Arsonist found liable in $2.8 million verdict

Former Altoona resident Sam Valdez looked up during his criminal trial in Wahkiakum County Superior Court in March 2016.

CATHLAMET, Wash. — When convicted arsonist Sam Valdez made an unprecedented attempt to attend his trial Monday from a payphone at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, it created confusion in Wahkiakum County Superior Court.

Court staff had to figure out a tedious payment system on speakerphone while an audience watched and 60 potential jurors waited in the wings. Fellow prisoners hounded the defendant while he tried to get his case dismissed, and a recorded announcement kept interrupting Judge Doug Goelz.

Valdez, 65, did not ask to be brought to his trial, and he did not get a reliable phone or video connection before the start of the trial. So when he ran out of phone time, his trial proceeded without him. At the end of the day, the jury ordered the one-time Altoona, Washington, resident to pay his former neighbors Fred and Cathy Cantrell almost $2.8 million in damages for the raging July 2014 arson fire that destroyed their home and property, and killed both of their dogs.

In early 2016, Valdez was convicted of drug manufacturing, murder conspiracy and arson, after a confidential informant secretly recorded three conversations in which he discussed his hash-oil business, plans to hire a hitman to kill his ex-wife and the fire at the Cantrell home. He was sentenced to about 20 years in prison.

The fire occurred shortly after the Cantrells briefly testified on behalf of his wife in the divorce trial. Though police suspected Valdez of setting the fire, the Cantrells couldn’t sue Valdez and his sister Valerie Valdez until he was convicted. The Cantrells’ Longview, Washington, attorney Duane Crandall said Valerie Valdez didn’t have anything to do with the fire, but she may have helped her brother conceal his assets after his August 2015 arrest. The court is now handling her alleged involvement in a separate case

Trial-by-phone

Getting Valdez on the phone took up the first hour of the trial. Washington prisoners — or their callers — must pay for phone time. Calls automatically end after 20 minutes. Goelz kept his sense of humor as he tried to connect the call.

Valdez immediately tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, saying his criminal case was still under appeal and he couldn’t adequately participate from prison.

“To have a fair and impartial trial, I believe I would need to be present,” Valdez said. “I don’t understand how anybody could think I would have a fair trial.”

Other prisoners began pressuring Valdez to hang up, and the din in the prison became increasingly disruptive.

“I’m getting a lot of heat here, just trying to use this phone,” Valdez said.

In criminal cases, the state must provide attorneys for defendants who can’t afford them and must transport prisoners to their trials. Crandall pointed out that those rules don’t apply to civil cases. When Valdez decided to be his own attorney, Crandall said, he assumed responsibility for making the arrangements.

“It’s our second trial date. We have 60 jurors, I understand, cooling their heels for an hour and a half now,” Crandall said, and asked Goelz to proceed.

Goelz agreed.

“We’ve been on the phone for 10 minutes,” a frustrated Valdez said. “We have 10 minutes to go.” More time dwindled away, because Valdez couldn’t hear the judge and kept asking him to repeat himself.

With only a couple of minutes left, Goelz urged Valdez to call back and tried to launch into jury selection. He didn’t get far, because a recorded voice cut in and chirped, “You have one minute remaining.” Goelz laughed and pressed on. The automated voice interrupted again.

“You have 30 seconds remaining!”

The line went dead. When Valdez still hadn’t called back 10 minutes later, Goelz said the trial would proceed without him.

Later, longtime Court Clerk Kay Holland said it was the first time in her career someone had attempted to stand trial via phone. Crandall, a veteran attorney, said he’d never seen it done either. Prosecutor Dan Bigelow, who stopped in to watch the action, called it a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

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