An Indio man accused of killing his girlfriend and setting fire to the Thermal mobile home she shared with her children was found incompetent to stand trial Wednesday and will be remanded to a state mental health facility.

Christian Pacheco, 23, is accused in the death of 30-year-old Elilia Valdez, a mother of two whose body was found on March 18, 2017 in the area of 63700 Monroe St., about six hours after sheriff’s deputies found her mobile home ablaze. According to a criminal complaint, a knife was used in Valdez’s murder. No one was inside the mobile home, but “information obtained from witnesses indicated that a domestic violence incident may have occurred between an adult female resident and her boyfriend before the home was set on fire,” Riverside County Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Huskey said.

Pacheco was charged last year with murder, arson, assault and animal cruelty, but criminal proceedings have been suspended since last summer to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. To be considered incompetent to stand trial, it must be shown that a defendant does not understand the nature of the criminal proceedings against him and cannot assist his attorney in his defense.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Otis Sterling ruled that testimony from two doctors who examined Pacheco showed that he likely suffered from schizophrenia, though Sterling did have issues with the fact that neither doctor definitively diagnosed Pacheco with the disorder.

Dr. Robert Suiter testified Tuesday that Pacheco “does have a severe mental disorder” and displayed symptoms consistent with schizophrenia. These included visual and auditory hallucinations during which he was implored to commit suicide, unresponsiveness during questioning, and difficulty recalling certain aspects of his personal life, such as his birthday, the city where he was born, or how long he had been working as a dog groomer.

Dr. William Jones testified that in his professional opinion, Pacheco was schizophrenic, but conceded that his examination was more focused on competency — or Pacheco’s understanding of his court case — rather than an official diagnosis.

A second issue arose with whether or not Pacheco may have been exaggerating the symptoms he displayed, also known as “malingering.”

Dr. Suiter testified that he had concerns Pacheco could have been malingering, but that there was not sufficient time to determine this during the brief sessions allowed during a competency evaluation. Suiter said Pacheco displayed some symptoms that were inconsistent with a typical schizophrenia diagnosis, leading him to suspect that malingering was possible.

Dr. Jones said he believed Pacheco was not malingering, but said that he did not administer any tests to determine that. Jones said that in addition to his examination, he relied on prior psychological reports taken of Pacheco during his time in county jail to come to his conclusion. Medical professionals at the jail diagnosed Pacheco with schizophrenia in a prior report.

Sterling said he wished this testing had been performed, as it was certainly possible to feign Pacheco’s symptoms, and that there was a “high incentive” to fake or exaggerate a mental illness when someone is charged in a murder case. However, because the doctors did not definitively determine whether or not Pacheco was malingering, Sterling said he felt compelled to rely on their determinations.

“It would be easy for me to say `well, he’s just making it up,’ but I don’t have the benefit of these doctors’ expertise, their years of experience, their personal observations of being in the room at the time that they’re there and I have to give consideration to what their expertise is and the fact that they’ve been doing this and that they are the experts in this particular field,” Sterling said.

Pacheco will return to court on May 9 to be referred to a state mental health facility. He will remain committed to that institution for an undetermined period of time until his competence can be considered “restored.”

–City News Service

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