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Judge Upholds Murder Charges Against Elderly Mother, Caretaker

Trial for 2 women in case of Solvang ALS patient's death scheduled for Nov. 10 in Santa Maria

Marjorie Good will stand trial next month on murder charges stemming from the death of her daughter, Heidi Good Swiacki, an ALS patient who lived in Solvang.
Marjorie Good will stand trial next month on murder charges stemming from the death of her daughter, Heidi Good Swiacki, an ALS patient who lived in Solvang. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria on Monday denied defense motions seeking to dismiss charges against an elderly mother and caretaker accused of killing a Solvang ALS patient in 2013.

In the spring, a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury indicted Marjorie Good, 89, and Wanda Nelson, 63,  on first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in the death of Heidi Good. 

The 52-year-old woman died March 25, 2013, after an eight-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS and Lou Gerhig’s disease.

Marjorie Good, who is represented by David Bixby, is Heidi’s mother.

Nelson, who is represented by Lori Pedego, was one of the ALS patient’s caregivers. Nelson remains in custody; Good was released on her own recognizance.

After reading pages of written motions and listening to arguments from attorneys on both sides regarding legal issues and autopsy results, Judge Rick Brown ruled key evidence was not withheld from grand jurors.

Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors failed to provide exculpatory information when presenting the case to grand jurors, including e-mails from the victim’s husband, Stephen Swiacki, who expressed anger that his wife was taking antibiotics to clear up a lung infection.

But Brown noted Swiacki had an alibi, provided by GPS navigation equipment on his work vehicle. 

A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria rejected motions by attorneys for Wanda Nelson, above, and Marjorie Good, seeking to have murder charges against them dismissed. Click to view larger
A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria rejected motions by attorneys for Wanda Nelson, above, and Marjorie Good, seeking to have murder charges against them dismissed. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“This case is about machinery, really,” Brown said. “The ventilator recorded details of what was going on. Mr. Swiacki’s GPS device recorded where he was.”

“The nature of how Heidi died — somebody gave her an overdose of medicine, somebody removed the ventilator, somebody put it back. It all took place rapidly in a short time, half an hour but it probably was faster,” Brown said. 

The judge said prosecutors were not required to present information about the husband to the grand jury just because Swiacki had a possible motive — defense attorneys noted he stood to get $350,000 from a life insurance policy and reportedly was stressed at the high costs of Heidi’s care. 

Despite having a possible motive, Swiacki didn’t have the opportunity, Brown added. 

“There’s nothing linking him to this crime, not a bit that I can see,” Brown said. 

At the time of Heidi Good’s death, Nelson was running an errand, unusual for a caretaker, the judge said.

Marjorie Good gave conflicting stories about being inside with Heidi or outside pruning hedges, and whether the door was open or closed at the time the ventilator alarm sounded.

“There’s a lot of different stories told by defendants Nelson and Good and they're inconsistent,” Brown said.

Defense attorneys also said prosecutors should not have relied solely on the testimony of Dr. Dean Hawley, a forensic pathologist, and contend other experts, including one directly contradicting his testimony, should have been questioned before the grand jury.

“If you take away Dr. Hawley’s timeline, the people’s case crumbles,” Pedego said. 

She noted the forensic pathologist said someone intentionally drugged Heidi Good so she couldn’t struggle when the ventilators was disconnected.

“That statement is outrageous when we know that Heidi Good has the use of her eyelids alone to communicate so there was going to be no struggle,” Pedego said. 

But Senior Deputy Defense Attorney Cynthia Gresser noted Hawley is highly regarded and had more details than other medical experts when he testified to the grand jury.

“To say that it’s beyond a forensic pathologist’s expertise to consider and interpret toxicology results is completely ludicrous,” Gresser said, adding that the forensic pathologist spelled out his expertise in detail to the grand jury.

“He’s not only just a practicing forensic pathologist, this is one of the foremost forensic pathologists in the country,” Gresser said, adding that he teaches medical students, conducts over 600 autopsies and travels around the country to share his expertise.

Defense attorneys were “somewhat inaccurate” to claim other experts contradicted Hawley’s testimony, Gresser said, adding other medical testimony before the grand jury focused on narrow test results.

Brown said an expert can look at something, give an opinion and revise that opinion with further information.

The forensic pathologist said asphyxiation was the cause of death, but noted Heidi’s body had a high level of medications in her system, apparently to stop her from struggling to get air once the ventilator was disconnected, the judge said

“I find this testimony compelling, frankly,” Brown said.

Alcohol also was detected, which defense attorneys blamed on post-mortem fermentation, but that doesn’t explain the other drugs in her system, the judge added.

The judge’s ruling Monday clears the way for the trial to start Nov. 10. 

The case likely will involve two juries, but a decision on that is expected when attorneys and the judge meet Nov. 2 to confirm the trial date.

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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