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Accused killer admits crime, takes plea deal

A man accused of the January murder of his neighbor entered an Alford plea of guilty to a single charge of voluntary manslaughter this week in District Court.

Peter Jason Helfrich, 37, appeared Monday morning to be arraigned on the single charge, which was reduced from the original charges of first degree murder and destroying/concealing evidence after he took a plea deal in the case.

Helfrich was arrested on Jan. 24 after he reportedly told police he killed his neighbor Salvador Zuno-Gama before he and co-defendant Sylvia Castillo allegedly dumped the man’s body in the desert after he said Zuno-Gama threatened him with a knife.

Following his arrest, Helfrich and his court-appointed attorney asked that Helfrich be sent for a mental competency evaluation at Lakes Crossing in Sparks before his case proceeded through the justice system. They cited concerns with issues Helfrich has had in the past regarding his mental health as the reason they were seeking the evaluation.

Medical professionals soon after deemed Helfrich to be competent to stand trial and he and his attorney entered a waiver of a preliminary hearing in the case following negotiations with the prosecution and Helfrich was bound over to the District Court level to answer to charges there.

His co-defendant Castillo was also recently returned competent from a mental evaluation at Lakes Crossing and is facing charges of accessory to murder and destroy/conceal evidence for her part in allegedly helping Helfrich hide the victim’s body.

His plea pursuant to Alford is one defendants many times use in place of a straight guilty plea when they do not necessarily wish to admit guilt in a case, but realize the state has enough evidence to possibly convict the defendant should that case go to trial.

“The original complaint and the original charges against Mr. Helfrich, first degree murder, the state had evidence in its arsenal that involved potential admissions by the defendant that he in fact did kill Mr. Zuno-Gama,” Helfrich’s attorney Alan Buttell told the court. “There were shots to Mr. Zuno-Gama from a crossbow, he’d been sprayed with bug spray and some other chemicals, pepper spray, and then subsequent to discussions with the defendant police went out to the desert and found the remains of Mr. Zuno-Gama wrapped in a tarp left out in the middle of the desert in order to hide the remains. And while it’s true Mr. Helfrich asserted it was self-defense, it also appears there was ample evidence to go forward with first degree murder.”

At the hearing, Helfrich described the situation that led to his arrest as “self-defense and a bad situation that was made worse.”

“I’ve got a daughter out there who needs me. I don’t want there to be a possibility of her not knowing who her father was,” he told the judge as he entered his plea.

For the charge of voluntary manslaughter Helfrich can face up to 10 years in prison.

He is scheduled to be back in court on Nov. 18 for sentencing.

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