Faith healing or foul play?
2008 cliff fall victim sues
Rather than call police when their drinking partner fell — or was pushed — off a nearly 200-foot cliff, two students at a Redding Bible school tried first to reach the severely wounded man and pray him back to life, a lawsuit alleges.
In a lawsuit filed this month in Shasta County Superior Court exactly two years to the day after he was pulled by search-and-rescue crews from the banks of the Sacramento River, Jason Michael Carlsen alleges that when Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry students Sarah Elisabeth Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas couldn’t reach him to heal him with their prayers, they spent hours debating whether to call the police.
Bethel’s members purport to have the ability to heal people through prayer and bring the dead back to life.
The two later told police they thought Carlsen was killed in the fall.
Worried that they would be exiled from the church, the two Bethel students also went so far as to try to cover up evidence they’d even been at the top of the cliff, the lawsuit alleges.
“(The) defendants’ refusal to summon assistance was willful, malicious, morally outrageous and indefensible,” the lawsuit says.
Carlsen, now a 25-year-old paraplegic living in Petaluma, fell just a few yards south from where police say a Redding man died Tuesday morning after intentionally driving his SUV off the sheer earthen wall at the end of Palisades Drive.
When investigating Tuesday’s crash, Redding officials discovered a 10-foot tall cross sunk into the ground at the top of the cliff. Chris Carmona, a risk management official with the city attorney’s office, said the cross was at the exact location where Carlsen plummeted off the side on Oct. 5, 2008. The cross was taken down Wednesday by Redding employees, he said.
Carmona said he didn’t know who put it there.
No charges ever filed
In an e-mail, Koivumaki, 21, declined to be interviewed. Gudelunas, 27, didn’t respond to a message sent Thursday to his Facebook account. Koivumaki is a Canadian citizen from British Columbia who was in California on a temporary visa in 2008, according to Redding police. Gudelunas’ Facebook profile lists his current residence as Atlantic City, N.J.
After the fall, Carlsen spent more than a month in a coma at U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, his San Francisco attorney, Marc Libarle, said Wednesday.
“He was under severe stress, having been left out in the open for over six hours,” Libarle said. “In fact, to release pressure off his brain, they took off a portion of his skull. He rested there for two months before they put his skull back together.”
Carlsen has no memory of the fall or what led up to it, Libarle said.
Libarle didn’t return a follow-up message Thursday.
Carlsen’s lawsuit relies heavily on Redding Police Department investigators’ reports.
Detectives for a time treated the case as an attempted-murder investigation. The pair was never charged.
Redding police detectives didn’t return messages left Thursday about the case.
It started at a party
According to a 63-page Redding police report, Gudelunas and Koivumaki had been at a small party on Hilltop Drive where they met Carlsen, an acquaintance of theirs.
Police investigators said Koivumaki and Gudelunas told them that Carlsen was extremely drunk at the party, but the pair nonetheless drove him to a store to buy Jack Daniels whiskey and Pepsi.
They drove to Palisades Drive, walked around a gate at the end of the road, set down a blanket and began drinking, sitting on the cliff with their feet dangling off the edge.
Koivumaki told detectives she got emotional at one point and began crying after she started reminiscing about her brother who died in April of that year after he fell off a bridge he’d been sitting on while he was drinking.
Detectives say that Carlsen started laughing at her while Gudelunas tried to comfort her. She told detectives that she got up and walked away. When she came back, Gudelunas and Carlsen began talking about boxing because Gudelunas “fancied himself as some sort of boxing instructor,” Investigator Todd Cogle said in his report.
Koivumaki told detectives Carlsen joked that he would “box him (Gudelunas) right now.”
A brief time later, she said, Carlsen got up, walked to the edge of the cliff, stood with his back to the ledge. He told the couple “he’d had a hard life” and had come to Redding because he wanted to get clean from methamphetamine, the police report said. She told investigators that Carlsen said “you can’t die in the will of God” and jokingly mimicked a jump off the cliff’s edge.
“She stated when he jumped over the edge he began grabbing the side of the cliff, but slowly began slipping,” officer Luke Blehm said in his report. “She stated that after a few seconds he fell off the cliff, and she could hear him falling and thudding several times as he fell. She stated that she heard a loud thud when he obviously hit the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.”
Finger marks in dirt
Based on surveillance footage from the store and Gudelunas’ and Koivumaki’s statements, investigators believe Carlsen fell around 3 a.m.
They found tracks on the cliff’s edge where it appears his fingers had dug into the soil trying to hang on.
His battered, unconscious body would lie on the river’s edge for more than six hours.
After the fall, Gudelunas and Koivumaki screamed down to Carlsen. Frantically, they drove up Hilltop Drive to the Sacramento River Trail connector trail near the Sundial Bridge to try to walk along the river to find Carlsen. They told police they hoped to “save” Carlsen through faith healing. Koivumaki’s flip-flop sandals fell off in her running.
Ending up scratched by blackberry bushes, the pair was unable to get close to Carlsen’s lifeless form. They told police they considered swimming, but decided against it.
They spent the rest of the morning driving around Redding discussing what happened. They also sat for several hours by the pool at the Mission De Oro Drive apartment complex Koivumaki where was staying with friends, the two told police.
Around 8:30 a.m., Koivumaki called her mother in Canada, who urged her to call police.
Almost 45 minutes later, after Koivumaki and Gudelunas drove to the Redding Police Department, they called police from the station’s parking lot, police said.
Redding police and a Shasta County Sheriff’s Office boating safety crew found Carlsen within 40 minutes. They gently placed him on a backboard and boated him to a nearby ramp where an ambulance took him to Mercy Medical Center in Redding. From there he was flown to the U.C. Davis Medical Center.
Koivumaki told police she and Gudelunas had been hesitant to call 911 because they were worried about getting into legal trouble because they had been drinking. Koivumaki also told police they were scared they’d get kicked out of the Bible school, because each had signed a no-drinking pledge, police said.
Foul play alleged
But Carlsen’s lawsuit says there was a more sinister motive behind the delay.
The lawsuit alleges the pair spent all that time getting their stories straight.
Carlsen, the lawsuit alleges, had been knocked or pushed backward off the cliff after he offended Koivumaki and Gudelunas when he laughed as she was crying over her brother’s death.
The lawsuit said that Gudelunas admitted to police that he was within a foot of Carlsen as he hung over the cliff and did nothing to pull him up.
“Gudelunas did not extend his hand, the blanket or make any effort to assist Carlsen,” the lawsuit says, adding that the pair picked up the blanket and their liquor from the cliff’s edge to cover their evidence.
The lawsuit seeks more than $25,000 damages. It alleges assault and battery, negligence, willful misconduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Last year, Carlsen’s attorney filed a claim with the City of Redding, alleging that city officials hadn’t properly posted no-trespassing signs and gated off the cliff face. The city’s attorneys denied his claim saying the city wasn’t negligent because Carlsen was drunk. The city also provided the attorney with photos of a no-trespassing sign that police took on the day of the fall.
The lawyer didn’t contest the denial or pursue a lawsuit, according to city claim documents.
That a pair of Bethel students would use prayer to try heal an injured man — or even bring one back to life — isn’t unusual. In fact, the church’s leaders claim to do just that every day.
The Rev. Bill Johnson, Bethel’s pastor, didn’t return an e-mail or a message left Thursday with his secretary to find out whether the church had put the cross on city property or answer questions about whether Koivumaki and Gudelunas were still associated with Bethel.
In an interview published in January in the Record Searchlight, Johnson claimed he and his followers’ prayers had healed maladies ranging from deafness to brain tumors. During healing services, church members blow a ram’s horn — called a shofar — to summon the holy spirit to heal the body part that’s ailing.
School of ministry students are known in Redding for traveling around town offering faith healings to passers-by.
The massive Pentecostal church on College View Drive in Redding draws recruits each year from all over the world.
In October 2008, a Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry student moved to Washington and started a “dead-raising team” that worked with members of the local fire department to pray over bodies found on emergency calls.
Johnson’s church is controversial even among Christian groups. During religious functions church members often speak in tongues. Churchgoers also claim that during religious services, angel feathers and gold dust appear out of thin air and rain down on parishioners.