Plumas jury finds Oakland man guilty of first-degree murder

In less than a day, a Plumas County jury — six men, six women — found a young Oakland man guilty of Murder 1 in the stabbing death of his friend Aug. 22, 2015 at Bucks Lake.

The jury also found Sheldon Nicholas Steward, 25, guilty on Count 2 of arson on federal lands during a governor-declared state of emergency during drought conditions.

It was the morning of June 13 when members of the jury began deliberations. They had spent 16 days in court listening to Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister for the prosecution and James Reichle, supported by Bill Abramson, attorneys for the defense, and the testimony of 30 witnesses. By 3:14 p.m. that same day, it was announced that the jurors had reached their decision.

Following a reading of the decision and a poll of each juror by a clerk of the court, at the defense counsel’s request, Judge Angus Saint-Evans of Glenn County set a sentencing date of Friday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m.

Reichle said he will appeal.

Camping trip gone wrong

It could have been planned as a last hurrah by Trevor Holminski, 20, a native of Antioch living in Emeryville. According to Reichle’s closing remarks, Holminski had dropped out of Ex’pression College in Emeryville where he was studying sound engineering. His new interest was in joining the Marines and getting more out of life. He wanted to attach himself to a special operations unit and make his father, Frank Holminski, proud of him.

The last hurrah would include ingesting as much LSD as Holminski could without permanently damaging his brain, according to witnesses. He and his best friend, Steward, had done LSD at other times, in locations around the Bay Area, but Holminski wanted a camping adventure in a remote locale. Both young men studied maps of likely locations, finally choosing a site between Mill Creek Campground and Sandy Point at Bucks Lake.

They arrived sometime on the evening or during the night of Aug. 21 and set up a makeshift camp. Neither was familiar with the area and didn’t realize they were just yards from a campground with services, nor that they were so close to other campers.

It’s agreed that Holminski obtained the LSD, with each of them taking an estimated 10 hits to in some way give Holminski an ultimate experience before he changed his life and became a Marine.

As time passed, some of the neighboring campers attested to hearing noises. Some said it was yelling, some said it was shouting, but no one investigated the source. Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., all became quiet.

Revealed through interviews following the incident that claimed Holminski’s life, Steward’s stories would change. Reichle maintained that a fight between the two got started when Holminski made sexual advances that Steward rejected. Steward maintained that Holminski’s ultimate plan was to get him high and then sexually assault him.

Hollister said there was no evidence that advances were made. He said there was no physical evidence at the site or in Holminski’s car to indicate that he planned to force himself on Steward.

Statements were taken at Enloe Hospital in Chico where Steward was transported due to his injuries. At first he said his friend left and then he described a fight that took place between the two. According to Reichle, Holminski stabbed Steward in the neck. Hollister maintained that those wounds were self-inflicted.

According to Reichle, Steward admitted to stabbing his friend, first in a battle and later to end Holminski’s life as he begged Steward to do.

From the district attorney’s closing statements, he didn’t buy Steward’s stories. Hollister believed that Steward could have found help for his friend. Steward believed that he called for help, both for Holminski and for his own injuries.

And then there was the fire. Reichle said it could easily have started in very dry, highly combustible forest debris. Steward said he smoked part of one of Holminski’s cigarettes and then flipped it away. Hollister maintained that evidence showed Steward used a lighter to deliberately set a fire that would consume Holminski.

The jury’s guilty verdict on both the murder and arson charges indicates that they believed findings from a CalFire technician sent to examine the scene.

That CalFire report, combined with evidence showing that Steward had buried a backpack, cell phone and the folding knife believed to have killed Holminski gave Hollister the evidence he needed to show that Steward was trying to conceal the crime.

The fire that brought others running

It was the small fire, about a quarter of an acre and the smoke it produced, which alerted Mill Creek campers around 6 a.m. on Aug. 22.

Former Undersheriff Tom Marino was one of the first to arrive at the scene. As some called for emergency fire crews in nearby Meadow Valley and the Plumas National Forest, others would provide first aid to Steward.

Initially, first responders thought Steward was alone when they found him. The knife wounds to his neck had drenched the shirt and jacket he was wearing. He had also slit his wrists — something he said he did when he thought he couldn’t attract help and wanted to end his own suffering.

But it was as crews fought the fire and attempted to keep it from spreading to other parts of the forest that someone found the charred remains of Hominski. It was wood debris found on top of the body that led one investigator to believe that Steward had piled materials on top of Holminski in an attempt to destroy all evidence of a crime.

Reichle however pointed out that the debris could just as easily ended up on the body as fire crews threw shovels of dirt in attempts to build  a line and extinguish the fire. Reichle went as far as to point out that Steward worked as a pit master at a barbecue joint in Oakland. He had the experience to know what it would take to incinerate something versus simply charring it.

Conclusion

Other than Steward’s drug-clouded recollections, there are no witnesses to what actually took place between two best friends in the early morning hours of Aug. 22. Murder 1 carries a possible sentence of 25 years to life. Other options were Murder 2 and Voluntary Manslaughter. Both of those have lighter sentences.

It’s now up to Judge Saint-Evans to determine sentencing. Attorneys Reichle and Abramson are working on the appeal.

As he did throughout the trial, Steward remained almost motionless while the clerk read the jury’s findings. He didn’t move or seem to react in any way. He just sat next to his attorneys. Although his family appeared at various times in the courtroom throughout the trial, including the day the prosecution and defense gave their closing statements, no one from his family was present for the jury’s findings.

In contrast, sometimes as many as 18 or 19 relatives or friends, including Holminski’s parents, attended every court day. The common color was purple — Holminski’s favorite and sported by many of those who attended.

On the final day, the victim’s father appeared in a purple T-shirt with a picture of his son on its front. A large button with his son’s picture was attached to a bag he carried slung over his shoulder.