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Sebastopol homicide victim was turning life around, family says

Cynthia Janssen, 40, had gained a reputation in Sebastopol as a willing helper, always ready to lend a hand no matter the job.

It could be anything from house sitting for a friend on vacation, to helping sort out someone’s recycling or cleaning up local parks. For three years, she had visited Sebastopol Christian and Sebastopol United Methodist churches almost daily, and volunteered for any work that needed to be done.

Janssen “was always happy-go-lucky, smiling and always wanted to help,” her aunt Susan Frary said.

That made her Aug. 20 death, shot close range in a recreation vehicle outside a home near Brookhaven Park, harder for family and friends to come to terms with.

An exchange between Janssen and Vanessa Ann Bardella, 52, of Sebastopol, ended with Bardella allegedly shooting Janssen in the face, according to police statements and a personal account from her mother, who owns the motor home and was inside when the gunfire occurred.

Janssen was transported to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead later that night.

“I can’t see why someone would want to hurt someone like her,” her mother, Dora Janssen, said in an interview. “I just want to wrap my arms around her and I can’t. I love and miss her so much.”

Dora Janssen was near the bathroom that night when Bardella walked over around 7 p.m., claiming a man they did not know wanted them to leave, Janssen said. She had shielded herself behind the bathroom door in fear as her daughter addressed Bardella.

She recalled Cynthia questioning Bardella about a gun she had drawn. “It wasn’t seconds later my daughter was down,“ her mother said.

She said they had never interacted with Bardella before.

Bardella was arrested in the early morning hours of Aug. 21 and has remained in Sonoma County Jail ever since, held without bail on murder and felony enhanced gun charges.

Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, whose office is representing Bardella, said they have “doubts about competence” and on Friday asked to pause the court proceedings to perform a psychiatric evaluation on their client.

Pozzi described the case as a “tragic, horrible situation.”

Bardella is a tax preparer, according to a national registry for tax professionals. She was arrested in 2013 on drunken driving and hit-and-run charges, but they were later dismissed, according to court records.

Attempts to reach the Bardella family for comment were unsuccessful.

“If you had an adult daughter charged with a murder, you can expect how they are doing,” Pozzi said of the Bardellas. “They’re an established Sebastopol family.”

Cynthia Janssen was the eldest of five children and is survived by two children of her own — an 18-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, who live with their father’s family in Las Vegas.

Janssen had struggles with substance abuse but had been going to church to turn her life around and get her kids back in her life, Frary said.

When she wasn’t helping her Sebastopol neighbors with random chores, she was spending time with her friends, her mother said.

She had been homeless for more than three years after a schism between relatives led to the sale of the family’s longtime Laguna Road property east of Forestville, displacing several members who lived there, Dora Janssen said.

Prohibitive housing costs made it difficult to find a stable home in the area, so Dora would spend the workweek in her RV so she could maintain a job she loved at a medical supplies manufacturer in Santa Rosa, she said. On the weekends, she’d return to Kelseyville where another daughter, Ashley Janssen, lived.

Cynthia Janssen stayed with her mother during the week to keep her company and make sure she was safe, Frary said. The two were always mindful of the 72-hour parking rule in Sebastopol and would move when asked by police or a resident.

They had a reputation for keeping the area outside their RV spotless, and over the years, wove into the fabric of the community. Sebastopol was welcoming and supportive, Dora Janssen said, making her daughter’s death more inexplicable.

“There were a lot of people there who were so kind and would stop by when our door was open,” she said. “They’d stop and say hello and talk about their dog or the day. I didn’t feel hate. I felt safe in Sebastopol. That’s why I was there.”

Family and friends created a memorial site on a tree at the park. The Janssens asked for donations to be made to the Sebastopol Christian Church in Cynthia’s name.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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