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Trial Begins For Women Charged With Murdering Solvang ALS Patient

First witnesses expected to take the stand Friday in the trial of Marjorie Good, Wanda Nelson

Marjorie Good, with her attorney, David Bixby, by her side, listens to the proceedings Thursday during the first day of her trial on charges of murdering her daughter, Heidi Good, an ALS sufferer who lived in Solvang.
Marjorie Good, with her attorney, David Bixby, by her side, listens to the proceedings Thursday during the first day of her trial on charges of murdering her daughter, Heidi Good, an ALS sufferer who lived in Solvang. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Two juries heard separate opening statements Thursday as the trial got under way for an elderly mother and a caregiver accused of conspiring to murder an ALS patient in Solvang more than two years ago.

After jury selection spanning four weeks, two 12-member panels were picked, along with four alternates for each, setting the stage for the trial to begin in a Santa Barbara County courtroom in Santa Maria. 

Marjorie Good, 89, and Wanda Nelson, 63, are charged in connection with the March 25, 2013, death of 52-year-old Heidi Good, who had a prolonged battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Heidi Good was the daughter of Marjorie Good.

Nelson was the patient's caregiver for seven years as the neurodegenerative disease left Heidi Good reliant on a ventilator to breath and able to only move her eyes.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser told the juries the defendants gave inconsistent statements to investigators after Heidi's death, contending Good and Nelson immediately tried to implicate the patient's husband, Stephen Swiacki, and sparked the criminal investigation.

"In each version of the events, there is an inconsistent statement about what happened to Heidi Good that day," Gresser said.

Wanda Nelson, a former caregiver of Heidi Good, is accused of murdering her former patient. Click to view larger
Wanda Nelson, a former caregiver of Heidi Good, is accused of murdering her former patient. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Marjorie Good claimed in one interview she was talking about Easter plans with her daughter, and went outside briefly. But she later said she was outside gardening for a longer period of time. 

During this time, Nelson left to pick up a prescription for Heidi at a local drugstore, an unusual errand for the paid caretaker, prosecutors said.

The ventilator's low-pressure alarm sounded for some 30 minutes, but allegedly wasn't heard by Marjorie Good.

However, Gresser showed a video of Good standing outside the house a year after Heidi's death and reacting to the ventilator alarm set off by deputies inside the residence.

In another inconsistent statement, Marjorie Good allegedly lied to her granddaughter, denying she had any contact with Nelson in the months after Heidi's death.

Through wiretaps, detectives recorded conversations between the women, with Good saying no one knew where Nelson was and the caregiver responding, "Keep it that way."

"It wasn't a faulty memory," Gresser said. "It was a conscious, deliberate effort to hide Wanda."

Autopsy results confirm asphyxiation as Heidi's cause of death because the ventilator had stopped operating.

Prosecutors contend the women acted because Heidi wanted her mom to move out of the house due to conflicts with Swiacki, and that Nelson was angry over tax troubles because she was paid as an independent contractor, not an employee.

But defense attorneys characterized these motives as unbelievable.

They questioned whether a crime even took place, saying the women were responsible for the good care Heidi had, which allowed her to live beyond the 3- to 5-year life span typical for patients with the neurodegenerative disease.

"The totality of this evidence will show you that the accusation against Marjorie Good and Wanda Nelson is both untrue and devastating to both of them — that they would be accused of murder," said attorney David Bixby, who represents Good. "The investigation of this case is flawed and misguided from the beginning."

While the ventilator manufacturer claims the machine was working properly, the defense attorneys contend the firm is worried about civil liability, with representatives refusing to respond to their requests for information.

"There is insufficient evidence that a murder occurred at all," said Nelson's attorney, Lori Pedego. "There's evidence that a ventilator merely quit working."

Neighbors who previously had heard the ventilator alarm sounding didn't hear it the day Heidi died, Bixby said. 

Additionally, several people had witnessed the hoses from the ventilator becoming loose or disconnected in the weeks and months prior to Heidi's death.  

"You will hear from the experts that disconnected hoses and mechanical malfunction can be problematic with ventilators," Bixby said.

The defense attorneys also contend the investigation has been plagued with problems from the beginning, including the discovery only as the trial opened Thursday of who turned off Heidi's ventilator after confirmation of her death.

Pedego said the information is important because it contradicts the data recorded by the ventilator's "black box" and the timeline presented by the prosecution.

The ventilator sounded an alarm at 1:58 p.m., and the alarm was cleared at 2:28 p.m.

But a deputy who was one of the first responders to show up at the house in response to a 9-1-1 call at 2:32 p.m. claimed the alarm was still ringing when he was in Heidi's room, Pedego said. 

The discovery of the deputy who turned off the ventilator came because of a chance conversation at the courthouse, Pedego said.

"That is a small drop in the bucket of the problems that have plagued this investigation from the start," Pedego said.

Bixby said the ventilator hoses were thrown away, so investigators can't assess the equipment's condition, although that could be the difference between the theory of a homicide and an accident.

Bixby added that some statements made innocently by the two defendants — close friends who worked together to care for Heidi — ended up being taken out of context to bolster detectives' speculation.

Deputies encountered Marjorie Good, who had processing problems, as she was distraught and disoriented, Bixby added.

"After hearing all this evidence, your heart will go out to Wanda and Marjorie for suffering through the death of a dear loved one and being placed in the position of being a criminal defendant accused of murdering her," Pedego said.

Pedego said her client will take the stand in her own defense to tell the jury she did not kill Heidi.

The first witnesses are expected to take the stand Friday morning with both juries in the courtroom.

The dual-jury trial is so unique it's the first in Judge Rogelio Flores' 29-year career, he said.

Both panels are expected to hear most of the testimony, while some witnesses will only take the stand with one jury in the courtroom for the trial expected to last into mid-January.

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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