Mental state in doubt

April 02, 2003 12:00 am

By AMY LINDBLOM

A mentally ill Twain Harte man accused of killing his sister when he set her and the family house on fire Jan. 9 is unable to stand trial, a judge has ruled.

Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost based her decision on the recommendation of Modesto psychiatrist Gary Cavanaugh who determined that Steven Richards was "marginally competent" and unable to understand the proceeding against him.

Provost ordered Richards, 48, to the maximum-security Atascadero State Hospital in San Luis Obispo County to attend classes on the California judicial system. There, state prison psychiatrists will try to stabilize his condition with medication.

If stabilized, Richards would be brought back to Tuolumne County to stand trial on charges of murder, arson and animal cruelty. If convicted as charged, he faces 27 years to life in prison.

Richards suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition which may have contributed to the fire and his sister's death earlier this year, said county Deputy Public Defender Cliff Woodall.

Richards is accused of dousing Nadine Richards, 46, with a flammable liquid, then lighting her on fire with a match. As she ran through the house, the flames on her clothing and body started other fires inside. Within minutes, the house on the 22500 block of Confidence Road was engulfed in flames.

The suspect and his mother, Dolores Richards, fled the flames. When they arrived, firefighters found both on the street watching the burning house. The family's dog died in the fire.

Dolores Richards was not injured in the blaze, and her husband, also named Steven Richards, had just left for work and was not at home when the fire occurred. He arrived at the house shortly after firefighters had put out most of the flames.

Soon after the fire and the arrest of Steven Richards, Woodall asked for a competency hearing for his client. Cavanaugh, a psychiatrist from Modesto, evaluated Richards Jr.

How long the suspect will remain at Atascadero, a prison for mentally disturbed inmates, is unknown.