Defendants must stand trial accused of burning down abandoned Turlock cheese plant

12/19/2013 9:46 PM

12/20/2013 5:16 PM

A judge on Thursday said there is enough evidence for three women to stand trial charged with arson in connection with a fire that burned down a defunct Turlock cheese plant.

Authorities say Lanette Sullivan, Wanda White and Erika Clardy are responsible for the Feb. 19 blaze that gutted the former Lactalis USA building on West Main Street. The defendants are accused of burning down the cheese plant during a confrontation with Terry Sump.

Sullivan and White are sisters, and White is Clardy’s mother. Their preliminary hearing concluded Thursday with Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen’s ruling.

The judge decided drop an attempted murder charge against the defendants, indicating there wasn’t enough evidence to support the allegation that the women intended to kill Sump.

Sump testified in the preliminary hearing that he and Sullivan had fought over a $20 debt, which led to the fire. Sullivan told a detective that she and Sump also fought because she was seeing other men.

Fire officials said the blaze consumed much of the interior of the 59,000-square-foot building and its supports. Lactalis made brie and other specialty cheeses at the plant from the 1980s until its closure in 2007.

Much like other empty buildings in the area, the plant has attracted homeless people that want to avoid the elements without going to a shelter. After the fire, the building was torn down to its concrete foundation.

In his closing argument Monday, Deputy District Attorney Sam Getrich said White and Clardy started the fire directly beneath Sump, while Sullivan kept Sump from climbing down from the building’s rafters.

Peter Rodriguez, Sullivan’s defense attorney, has said in court that his client was in as much danger as Sump because she had already climbed near the rafters when the fire started. He also said there was no evidence that Sullivan asked the two women to start the fire.

Stephen Solano, Clardy’s defense attorney, has argued that the defendants didn’t intend to kill Sump and that Clardy should face a charge of gross negligence for starting the fire.

Michael Scheid, White’s defense attorney, asked the judge to reduce the arson charge because the fire burned a vacant business, not someone’s home.

Sump testified that he had lived inside the plant for five years before the fire and still lives on the concrete foundation.

Steffen refused to reduce the arson charge, which alleges the defendants burned an inhabited home.

The defendants on Thursday afternoon remained in custody at the Stanislaus County jail. The judge scheduled the defendants to return to court Jan. 7 for an arraignment hearing.

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