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Solvang Murder Trial Testimony Focuses on Ventilator Alarms

Friday's testimony came a day after juries for both defendants visited Solvang house where ALS patient Heidi Good died

Sheriff’s Detective Matt Fenske testifies about a breathing machine Friday in the trial of two women accused to killing Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good. To get a better view of what the deputy was talking about, defense attorney Lori Pedego, defendant Wanda Nelson and defense attorney David Bixby temporarily stand in the witness stand.
Sheriff’s Detective Matt Fenske testifies about a breathing machine Friday in the trial of two women accused to killing Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good. To get a better view of what the deputy was talking about, defense attorney Lori Pedego, defendant Wanda Nelson and defense attorney David Bixby temporarily stand in the witness stand. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A day after a trip to the house where Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good died, two juries were back in a Santa Maria courtroom hearing more testimony about ventilator operations and the machine’s alarms.

Detective Matt Fenske from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department testified Friday morning in the trial of Marjorie Good, 89, and Wanda Nelson, 63.

Heidi Good’s elderly mother and caretaker are charged with conspiring to kill the woman who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Prosecutors contend Heidi Good was given a high level of medication before the ventilator she required for breathing was disconnected March 25, 2013.

However, defense attorneys say the breathing machine malfunctioned, and the medication amount was expected for a patient in a longer-than-normal battle with ALS.

In court, Fenske demonstrated the ventilator’s operations with a fake lung — a green rubber bag — he obtained from Marian Regional Medical Center “to be able to replicate the conditions that would create a low-pressure alarm,” he said. 

“You have to close the circuit so the alarm won’t go off,” Fenske said.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser on Friday led Fenske in conducting several demonstrations of the ventilator’s alarms as circuits were disconnected and reattached while the fake lung inflated and deflated. 

The 24 jurors plus seven alternates traveled to the Solvang home in the 300 block of Midten Hof on Thursday for simulations involving the ventilator and whether the alarm could be heard outside the house.

A ventilator log of the machine’s operations the day Heidi Good died claimed the alarm blared for 30 minutes. 

Good reportedly was outside gardening at the time the alarm sounded. Nelson was not at the address, since she was running an errand.

The detective assembled the machine’s equipment used during simulations at Heidi’s house Thursday for the jury demonstration.

During the simulation at the house for the jurors, Fenske remained in the room with the ventilators as the alarm sounded.

“Did the alarm ever go off or turn off during that entire period of time?” Gresser asked.

In a Santa Maria courtroom Friday morning, sheriff’s Detective Matt Fenske shows the breathing machine, hooked up to a fake lung, the green bags in the bottom right, that kept Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good alive. Click to view larger
In a Santa Maria courtroom Friday morning, sheriff’s Detective Matt Fenske shows the breathing machine, hooked up to a fake lung, the green bags in the bottom right, that kept Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good alive.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“Not until I unplugged the machine,” Fenske said, adding the simulation lasted more than an hour. 

During cross examination, defense attorney Lori Pedego, who represents Nelson, asked whether representatives of CareFusion, the ventilator manufacturer, suggested lifting the machine by one of the lines to demonstrate the strength of the connection when fully attached, as he did Friday.

“They told me that it may be possible,” Fenske said.

Pedego later asked whether the manufacturers told him that the exhalation valve drive line could “pop off by itself” if the connection was not tight.

“I don’t remember,” Feske said after a pause.

Pedego also guided Fenske through demonstrations of connections and alarms, including asking him to use his weaker hand to show the sensitivity of the partially detached connection.

“Earlier when the prosecutor asked you to loosen the exhalation drive line, you had it so the alarm wasn’t ringing and it popped off by itself,” Perego said. “You didn’t touch the machine, shake the machine or do anything to the machine to make it pop off, is that correct?”

“Correct,” he answered

On the afternoon Heidi died, Nelson was conducting an errand to pick up a prescription for her patient, so Fenske also conducted a simulation to show how much time it took to travel from the Good home to Rite Aid in Solvang. 

The detective’s recorded journey to the drug store — he bought Mickey Mouse bandages — took 16 minutes from the time he left the street in front of her house with the motor running.

Yet, under questioning from Pedego, the detective said he conducted his simulation on a fall Wednesday morning. Heidi Good died on a spring Monday afternoon. 

The defense attorney also noted the video shows he didn’t turn off the engine, did not picked up medication from the pharmacy, was the first person in line and returned to the front of the house. 

Good, who is represented by defense attorney David Bixby, was not in the courtroom Friday morning, and the judge reminded the jury not to speculate about her absence.

Judge Rogelio Flores earlier had discussed with prosecution and defense attorneys the possibility the woman, who will turn 90 in February, might need to be absent during the lengthy trial. 

Testimony in the case will continue all day Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday morning before the case takes a break for the holidays.

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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