Mother controlled teen, expert says

By Scott North

Herald Writer

A 14-year-old girl charged with killing an Everett man on her mother’s orders was so in the woman’s thrall she couldn’t even consider refusing, a mental health expert testified Tuesday.

"Her mother was the center — the only center — in her life, and her mother’s control was unquestioned," said Marty Beyer, a psychologist from Great Falls, Va.

The girl is the daughter of Barbara Opel, 38, of Everett. Snohomish Count prosecutors allege Opel in April convinced her child and four other teens that they should kill Jerry Heimann as part of a plan to pilfer the 64-year-old Everett man’s bank accounts.

Beyer’s observations came as Superior Court Judge Charles French continued to take testimony on whether two boys and two girls — ages 13 and 14 — should have their cases moved out of juvenile court and into the adult system.

If the teens are convicted as juveniles, they face a maximum punishment of detention and treatment in a juvenile prison until they reach 21. If convicted in adult court, they face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years behind bars.

Prosecutors have charged Opel with aggravated first-degree murder and are considering the death penalty. She had worked as a live-in caregiver for Heimann’s ailing 89-year-old mother.

Co-defendant Jeff Grote, 17, in September pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and agreed to a 50-year sentence. His case was automatically moved to adult court because of his age and the seriousness of the charge. He testified last week that Opel’s daughter was his former girlfriend and that she actively participated in the attack stabbing Heimann with a knife and hitting him in the head with an aluminum baseball bat.

Opel’s daughter is represented by Seattle attorney Michele Shaw, who had the girl examined by Beyer, a nationally recognized expert on children, foster care and juvenile justice.

Beyer said records she reviewed showed the girl’s life with Opel was chaotic. Child Protective Services fielded repeated reports of abuse and neglect. Opel’s relationships with men were marred by domestic violence, the woman was destitute and moved her children 22 times in seven years.

Opel was extremely controlling of her daughter, and a "unique type of closeness" developed between the two, Beyer testified. As a result, the girl remained unusually immature in some areas, and to this day does not question her mother, she said.

"In all the time I’ve spent with (the girl), she has said nothing but positive things about her mother," the psychologist added.

She said the girl is "a youngster who does not have violent thought processes or a delinquent mentality," but instead views herself as an athlete and a good student.

The teen would benefit most from treatment in a juvenile setting, not a lengthy prison sentence, Beyer said.

Under questioning from deputy prosecutor George Appel, the psychologist acknowledged that of the dozens of evaluations she has done of young people in somewhat similar legal trouble, she has yet to recommend that any go to prison.

The prosecutor also zeroed in on the girl’s diary. Mixed in among entries about what the teen ate for lunch or her basketball games were nursery rhymes and frank discussions about plans for Heimann’s killing, followed by a party.

Beyer said the diary provides a good tool for the girl’s therapy and could later help her reflect back on her "childish minimizing" of a brutal murder.

The girl can’t think like a healthy adult because she is a child who has been shaped by a life of trauma, the psychologist said.

Lawyers for other defendants in the case watched Tuesday’s hearing.

Opel’s attorney, Pete Mazzone of Everett, said a different picture will emerge once his client gets her day in court.

"The facts that will come out at Barbara Opel’s trial are likely to be much different from what you are hearing here," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Scott North at 425-339-3431

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