A judge has closed all juvenile court proceedings involving a Hutchinson teenager accused of killing his mother and sister in a house fire.
Reno County Chief Judge Patricia Macke Dick, in a three-page memorandum on Wednesday, also advised that individual documents in the case of Sam Vonachen, 14, may be sealed, and the court prohibited “participants” in the case from making any statements to the media outside of dates and times of future court hearings.
The ruling by Macke Dick stemmed from a motion by Vonachen’s appointed attorney, Greg Bell, for a “protective order” on which the court heard arguments on Oct. 22. Prosecutors didn’t object to the motion, but an attorney for The Hutchinson News argued against excluding the public.
Prosecutors charged Vonachen with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with a Sept. 26 house fire that killed his sister, Audrey Vonachen, 11, and mother, Karla Jo Vonachen, 47. He’s also charged with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated arson after his father, Steve Vonachen, escaped from the burning home.
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A motion to certify Sam Vonachen as an adult for prosecution is pending, but no further hearing dates in the case have yet been set.
In her ruling, the judge noted that the case, “for lack of a better definition, is considered sensational,” and that attorneys on both sides in the case have been contacted by national media outlets, including Nancy Grace and CNN, seeking interviews or statements.
“While the court is unconcerned about the embarrassment or fright for the juvenile facing the media,” – one of the grounds cited by Bell for closing the case – “there are certainly evaluations that should be completed outside the public arena without the media providing observations and input,” Macke Dick stated.
The judge noted that Vonachen’s father didn’t attend the Oct. 22 hearing because, according to Bell, “He did not want to face the media.”
“As the parent of the juvenile, the father has a duty to attend court hearings,” the judge stated. “The court is sympathetic to the plight of the father/victim and his best interest in considering this matter.”
Bell advised the court during the hearing that he had several motions he wanted to file but would wait pending Macke Dick’s decision on the matter.
In her ruling, Macke Dick stated that the legal file in the case would remain public, but that the court “will seal individual documents as needed to provide the juvenile fair hearings now and in the future.”
A check of the court record Wednesday didn’t reveal any additional motions filed.
The judge also ordered that parties in the case “should not make extrajudicial statements that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated to the media except for court dates and times pending further order of the court.”