The Hitchhiker’s Worst Nightmare
by Bruce McEwen, August 2, 2017
Last week a Utah man, presently an inmate in Oregon, was brought to the Ukiah courthouse for a preliminary hearing on charges that he essentially tried to kill three hitchhikers just outside of Laytonville back in March of 2015. The Booking Log from a few days ago lists the charges as “Hit & Run resulting in death or injury.”
Stephen Thomas Walkenhorst, going by the street name “Packman,” was alleged to have stolen a 2004 Ford Excursion SUV from a medical company in Eugene where he also picked up three California-bound hitchhikers — two 18-year old women and a 29 year old man.
After five days of traveling together they had a falling out.
The impromptu foursome was driving into Laytonville from the north on Highway 101, approaching Woodruff Flats, when Walkenhorst said, “I could just kill you all right now!”
The two young women hitchhikers were in the back, the male in the front passenger seat. Another southbound vehicle, driven by a Mr. Peterson, had tried to pass Walkenhorst a couple of times, but Walkenhorst kept cutting Peterson off. On the third try, Peterson got around the Excursion, and, checking his rearview mirror, saw it leave the highway, fly through the air and hit a telephone pole.
By the time Peterson returned to the scene, the driver was out of the vehicle and making his way across a field. The man in the front passenger seat — not wearing a seatbelt — had his legs sticking through the broken windshield. He was 29 year old Shane Berry, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. The two women were crawling out of the Excursion, crying and screaming in pain, one with a broken arm, the other with abdominal pain (broken ribs, internal injuries, or both).
Walkenhorst ran across a field and faded into the oak woodlands.
“He left us there to die,” Berry later told an investigator.
Officer Jessop of the CHP assessed what he found. “It looked like a bomb went off. There were debris and people scattered everywhere, all of them screaming and crying out in pain.”
Officer Jessop interviewed 18-year old Alexandra Debertolli at Howard Hospital Emergency Room in Willits. She told him that the driver’s name was Stephen Thomas Walkenhorst – she spelled the name for the officer and said that Walkenhorst was also known as “Packman,” and that he’d been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in Arcata the day before. Officer Jessop then contacted the Eureka Jail and had Walkenhorst’s booking photo sent to his office in Laytonville. Jessop has kept the photo all this time, he said, in hopes that Walkenhorst would eventually turn up.
For the prelim last week in Judge John Behnke’s court, Officer Jessop identified Walkenhorst from his Humboldt County booking photo. Walkenhorst’s public defender, Jonathan Opet, objected that Ms. Debertolli wasn’t in any position to know who his client was, and therefore how could what she told Officer Jessop incriminate an innocent man?
Judge Behnke ruled that after living together in the vehicle for five days, the victims would by then know each other well enough to say whether the defendant was the man arrested the day before. Ms. Debertolli even knew Packman’s birthday; she’d overheard Walkenhorst give his full name and date of birth to some third party during the five days they’d been traveling together. Opet then objected to characterizing the three hitchhikers as “victims.” This objection, too, was overruled.
Having hitchhiked from Eugene a few times myself, I was once picked up by a young couple driving a stolen car. I had an Irish setter with me, Charlie by name, and as the two car thieves were also carrying a large amount of (stolen) heroin they asked me to drive so they could nod-out and enjoy their high in the back seat. Charlie was riding shotgun, his ears streaming in the breeze along I-5 near Mount Shasta. We’d come through some pretty bad places, Charlie and me, but now we both had big smiles on our faces even when the CHP pulled us over and told me I was driving a stolen car full of dope. I certainly felt like a victim, and I think Charlie did, too. Fortunately, the thieves, when they were awakened, told the cop I was just a hitchhiker, and their honesty explains why I’m not in prison to this day—they were probably too stoned to think of pinning it all on me, a perfect stranger.
But getting a ride with a guy like Walkenhorst is your average hitchhiker’s worst nightmare.
Deputy DA Barry Shapiro then showed Officer Jessop Stephen Walkenhorst’s impressively lengthy rap sheet – again public defender Opet objected.
Judge Behnke: “Okay, again I’m going to assume that the CLETS [California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System] report in question refers to the person Ms. Debertolli knows as ‘Packman’ and Stephen Thomas Walkenhorst; therefore, it is pretty good evidence, and your objection is overruled.”
Opet frowned his professional frown.
Shapiro: “Who’s rap-sheet is this?”
Jessop: “Stephen Walkenhorst’s”
Shapiro: “Is the spelling the same as Ms. Debertolli gave you?”
Jessop: “Yes it is.”
Shapiro: “Is the date of birth the same?”
Shapiro: “By looking at this can you tell if he was arrested before March 28th of 2015?”
Shapiro: “And was he?”
Shapiro: “That was the day before this incident?”
Shapiro: “What for?”
Jessop: “Under the influence of drugs and alcohol.”
Shapiro: “How far is Arcata from Laytonville?”
Jessop: “Possibly an hour and a half.”
Shapiro: “Did you interview the witness to the accident?”
Jessop: “A Mr. Peterson, yes.”
Shapiro: “What did he tell you?”
Opet: “Objection. Hearsay.”
Behnke: “It’s a 115 prelim, counsel; overruled.”
Jessop: “He said he came up behind the white Expedition just prior to Woodruff Flats and tried to pass, but the Expedition came into his lane and cut him off. He tried again and the same thing happened. He tried a third time, and was successful. Then as they were coming down the descent into Laytonville he saw the Expedition leave the roadway and hit the telephone pole.”
Shapiro: “Did he see anyone get out?”
Jessop: He may have said the driver got out, I don’t recall exactly, but he did say he saw the driver gather up some things from the ground and move off across a field.”
Shapiro: “The other occupants?”
Jessop: “He said one had his legs sticking out through the windshield and the other two crawled out, screaming and crying out in pain.”
Shapiro: “Did the driver ever come back?”
Jessop: “No, he never came back.”
Shapiro: “Were any other people on the scene?”
Jessop: “Not that I recall. It looked like a bomb went off…”
Shapiro: “Did you form an opinion as to how the accident occurred?”
Jessop: “Yes. It looked like either no one was driving, or the driver went to sleep, or was trying to commit suicide.”
Opet: “Objection. Calls for speculation.”
Behnke: “I’m not going to allow that. Try again, Officer Jessop.”
Jessop: “Technically speaking, the vehicle hit some ruts in the grass, was launched into the air, fell back to earth, and the collision occurred.”
Officer Jessop then looked up the registered owner of the vehicle, a medical company in Eugene, and found out it had been reported stolen.
Opet on cross-examination: “Mr. Shane Berry was in the right-front passenger seat of the vehicle?”
Opet: “And you asked him the driver’s name?”
Opet: “He said Walkenhorst?”
Opet: “Did you ask how he knew?”
Jessop: “I don’t believe so.”
Opet: “Did you ask anything else?”
Jessop: “I asked where he [the driver] went.”
Opet: “And he [Mr. Berry] didn’t know?”
Jessop: “He said he didn’t.”
Opet: “Who was the next person you spoke to?”
Jessop: “A woman lying on the ground.”
Opet: “This was Ms. Debertolli, and she told you the driver’s name?”
Jessop: “Not at that time.”
Opet: “You spoke with her later?”
Jessop: “Yes, that evening at the Emergency Room.”
Opet: “She said he [Walkenhorst] had given his name and the spelling to her sometime in the last couple of days?”
Jessop: “She said she’d overheard it.”
Opet: “At this time you hadn’t received the booking photo?”
Opet: “Did you show it to any of the three occupants of the car?”
Opet: “You spoke to another occupant who was on the ground?”
Jessop: “Yes, Ms. Reeves. She stated they had all been living in the car together for about five days.”
Opet: “How far away is the scene of the accident.”
Jessop: “It was at mile marker 70, about three-to-four-tenths of a mile from the intersection of Branscomb Road and Highway 101. Does that answer your question?”
Opet: “Yes. It does. How long was it before the medical emergency personnel arrived?”
Jessop: “I got there at 3:36 and they arrived three or four minutes later.”
Opet: “Did Mr. Peterson tell you he called 911?”
Jessop: “I don’t recall.”
Opet: “Did he tell you he witnessed the accident?”
Jessop: “Yes he did.”
Opet: “Did he tell you what time it occurred?”
Jessop: “No, I don’t believe he did.”
Opet: “Did he tell you what the driver of the vehicle was wearing?”
Jessop: “I expect he did but I can’t recall at this time.”
Opet: “Did you ever show the booking photo to Mr. Peterson?”
Opet: “Did you ever see him again?”
Jessop: “No, but I kept the booking photo in case I ever came across him.
Opet: “Fair to say you’re not sure that’s him [in the courtroom]?”
Jessop: “It’s been two years, he’s slightly heavier…”
Opet: “I asked you for a yes or no officer! Now, you’re not certain, are you? – yes or no!”
Shapiro: “Objection – argumentative.”
Behnke: “Overruled. He asked it the first time in the negative and I’m going to let that answer stand.”
Opet: “Did you walk around the accident scene and find anything belonging to Mr. Walkenhorst – his driver’s license, for instance?”
Opet: “Any mail addressed to him?”
Opet: “When you spoke to Ms. Debertolli about her trip from Oregon, did she mention anyone else?”
Jessop: “It was never brought up; and so no, Ms. Debertolli never told me anything about anyone else.”
Opet: “Nothing further.”
Prosecutor Shapiro called DA Investigator Nalini “Butch” Gupta, who had tracked Mr. Walkenhorst down in the Oregon State pen and contacted one of the victims to see if they were still available. On March 9th 2017 Inspector Gupta contacted Shane Berry who was scheduled for a series of major operations.
Opet again objected to the use of the term “victims,” and Judge Behnke said he would not allow it if a jury were present, but since that was the term used by the people involved he would let it stand.
Shapiro: “Did Mr. Berry describe to you any effect on him from the accident?”
Gupta: “He said he was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.”
Shapiro: “Did he tell you the driver’s name?”
Gupta: “I don’t believe we used the name, but when I asked about the whereabouts of the driver he [Berry] told me he [Walkenhorst] was in an Oregon prison.”
Shapiro: “Did he say anything about the other victims?”
Gupta: “He said he had lost contact with them.”
Shapiro: “Did you tell him you would be back in contact with him?”
Shapiro: “What did he say to that?”
Gupta: “He said that would be great. ‘He left us there to die,’ was the statement he left with me.”
Shapiro: “Where was he when you spoke with him?”
Gupta: “In a hospital in Concord, waiting for a transfer to a hospital in Walnut Creek for a series of operations.”
Opet: “Did you ask where he [Berry] was residing?”
Gupta: “I only asked where he was, not where he resided. He was expecting three to four more surgeries, he said.”
The People rested.
Shapiro: “I think the evidence is sufficient, that he was driving and that the vehicle was stolen, and that he stole it.”
Opet: “I don’t think there’s enough evidence. There was no VIN provided; it wasn’t really fleshed out; and aside from the identification of my client, which I think is lacking, we don’t really know if Mr. Berry suffered a serious injury; he’s waiting for surgery but there’s no real proof he’s actually paralyzed.”
Behnke: “With respect to the vehicle, CHP contacted the owner who reported it stolen in Eugene and one of the witnesses said she was picked up in Eugene, so it’s very recent possession of stolen property; and these people were living together for five days, so I’m confident in that time they could learn the name of the defendant. That’s enough for me to suspect he’s guilty of the charges. As for Mr. Berry’s injuries, he’s been in a wheelchair for over two years and can’t feel his legs. I think that’s more than sufficient, and I’m ordering the defendant be held to answer for it. As to leaving the scene of an accident, we have Mr. Berry’s statement that ‘He left us there to die,’ and the witnesses have all said the victims were screaming and crying in pain.”
Mr. Opet looked like he might object one more time to the use of the word ‘victims’ but thought better of it.
Judge Behnke: “So, he’s held to answer on all charges.”
* * *
Ed note: A quick on-line search of Mr. Walkenhorst shows that he has a twitter account (@StephenNllxD) which says he’s from Farmington, Utah and which opens with: “dubstep call of duty zombie's red bull weed all day beer and cigs!! x just to chill im one crazy kid:?” Walkenhorst has been arrested in Utah in the 2011-2013 period for assault, criminal mischief, controlled substance, shoplifting, paraphernalia, failure to stop on order of police, and false ID. He was arrested in Oregon in 2014 for contributing to sexual delinquency of a minor, giving liquor to a minor, and sexual abuse.
Walkenhorst: Twitter, 2013, 2014, 2017