A Tuolumne County Superior Court judge ruled Friday following a two-hour preliminary hearing that a former Adventist Health Sonora nurse could face trial on a single charge of soliciting a hitman to murder her husband.
Heidi Butler, 39, appeared in court Friday out of custody and with her attorney, Tuolumne County Public Defender Scott Gross.
It was more than a year since her arrest at her home on Woodduck Lane, and the hearing did not offer much more new information than had already been revealed in multiple court records and documents procured by The Union Democrat, but it did provide insight from Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office investigators on how Butler was ultimately charged with the single felony count.
The prosecution called two witnesses, both deputies with the Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff’s Det. Jeffrey Lee, lead investigator, recounted the investigation into Butler which began with her coworker, a nurse named Deanna Gore, reporting her suspicions to the FBI.
The FBI forwarded the report to the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office and took up the investigation with Gore, who later recorded a pretext phone call implicating Butler.
Lee said at the hospital it was "pretty well known throughout the department about the marriage and relationship" due to Butler sharing her grievances with coworkers like Gore.
Lee said Gore shared with investigators that Heidi Butler found out her husband, Jeremie Butler, had a partner in real estate who wrote a letter to him saying she had feelings for him.
Gore said Heidi Butler began sharing more about the scheme after that: asking her about firearms, commenting on whether a Hells Angel would do the hit-for-hire, paying for a hit with a $500,000 life insurance policy on her husband, or poisoning his Diet Cokes with COVID-19.
"She essentially expressed how she wanted him dead and life would be better without him," Lee said.
Gore agreed to work with the Sheriff's Office to gather evidence against Heidi Butler, Lee said.
"She believed that she was serious and she was worried for Jeremie's safety," Lee said. "She thought Jeremie was going to end up dead."
Gore sent Heidi Butler a code-word phrase while in the presence of investigators — Lee described it as "the patient in Room 343, I don't even know the medical term" — but Heidi Butler did not respond. They provided her with the recording equipment, and she later successfully recorded a call with Heidi Butler about the alleged scheme.
Heidi Butler worked at Adventist Health Sonora for nine years as a nurse before she was arrested on Sept. 11, 2020, at her home.
When the search warrant was served at the Butler home, Lee said Heidi Butler was detained and brought to the Sheriff's Office where they conducted an audio- and video-recorded interview.
Though she allegedly admitted to the scheme, she also said it was a mistake and she didn't plan to go through with it, Lee said.
"She appeared very nervous, sad, upset," he said.
Deputy Skylar Waid said Jeremie Butler at the home was in "shock and disbelief" about his wife’s alleged crime.
"I felt like he didn't believe us at first," Waid said. "He told me he thought in recent weeks that their relationship was getting better."
Waid confirmed to Gross that Jeremie Butler did not want to press charges.
Gross argued that Heidi Butler underwent a mental breakdown due the stresses of her occupation and home life during the COVID-19 pandemic and criticized the investigation's methodology, which he said should have uncovered it.
"I think this should have been recognized," he said, referring to it as a "cry for help."
Gross further described the scheme as so unbelievable that it couldn't be legitimate, describing the details as "flights of fantasy."
Seibert shut down the argument as not germane to the preliminary hearing.
"We're not doing an investigation into police procedures," Seibert said, adding on Heidi Butler's mental health, "we're not going to be making that determination today."
Heidi Butler previously appealed for mental health treatment in lieu of criminal prosecution.
A hearing on that matter is scheduled for Dec. 16, the same day as her next scheduled arraignment.
Seibert set a date for Nov. 4 to hear a prosecution motion requesting their own expert to review Heidi Butler's mental state before the hearing.
Gross has provided a 37-page psychological assessment of Heidi Butler from the defense-hired Dr. Luigi Piciucco, a Sacramento-based mental health professional, as well as a one-page statement from her current treatment psychiatrist at Adventist Health Sonora, Dr. David Bohannon.
Piciucco concluded Heidi Butler had bipolar disorder with unspecified depressive episodes, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and a paranoid/negativistic personality. He said she should receive intensive psychotherapy to process childhood and marital abuse and claimed she never committed a violent act in the solicitation accusation.
The documents contained statements attributed to Heidi Butler where she discussed her rigorous work schedule and her marital problems with her husband.
"I snapped," she said in the document. "I was enraged and I said the words ‘I wish him dead.’ "
Jenecke said previously the expert would review details in Heidi Butler's case file — California law prohibits the prosecution's expert from evaluating her in person — and would submit a recommendation based on their evaluation of her mental state.
Heidi Butler has pleaded not guilty and has remained out of custody since being released from jail on Sept. 22, after Presiding Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kevin Seibert lowered her bail from $1 million to $100,000.
In November, the California Board of Nursing through the State Attorney General’s Office sought to have Heidi Butler’s license as a registered nurse suspended while she is out on bail. The board’s website shows the court officially granted the suspension on Feb. 19.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at email@example.com or (209) 588-4526.