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Charges dropped against Mendocino County deputy’s wife in bear killings

Charges have been dropped against a woman who said she shot and killed two bears outside her rural Fort Bragg home last month because she feared for her children’s safety.

Jennifer Van Wormer had been on trial for a misdemeanor charge of violating a Fish and Wildlife code that prohibits killing female bears accompanied by cubs. But Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Tim Stoen said ultimately, there was insufficient evidence to prove the smaller of the two bears really was a cub.

“I have moved to dismiss the case against Jennifer Van Wormer in furtherance of justice,” Stoen said Friday.

He said the midtrial dismissal had nothing to do with the fact that Wormer is married to a sheriff’s deputy.

A cub is defined as weighing less than 50 pounds and being less than 1 year old, he said.

“The bear in question was neither weighed nor measured and the photo taken of that bear was inconclusive as to size, and hence to weight,” Stoen said.

Stoen also said Van Wormer appeared truly traumatized by the January 2014 incident.

“My impression of her testimony was that she shot the two bears while totally freaked out about possible danger to her children,” he said.

Van Wormer testified she was alone in the house with four children when the furry, frequent visitors arrived, Stoen said. She said the bears over time had become increasingly aggressive, had broken into her chicken coop, killed chickens and stolen dog food. Van Wormer said her dogs were afraid to go outside because of the bears, which were unimpressed by loud horns or lights.

On the night in question, she said she spotted the larger of the two bears looking into the house near a baby bed. She went outside and fired a gun into the air, Stoen said. When that failed to scare off the bears, she killed them. Van Wormer testified the larger bear was coming toward her when she shot it, Stoen said.

According to Fish and Wildlife officials, Van Wormer had attracted the bears to her home by placing food waste in her compost pile and failing to adequately contain her garbage cans.

“There was garbage strewn all over the place,” said Fish and Wildlife Capt. Patrick Foy.

People living in bear country need to take measures to contain their garbage and any food, including fruit on trees, to prevent bear invasions, he noted. Van Wormer apparently had not taken such steps, based on the mess found by the warden, Foy said.

He said the department will issue permits allowing people to kill bears that cause property damage, but not until they take steps to stop attracting the animals, whose populations are on the rise. Bear populations in California have about doubled in 25 years to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000, according to Fish and Wildlife officials.

Van Wormer no doubt had been warned about her garbage and compost when she requested that a federal trapper take care of the bear problem prior to the incident, Foy said.

He also said the investigating warden found no evidence - such as claw or teeth marks - that a bear had been trying to enter Van Wormer’s house. The warden did not cite Van Wormer at the scene, instead he forwarded a report to the District Attorney’s Office, which then filed charges, Foy said.

Van Wormer could not be reached for comment.

Had she been convicted, Van Wormer faced a maximum potential penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@MendoReporter.

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