By Kelsey Givens
A man arrested two weeks ago for allegedly murdering his neighbor was referred to the Fifth Judicial Court to determine whether a mental evaluation needs to be performed.
Peter J. Helfrich, 36, has been charged by the District Attorney’s Office with first-degree murder and destroying/ concealing evidence after a Jan. 23 incident where he allegedly struck his neighbor, Salvador Gama, in the head with baseball bat and killed him.
He was arrested after he admitted to police the following morning that he had done a “terrible thing,” stating that Gama had come at him with a sheathed knife, and despite multiple attempts to stop him with pepper spray, bug spray and a crossbow, Gama wouldn’t stop until he hit him twice in the head with a metal baseball bat.
Helfrich’s co-defendant in the case, Sylvia Castillo, 35, was arrested the following day as an accessory to murder after police discovered she allegedly helped Helfrich dump Gama’s body out in the desert after the incident occurred.
Helfrich and his Las Vegas attorneys, Patrick McDonald and Steven Altig, entered a conditional waiver of a preliminary hearing this week to have Helfrich bound over from Pahrump Justice Court to the Fifth Judicial District Court for further examination of possible mental health issues, which may affect how the case is handled.
Helfrich has a long history of posting bizarre rants online, including on YouTube. Also, a federal case is pending in Las Vegas federal court filed by Helfrich last year in which he named nearly every member of the local judiciary from the district attorney to the public defenders and all of the judges who preside over Pahrump cases. Until recently, Helfrich even posted numerous extremist political items on County Commissioner Donna Cox’s personal Facebook page, including cartoonish depictions of defense attorney Harry Kuehn and sheriff’s detective David Boruchowitz holding guns to their heads, a statement alongside the depictions reading “Just Do It!” Those posts have since been removed.
Helfrich was also spotted at a recent special county commission meeting, where he provided a rambling statement of opposition to a new scheme for contracting with the county’s public defenders. This was just weeks before Gama’s slaying.
Helfrich’s lawyer told the Justice Court that the suspect admitted to dealing with a lifetime of mental illness.
“Based upon the representations from my client, I believe we need to conditionally waive him up to the District Court in order to have certain mental health issues addressed before we proceed with the allegations contained here in the complaint,” McDonald told the court. “Based upon my conversations with my client, based upon his representations as to his essentially, lifetime of mental health issues, I obviously haven’t had time to investigate those. It appears that most of those records are in upstate New York … not only based upon that but other things he’s advised me of that I’m not going to breach the attorney client privileges for … I believe it’s in my client’s best interest to do this.”
The county’s chief prosecutor, Kirk Vitto, agreed to some extent, noting that the evaluation of Helfrich’s mental health status would need to be addressed at some point as part of the case. His only concern, however, was Helfrich and Castillo would be split up instead of facing the charges stemming from this case together.
“The problem is, of course, right now is what’s immediately going to happen is that these two defendants, as co-defendants, are going to be on different tracks. The counsel for Castillo is going to want a preliminary hearing within 15 days, and guess who’s not going to be here for that? Helfrich. So just so everybody knows, now that we’re splitting these two defendants, and the state not wanting to have to do two preliminary hearings, not wanting to put this court through it, call in a different judge, etcetera, we’re going to be doing a motion to continue the preliminary hearing to try to get them back on the same track,” he said.
Despite his concerns, Justice of the Peace Ron Kent decided to bind Helfrich up to the higher court to have his mental health issues addressed before continuing with the prosecution of his charges.
Helfrich’s case is scheduled to be heard in District Court on Feb. 25, where the attorneys will prepare an order for Helfrich to be evaluated for mental health issues.
Vitto told the court that after the initial order date, it could still be another two or three months before either the defense or prosecution know if Helfrich will be cleared to be sent back down to the Justice Court to participate in a preliminary hearing on his charges.
“It’s going to take months; we’re not going to get to the District Court until the end of the month. We’ll get the order we anticipate, or we assume, and then it will be another 60 or 90 days,” he said.
Though Helfrich will need to be evaluated before additional hearing dates can be set on his charges, two additional court dates were set for Castillo after her attorney Carl Joerger insisted she have her preliminary hearing within the 15-day time limit for incarcerated defendants.
Castillo is scheduled to be back in court Feb. 12 for a pre-trial hearing and again on Feb. 19 for a preliminary hearing.
Both she and Helfrich remain in custody at this time. Castillo is being held in lieu of $100,000 and Helfrich is being held without bail.