Daniel DeWitt, the mentally ill man who bludgeoned Peter Cukor to death in his Berkeley Hills home in 2012, was committed Friday to 33 years to life at the Napa State Hospital.
Judge Paul Delucchi handed down the long sentence after listening to the impassioned testimony of Cukor’s widow, Andrea, his son Alexander, and his close friend Percival Banks. Delucchi described the case as one of the most tragic and serious he has ever seen in his court, the result of “a remarkable, almost unbelievable, sequence of events.”
“I won’t sit here and guarantee that this won’t happen again,” said Judge DeLucchi, looking at the Cukors and about 20 of their friends sitting in the courtroom. “I can guarantee Mr. Dewitt won’t do it again, but that comes at an incredible cost.”
DeWitt had been in and out of mental institutions before the killing, which happened on Feb. 18, 2012.
Before the sentencing, both Andrea and Alexander Cukor talked about what a fine man, husband, and father Peter Cukor was before DeWitt killed him, using a flowerpot as a weapon, when he was 67.
Alexander Cukor, in particular, used his remarks to loudly condemn the system that permitted DeWitt, a paranoid schizophrenic with a violent past, to be allowed to walk the streets unmedicated. He said the system valued DeWitt’s freedom over the life of his father. Everyone – doctors, Berkeley police, the 911 dispatcher, the courts, the mental-health care system, DeWitt’s parents – ceded responsibility for controlling Dewitt, which resulted in Peter Cukor’s death, he said.
“The people who need to be scrutinized and vetted are the ones in charge,” said Alexander Cukor. “They allow the dangerous and desperately mentally ill to wander the streets, untreated and unsupervised….. Being complacent is tantamount to being complicit… “We place undue trust in our public institutions to protect us. When they fail they must be held accountable, yet they deny any wrongdoing.”
Andrea Cukor, who witnessed her husband’s killing, said her life had been shattered by his death. When filling out the victim impact statement, Cukor said she was asked to describe the impact of the crime on her life.
“What is the impact of that? What was the impact of an asteroid hitting the earth at the time of the dinosaurs? Complete destruction. My life is complete destruction. I no longer have anything resembling a life I had with Peter for 42 years. My life is shattered. Peter’s life was taken.”
She called DeWitt “a ticking time bomb,” just waiting to go off.
Throughout the Cukors’ statements, DeWitt, 26, stood in a defendant’s box on the right side of the courtroom, his head bowed. Dressed in light brown prison garb, with short hair and a sparse beard, he did not look up until the deputy district attorney started talking to the judge about his sentence.
His parents, Hans and Cindy DeWitt, were not in the courtroom “out of respect for the Cukors,” according to Brian Bloom, DeWitt’s public defender.
Peter Cukor was killed Feb. 18, 2012, after he and his wife had returned to their home at 2 Park Gate Road in the Berkeley hills around 8:45 p.m. When they got out of their car, they spotted DeWitt, then 23, hanging out by their garage. DeWitt told them he was looking for a “Zoey,” who he believed lived there. Cukor told DeWitt to leave.
Cukor then entered the house and called Berkeley police at 8:47 p.m. from his cell phone, using the number 510-981-5911. Cukor had heard from his neighborhood watch group just the week prior that this was the number to use in an emergency while using a cell phone.
Since Cukor spoke in a calm voice and did not call 911, the police dispatcher who responded determined it was a Priority 2 call, which must be responded to within 20 minutes, rather than a Priority 1 call which means there is a crime in progress, or a life threatening emergency, and gets immediate response, according to statements made by Berkeley police officials after the killing.
But the police were in the middle of a shift change and were anticipating trouble from an Occupy march that was scheduled to go from Oakland to UC Berkeley that night. Top police officials wanted to brief the incoming officers on the march, and ordered that no Priority 2 calls be responded to. At 8:59 pm, an officer who was on patrol on Cedar Street near Shattuck Avenue called into dispatch to ask if he should respond to any of the Priority 2 calls. He was told not to, because police were only responding at that time to Priority 1 calls.
The police dispatcher taking Cukor’s call told him, however, that they would try to get someone there “as soon as we can.” Cukor had the impression police would arrive soon, so he went outside with a flashlight to help officers locate his home, which was set back from the road and difficult to find. He encountered DeWitt a second time, and the the 23-year-old hit him over the head with a flowerpot. Cukor’s wife, Andrea, witnessed the attack and called 911. The police then responded immediately and arrested DeWitt a short time later.
The Cukor family later sued the Berkeley Police Department for its handling of the case. The family dropped its wrongful death suit after BPD agreed to change some of its policy, including improving the way dispatchers communicate with emergency callers.
DeWitt was eventually charged with murder and was found mentally unfit in 2012 to stand trial. He was sent to the Napa State Hospital. At the time, DeWitt was not aware what was going on, nor could he participate in his own defense, according to Bloom, his attorney.
In mid-2014, the court ruled that DeWitt was competent to stand trial, said Bloom. About six weeks ago, Dewitt was found not guilty by reason of insanity, paving the way for him to be sentenced to a state mental institution.
Bloom said that DeWitt is finally getting the concerted, long-term treatment he needs. While DeWitt is still somewhat delusional, the forced medication and therapy is helping, he said. He has started to play music.
“It’s a semblance of a life,” said Bloom. “It’s so ironic he finally gets the level of care (he needs) after this terrible tragedy.”
DeWitt had his first psychotic break shortly after he was 18 and was put in Alameda County’s John George Psychiatric Hospital at least 12 or 13 times over the next five years, said Bloom. Most of the time DeWitt was only held for 72 hours.
DeWitt’s parents, who had no legal control over their son since he was older than 18, and who could not force him to take his medication, pleaded with the courts to detain DeWitt longer so he could get treatment. He was given a temporary conservatorship around January 2011, which meant the county could force him to get treatment for a year, said Bloom. DeWitt was sent to Gladman Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Oakland, but for some inexplicable reason was allowed to leave in June, six months before he had to, said Bloom.
His parents then rented him an apartment in Berkeley. DeWitt became so paranoid that he would not open his apartment door, but would only whisper to his parents through the door, according to a statement released by his parents.
Over the next few months, DeWitt, who was not taking his medicine, had at least two psychotic breakdowns and was admitted twice to John George as a 5150 (an involuntary psychiatric hold), the last being in December 2011.
The killing happened two months later.
The DeWitts have been working hard since then to get Alameda County to adopt “Laura’s Law,” a measure which would allow courts to order mentally ill individuals to take medication as a condition of remaining in the community. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is divided on the issue, and has not adopted the law. Berkeley’s representative, Supervisor Keith Carson, is opposed to the law.
After the sentencing, Andrea Cukor said she wants to work to change the law to make sure what happened to her husband doesn’t happen to anybody else.
“My husband was an extraordinary man and it took an extraordinary failure of so many systems, criminal justice, mental health, distraught family that should have supervised him, a police department that did not respond, things must change and I somehow want to bring to affect that change. … To think that I can do anything alone is ridiculous. It must come from people within these systems. They must stop doing this, releasing as I said ‘ticking time bombs.’It’s got to change and it’s got to change as quickly as possible.”
6/2: This article has been modified to change “sentenced” to “committed in some circumstances, including the headline. It also clarified the conversation Cukor had with the dispatcher who told him Berkeley police would try to get a patrol car to the house “as soon as we can,” rather than telling him the patrol car was on its way.
Cukor family settles lawsuit against Berkeley police (10.22.13)
Family of murder victim files suit against Berkeley (11.15.12)
Family of Peter Cukor criticizes police response (03.12.12)
City releases transcript of murder victim’s call the police (03.27.12)
Suspect not competent to stand trial in Cukor murder (03.22.12)
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police (03.09.12)
Berkeley police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder (03.02.12)
Councilmember calls public meeting after Berkeley murder (02.29.12)
Murder suspect trial delayed for psychological assessment (02.24.12)
Murder suspect was looking for fictional girlfriend (02.23.12)
Councilmember: unanswered questions over murder (02.23.12)
Alleged killer had been in and out of mental institutions (02.21.12)
Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to brutal murder (02.20.12)
Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak (02.19.12)
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