Colusa County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Ufkes Olivera last week denied the request for arson suspect Robert Dean Cates to replace his public defender with another.
The Judge also postponed Cates’ trial, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cates was originally scheduled to go to trial on Jan 15, accused of setting the 2019 fire that gutted the Safe Haven Wellness and Recovery Center, located at 517 Oak St., in Colusa, and endangered the historic United Methodist Church.
Ufkes heard Cates’ request for another attorney in a special closed Marsden hearing, although Cates publicly stated before the hearing that he felt his Public Defender Albert Smith was not doing enough to subpoena witnesses that could testify to Cates’ character.
Safe Haven is a peer-supported drop-in center that is used by adults dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues. The group had just celebrated the grand opening of the facility at its new location a month prior to the fire.
According to court documents, fire officials were immediately suspicious of the 5:17 AM fire on Oct. 24, 2019, which appeared to have originated near the northeast wall of the interior.
Cates, who previously held a leadership position with the group, is reported to have used keys to enter the building immediately prior to the fire, and was identified on surveillance footage from cameras positioned at the facility, court records indicate.
Investigators believe that Cates’ motive for the fire was because he was upset that he had not been re-elected to the peer board that receives and assists with providing services.
Walter Osbourn, president of Safe-Haven, appeared in court to support Cates on Dec. 23. He said during the court recess that the group was devastated at the loss of their meeting place, which was the best facility to date, but that he and his group would not abandon support of their friend until his case was settled in court.
Osbourn said there was reason to believe there were others who held a grudge, had access to the building, and could likely have started the fire.
Cates’ trial, which was scheduled to begin on Jan. 15, will be postponed because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, which has made it difficult for the courts to maintain physical distancing protocols during jury selection and criminal proceedings requiring a jury.
“The Court does not believe we should do a trial under the current conditions,” Ufkes said.
Cates is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 11 to reset the date of trial.
Cates, who is also known as Robert Dean Koym, has pleaded not guilty to felony arson and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, which was discovered when a search warrant was served on his Main Street residence, officials said. ♣