Jeff Jardine

A new plea to the governor, times two, to keep killers in 1979 Modesto case locked up

If you are tired of reading about the repeated parole hearings from the 1979 murders of Modesto residents Phil and Kathy Ranzo, just think how tired and emotionally drained the Ranzo family members must feel every time they attend one.

Accompanied by prosecutors from the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, they’ve attended 20 such hearings over the years, each time having to relive the gruesome details, including the rape of Kathy Ranzo, and to beg parole commissioners to deny the killers their freedom. And for years, they seemed reasonably certain Marty Don Spears, Jeffrey Maria, Darren Lee and Ronald Anderson would stay put.

But that changed in July 2015, when a panel from the state Board of Parole Hearings suddenly determined that Maria should go free. So, the Ranzo family members organized a news conference on the Capitol steps and made emotional pleas to Gov. Jerry Brown to overturn the panel’s decision. They asked supporters to write letters to Brown to that effect. It worked.

Was it a blueprint for success? The family, friends and prosecutors returned to the Capitol on Friday with a doubly daunting task: to keep not only Maria but also Spears in prison.

Why? Because commissioners in January again recommended parole for Maria and then did the same 15 days later for Spears, who was the ringleader of the murderous group. Both benefited from SB 260, signed into law by Brown in 2013. It allows inmates who were teens when they committed their crimes to apply for parole hearings ahead of their regularly scheduled dates. That is why Maria could have two hearings less than 18 months apart. Spears, after canceling a hearing in 2016, still got one last month, more than two years ahead of schedule.

They are among the 55 “lifers” (25 years to life, etc.) convicted in Stanislaus County who have had two or more parole hearings since SB 260 became law.

Deputy District Attorney Beth DeJong and her boss, District Attorney Birgit Fladager, joined the Ranzo family and state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani for a news conference in the senator’s fifth-floor office in the Capitol, forced inside by nasty weather.

They made basically the same kinds of pleas as last time, with Sandy Ranzo Howell – Phil Ranzo’s sister – calling the murders “the calculated slaughter of two people who never got a second chance,” and later added, “When you lose a loved one, your heart breaks forever. There is no such thing as closure. They slaughtered, mutilated and destroyed Phillip and Kathy’s lives forever. These violent criminals lied to the parole board, and we need your help to keep them in prison to serve their time.”

During the parole hearing, Spears told the commissioners he planned to live with his wife upon release. But, Howell said, he never told them his wife had filed for divorce in 2016, citing irreconcilable differences. A district attorney’s investigator contacted Spears’ wife, Barbara Spears, who told him she only divorced Spears so she could receive Social Security benefits, and that they would live together after his release, according to documents.

No matter. While Howell and Fladager said they can accept the release of nonviolent criminals from state prisons, violent killers such as Maria, Spears and the others should stay behind bars forever.

“You cannot fix evil,” Fladager said, “and these are evil people. They should never come out of prison.”

DeJong, with the Ranzos through the past eight parole hearings, is frustrated with the frequency of the hearings and the grief they cause the family each time. And that Spears could be freed, she said, is mind-boggling.

“Mr. Spears was the kingpin in this case,” DeJong said. “He brutally raped Mrs. Ranzo and brutally used a hatchet to kill Mr. and Mrs. Ranzo. There is no place in society for him. Our community will not be safe if he’s released.”

Galgiani said she is positive that, if released, they would kill again.

“Guaranteed, they will put many other families in pain as they already have,” she said speaking directly to Brown through the media. “Please overturn the decision of the parole board.”

Their strategy worked the first time. Brown, while overturning only about 20 percent of parole decisions for convicted killers, responded to the Ranzo family’s efforts.

In denying Maria’s parole in October 2015, Brown wrote: “Mr. Maria’s crime was especially gruesome and disturbing. This was a night of horrors; the Ranzos were bound and beaten, Mrs. Ranzo was brutally raped, and the couple’s necks were stabbed and slashed. This shocking crime had a profound impact on the Ranzos’ loved ones. Family members have appeared at Mr. Maria’s hearings to express their ongoing sense of loss and many members of the community have written to oppose parole.”

Would the governor believe the Jeffrey Maria he described in his ruling could change so dramatically over the past 17 months that he can now be a contributing member of society? And what about Spears, who offers certificates of completion of prison anger-management classes when the crimes he orchestrated were morbid and heinous thrills that had nothing to do with anger?

At the same time, Brown is required to give “great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner” when determining a youthful offender’s suitability for parole, according to the California Penal Code. That didn’t help Maria the last time.

And Brown arguably is much busier now than he was in 2015, when the Oroville Dam spillway remained in one piece, areas of the Valley weren’t submerged, and he wasn’t publicly arguing with the president over immigration and other issues. How much time will he have to seriously review the lifer parole decisions?

Deborah Hoffman, the governor’s deputy press secretary, assures that he will make time.

“While staff does help prepare information for the governor’s review, the governor spends time carefully reviewing each case before any decision is made,” she said.

Which gives the Ranzo family another anxiety-filled wait, this time times two. The sad part is if the Ranzos truly are lucky, the killers will stay in prison, where they will apply for new parole hearings in two years or so.

This tragic cycle will continue. But, as any family member will tell you, it’s better to fight to keep them in than to worry about them if they’re out.