Dad takes plea deal to reduce charges in death of two kids 

The murder case against a father accused of the burning deaths of his two sons fizzled Friday after he accepted a plea deal that ensures he will only be in prison until the middle of 2009.

Charles Schuttloffel, 37, pleaded no contest to two counts of involuntary manslaughter Friday afternoon following a plea bargain finalized that morning. In exchange, prosecutors dropped two counts of special circumstances murder and a felony arson charge.

He will be sentenced to no more than four years in prison when sentenced June 27. Defense attorney Dek Ketchum, however, said he would argue in favor of Schuttloffel being sentenced to only time served.

"The worst case scenario for him is probably 14 months," given the time he’s already served, Ketchum said.

Prosecutors say they agreed to the deal based on new defense evidence presented two weeks ago at a failed hearing to dismiss the charges.

"There was the somewhat remote possibility that this could have been the result of an electrical fire started by one of the small appliances. We previously thought there was no possibility," Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. He added that prosecutors believed the new evidence would prevent a jury from unanimously convicting Schuttloffel.

Schuttloffel, a commercial fisherman, was indicted by a grand jury in March of last year in connection with the May 4, 2004, San Gregorio house fire that killed 3-year-old Charlie and 2-year-old Billy Schuttloffel.

Handcuffed and clad in the red jail clothes reserved for serious offenders, he answered the judge’s questions in a soft voice and occasionally wiped his eyes during Friday’s court appearance.

Outside of court, Ketchum described a mountain of evidence he claims would have exonerated Schuttloffel of murder. Recently, Ketchum said, three witnesses had come forward who described the father’s frantic efforts to race back into the house to save his sons before the fire department arrived. The witnesses were walking their dogs on a nearby ridge, Ketchum said.

Additionally, Schuttloffel had passed a polygraph test, he said, and there was evidence that a wood stove was unlatched and that the two boys had escaped their childproof gate and were playing with cardboard nearby.

Ketchum said his client was happy about the plea agreement, but will always been haunted by his inattention the day of the fire.

"He feels vindicated by the disposition that the District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement recognize this was not a murder case," Ketchum said. "On the other hand, he recognizes it happened on his watch."

Schuttloffel was loading up the car to take his children to a relative’s home when the house went up in flames, Ketchum said.

The resulting murder charges were based on a "slipshod, incompetent" investigation by the fire department, he said.

tbarak@examiner.com

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