A key prosecution witness reversed his testimony Wednesday during a preliminary hearing for two men charged with stealing nine urns containing human remains from a Merced cemetery.
Appearing in shackles and gray jail clothes, witness Jason Todd Baker, 36, – testifying before Judge Mark V. Bacciarini in Merced Superior Court, said he lied to police earlier this year when questioned about defendants Marc Reid and Richard Madsen.
Reid, 55, and Madsen, 68, have pleaded not guilty to 20 felony charges in connection with the May 8 theft of nine urns from Evergreen Funeral Home and Memorial Park. According to a police report, human remains were thrown away and the urns sold for scrap metal.
Nicole Silveira, Merced County deputy district attorney, said Baker told Merced police he saw Madsen and Reid unloading brass urns from a van in May and later saw both men grinding them up. On Wednesday, however, Baker said none of it was true.
“I was strung out pretty bad on heroin,” he testified. “I was trying to get out of what I was in trouble for.”
Baker pleaded no contest Aug. 12 to stealing an air compressor in an unrelated case. He received a split sentence of jail time and parole supervision under terms of the state’s prison realignment law, according to court records. He said he initially agreed to testify against Reid and Madsen, hoping prosecutors would cut him a deal in his case.
Wednesday, Baker said he recalled almost nothing about his interviews with police, but did remember that whatever he said was “coerced” by Merced police Detective Paul Johnson.
After the hearing, Johnson brushed off the coercion claims and suggested that other inmates may have persuaded Baker to change his testimony. Baker has been in custody since July and is scheduled to be released in January.
“It’s possible he’s been pressured by others about being a snitch and things like that,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he interviewed Baker twice, several days apart. The second interview happened at the Merced County Jail at Baker’s request.
“And all of it was recorded digitally, so the court will get to hear all of what he said and the truth will all come out,” Johnson said.
Baker testified that he could remember only that he saw Madsen carrying a white box late one night around the time of the urn theft in May. Several times he said he did not know anything about the case, but later appeared to contradict himself.
“I just took what little I knew about this case and used it to help me,” Baker testified.
Under questioning from Silveira, Baker then acknowledged knowing “a few things” about the case that Johnson told him.
“He (Johnson) was pushing me and pushing me, so I took what little he was giving me and tried to use it to get myself out of trouble,” Baker said. “I was lying, but I felt, I don’t know, like I was being verbally pushed.”
Silveira also questioned how Baker could remember seeing a man carrying a box late one night in May, but could not remember talking to police after being arrested on a felony charge in July.
Baker blamed his clouded memory on heroin addiction. He said he began using in January this year and became progressively more “strung out” as the year went on.
“From January to May is not that long, but from January to July is,” Baker said.
Prosecutors still have evidence to present, including Johnson’s testimony and possible physical evidence from the scene.
According to a police report, Madsen wrote a letter apologizing for “my part of the taking of the urns.”
Before Wednesday’s hearing, both sides in the case agreed to postpone the end of the preliminary examination to accommodate scheduling conflicts for the attorneys and the judge.
The hearing will conclude Oct. 1.
Reid and Madsen remain in custody at the Merced County Jail.