Judge: Daniel Bellard not fit for trial in shooting death of Christine Gestrich

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Nico Savidge
Thursday, October 10, 2013

JANESVILLE—A town of Plymouth man will not stand trial for killing his neighbor after two doctors found injuries from self-inflicted shotgun blasts and his age have rendered him not competent to proceed with the case.

Prosecutors discharged 75-year-old Daniel Bellard from his criminal case during a hearing Thursday morning in Rock County Court, where he had been charged with first-degree murder for fatally shooting Christine M. Gestrich in February.

Bellard will be sent to Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison for treatment at the locked facility.

Should treatment restore Bellard to the point where he is fit to stand trial—something doctors said is not likely—prosecutors could reopen the case against him, District Attorney David O'Leary said.

Unless that happens, though, the case that authorities say began with Bellard shooting Gestrich to death before turning the gun on himself is closed.

“We're basically on the sidelines, waiting to see if he regains competency,” O'Leary said.

Bellard spent five months at University Hospital in Madison after the Feb. 6 shooting, recovering from two suicide attempts with the shotgun authorities said he used to kill Gestrich.

Bellard appeared in court by video Thursday morning from the Rock County Jail. He sat in a wheelchair, with attorney Robert Junig to his left and a nurse helping him communicate with a white board to his right.

He wore a brown shirt and was wrapped in a blanket, with clear plastic tubes draped over his chest.

Members of Gestrich's family watched from the courtroom gallery.

Bellard confessed to killing Gestrich while at the hospital, telling deputies he believed she was going to take his land, according to a criminal complaint.

Judge James Daley ordered a competency evaluation for Bellard at his initial court appearance in July and then ordered another one in August.

A defendant must be able to understand court proceedings and assist in his own defense to be considered competent. The burden of proving a defendant is fit to stand trial falls on prosecutors.

The evaluations found that Bellard's injuries and age rendered him not competent to stand trial and that the onset of dementia meant he would likely not be restored to competency, O'Leary said.

For those reasons, O'Leary said, “the state is unable to meet its burden” and continue with the case.

That means authorities will now begin the process of civil commitment against Bellard, which began Thursday when Daley ordered him to Mendota.

Rock County Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch filed a motion for an emergency detention. Junig stipulated that Bellard can be held and that “he is a danger to himself and others.”

Linda Scott Hoag, a social worker for the county, told Daley that Bellard would go to Mendota's Geriatric Treatment Unit.

Although the unit is a locked, secure facility, Mendota Medical Director Molli Rolli said it  is more like a hospital than a prison. Patients there receive medical attention and get regular treatment from a psychology staff and primary care physicians.

The cost for treatment typically falls on the county that sends the patients to Mendota, or on the patient's insurance if it covers psychiatric care, Rolli said. She could not say if Bellard's Medicare coverage would pay for the treatment.

Similar questions arose for Bellard's medical bills from his time at UW Hospital. Rock County authorities at first feared they could be on the hook for his recovery costs and then said Bellard's insurance was responsible. One estimate put the price of his stay above $1 million.

The county had not received any of Bellard's hospital bills as of Thursday, Kuglitsch said.

A final hearing for Bellard's civil commitment will be Oct. 24 in Daley's court.

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