Heidi Butler

Heidi Butler, 38, a Sonora nurse and mother accused of a murder-for-hire plot against her husband, is escorted by Tuolumne County Sheriff's deputies into Tuolumne County Superior Court on Sept. 16.

A Sonora nurse and mother accused of a murder-for-hire plot allegedly targeting her husband appears to have suffered a mental health breakdown due in part to her pressure-laden, front-line work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, her defense attorney said in a motion he filed Thursday to release her on her own recognizance or reduce her $1 million bail.

Heidi Butler, 38, a former lead intensive care unit nurse who worked nights at Adventist Health Sonora and other hospitals, apparently “sabotaged herself” to escape tremendous work and family pressures that include raising and teaching her four young children and her recently strained relationship with her husband, Tuolumne County Public Defender Scott Gross said in his motion on behalf of Butler.

Butler was arrested the night of Sept. 11 at her home on Woodduck Lane in Sonora, where the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant following a tip from the FBI. She has been charged by the District Attorney’s Office with one felony count of solicitation of murder.

She pleaded not guilty to the charge Wednesday afternoon in Tuolumne County Superior Court, where Gross was appointed to serve as her attorney due to the recent loss of her job and lack of money to hire one on her own.

Gross summarizes his motion for his client by stating Butler is a highly trained nurse who appears to have snapped under the pressure of COVID-19 and her family life. He also said she’s “an excellent candidate for mental health diversion.”

California's penal code allows some criminal defendants to get mental health treatment when they are accused of a crime under a program known as mental health diversion.

“We request she be released,” Gross said in his motion, “and attend psychiatric mental health counseling as a part of a release.”

Gross said in his motion that Butler’s husband told law enforcement the night of her arrest he wants her at home, he understands she “is not right in her mind,” he wants her to get help, and he declined an emergency protective order.

While many factors appear to have led to Butler’s breakdown, the triggering event in this case was trouble with her marriage of eight years, the motion said. Butler’s husband means everything to her and that has consumed her ability to think rationally, according to the motion.

What started the problems between Butler and her husband was she had to be away from home for work and missed out on family functions with their children, who are ages 4, 5, 7 and 10, the public court document stated. 

Butler and her husband need to raise their children together, Gross said in his motion, noting that the couple “had finally reconciled their differences and were having a wonderful evening when she was taken into custody.”

She loves her husband and “this extreme incident is so out of character for her she is seeking professional psychiatric help” while she is being held in jail, the document stated.

“She is a resident of Sonora with her husband,” Gross said in the motion. “She has no prior record. She is a registered nurse of 15 years. She is a pillar of the community.”

Butler’s professional responsibilities as a lead nurse in the intensive care unit at Adventist Health Sonora for nine years also weighed on her, the motion stated. Butler told Gross she was the ICU lead nurse and worked nights.

Butler told Gross she was “under incredible pressure” from being transferred to other health care facilities during the pandemic. In April, May and June, her employer transferred her to other hospitals to help with the ongoing, nationwide COVID-19 pandemic, the motion said.

Before working at the Sonora hospital, Butler worked six years as lead nurse at the UCLA Medical Center Pediatric Unit, Gross said.

“She is so highly trained in her profession, there is not a hospital in the country she could not get employed,” Gross said. People who work with Butler told law enforcement Butler has a reputation as a good nurse, Gross said in his motion.

Butler also faced pressures because when schools shut down due to COVID-19 earlier this year, she took on dual roles as mother and teacher to her young children, Gross said. The further responsibility of being mother and teacher to four children added to Butler’s stress levels.

Butler “sabotaged herself to escape the tremendous pressures she was under,” Gross said in his motion. “This was a cry for help.”

In his motion to reduce Butler’s $1 million bail, Gross asks the court to consider the recent loss of her job and her lack of funding to hire a private attorney.

Butler intends to appear at each and every court date as the case against her proceeds, Gross said. She has not failed to appear for any court-related matters in the past, as far as she is aware.

Superior Court Judge Donald Segerstrom said Wednesday the scheduled bail for the alleged crime Butler is accused of is $100,000, but the increased amount of $1 million was requested by law enforcement.

Questioned by Segerstrom on Wednesday in his courtroom in the old courthouse on Yaney Avenue, Butler said her final day of work was last Friday and that she has lost her job at Adventist Health Sonora.

Deputy District Attorney Cassandra Jenecke confirmed Wednesday that the intended target of the alleged murder-for-hire plot was Butler’s husband, Jeremie Butler, who is identified in a criminal complaint filed by prosecutors. 

The District Attorney’s Office said Jenecke was in court Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. District Attorney Laura Krieg was not available for comment Thursday, as well.

Gross declined to answer questions on Thursday about the motion he filed for his client. Butler’s next court date is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21 in Department 2 of the old courthouse on Yaney Avenue. 

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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