and reported symptoms, between about 1999 and 2009.

Holzer was involuntarily hospitalized for three-day "5150" mental-health holds in 1998 and again in 2009, according to court testimony.

Voss showed a video in court of Holzer talking to himself while being held in the back of a law enforcement vehicle, shortly after his arrest.

He speaks softly, and the Voss transcribed his words as, “You had to kill them… That’s what happened. It was your second chance (inaudible) his 13th birthday. You failed.”

Holzer committed the murders on the day after his son Sebastian’s 13th birthday and according to previous testimony, had talked for months about needing to kill his oldest son.

Hill said during Voss’ arguments that the video was a “strong piece of evidence for your case.”

In his closing argument, Zonen said he does not dispute the fact Holzer has a serious mental disorder, but that the schizo-affective disorder doesn’t explain the 10-year gap.

Zonen said there was “tremendous animosity” in the house, with conflicts between Holzer and his parents, and it was a stressful environment. 

Stress is a known catalyst for schizophrenia, he said, and Holzer did not show symptoms or seek treatment in that 10-year period that included his difficult marriage, the divorce and the custody battle for his sons.  

Zonen argued that Holzer’s most honest answer when asked about motive for the killings was the first one he gave, to sheriff’s detectives: I don’t know.

Holzer said in interviews that he was compelled to do it, that he had to do it, that it was an uncontrollable compulsion, Zonen said.

Hill announced the verdict directly after closing arguments ended, and ordered Holzer to return to court for the sentencing. 

“I think it was an appropriate verdict, I don’t think the defense met the burden,” Zonen said after the verdict.

“He was aware he was wrong on every level,” he said of Holzer.

Zonen said he does expect an appeal in the case.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley asked him to come out of retirement to handle this case, and he said Friday that now, “I’m done.”

Voss said she was “extremely saddened by the impact the verdict will have” on Holzer. 

“He spent most of his adult life tortured by his mental illness, and he will now spend the remainder of his life tortured by his delusions in a prison setting where he will likely decompensate further and faster,” she said in an email.

“His parents clearly loved him and never gave up on taking care of him, and I am certain that this is not what they would have wanted for their son.

“Unfortunately the stigma of mental illness and the lack of meaningful mental health resources available to his family led to this terrible tragedy. I can only hope that our community will see this as a calling to work towards making professional, accessible, and appropriate mental health resources a priority,” Voss said.

In a statement released Friday after the verdict, Dudley said, “This horrible murder deeply affected not just the loved ones of the Holzer family but our entire community. Sergeant Rob Minter of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office conducted an outstanding investigation, under the worst of all possible conditions.

"Veteran Prosecutor Ron Zonen, widely known as the foremost trial lawyer in our county, led the prosecution team with help from attorneys Lena Alker and Dayton Aldrich. Hopefully this just ruling can bring some sense of peace and justice to those who are still suffering from this horrendous crime.”

Executive editor Tom Bolton contributed reporting to this story. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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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