Jeff Jardine

Peoples’ loud voices keep killer Maria in prison, hope Gov. Brown nixes Spears parole, too

For the second time in two years, family and friends of 1979 murder victims Phil and Kathy Ranzo descended upon the State Capitol in Sacramento in an attempt to convince Gov. Jerry Brown to overturn the Board of Parole Hearings recommendation to release convicted killer Jeffrey Maria and, also ringleader Marty Don Spears.
For the second time in two years, family and friends of 1979 murder victims Phil and Kathy Ranzo descended upon the State Capitol in Sacramento in an attempt to convince Gov. Jerry Brown to overturn the Board of Parole Hearings recommendation to release convicted killer Jeffrey Maria and, also ringleader Marty Don Spears. jjardine@modbee.com

Jeffrey Maria’s hopes for freedom rose again only to have Gov. Brown to crush them again. Shucks, and of course I don’t mean that.

The incredible heinous cruelty he and his murderous pals inflicted while committing the crimes that put them behind bars nearly 38 years ago makes it difficult, if not impossible, to think of him or any of them in sympathetic terms.

On Friday and for the second time in 17 months, Brown overruled the state parole commission’s plans to let Maria out of prison.

Maria is one of four then teenagers convicted of killing Phil and Kathy Ranzo at their Modesto home in 1979. Ringleader Marty Don Spears – whom we’ll get to momentarily – beat, stabbed and hacked Phil Ranzo to death. Spears forced Kathy Ranzo upstairs, where he and cohort Darren Lee both raped her. Spears then slashed her throat while Maria and Lee plundered the home. A fourth accomplice, Ronald Anderson, drove the getaway car. They were arrested, convicted and, in 1980, went to prison on life sentences without parole until the Rose Bird-led state Supreme Court ruled that because they were under 18 when they committed the crimes, they could someday be eligible to walk.

Once in prison, Maria didn’t get his first parole hearing until 2013, in no small part because he spent more than three years trying to escape. Denied that year, he was told to wait until 2018 for the next one. But SB 260 allows those who were teens when they committed their crimes to apply for hearings in advance of their next parole hearing dates. Maria applied in 2015 and the parole commissioners granted him parole. Maria somehow convinced the panel he’s a changed man, but Ranzo family members and friends weren’t buying it.

Along with local prosecutors, they succeeded in raising enough of a commotion through a protest complete with signs and banners at the State Capitol, by organizing letter-writing campaigns and by emailing the governor to the point where he could ignore neither them nor Maria’s very unimpressive record as an inmate and, for that matter, as a human being.

Brown nixed Maria’s parole, mincing no words as to what he thought of Maria’s rehabilitation effort. Yet, SB 260 meant Maria could and did apply for another early hearing, this one January 4. Again, the commissioners ruled he should be freed. Again, the Ranzo kin, et. al., went to the Capitol to protest. Again, they wrote letters. Again, Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth DeJong emailed Brown daily pleading with him to keep Maria locked up.

Again, Brown complied. Maria will stay put for the time being.

“I reversed the Board’s 2015 grant of parole because Mr. Maria downplayed the violence he employed during his crime as well as the plan he and his co-conspirators came up with to rob and kill the Ranzos,” Brown’s most recent denial read. “I had concerns about his conduct in prison, including his participation in mutual combat in 2011 and his attempted escape from prison in 2006. Although the Board found Mr. Maria suitable for parole again in 2017, I still believe he poses an unreasonable risk of danger to the public if released from prison.”

But this go-around jacked up the emotional volume by several decibels. Just 15 days after Maria’s January parole hearing, the panel also granted parole to Spears, who clearly masterminded the plot. The commissioners bought into his long list of in-custody achievements, including good behavior and a stack of anger management course certificates.

Anger management? Raping, slaughtering and stealing aren’t issues you’d address in an anger management class.

“He’s the most evil player in this,” said DeJong. “People should be proud that their voices were heard (in Maria’s case). There’s still time to write letters to the governor (opposing Spears’ release).”

It’s difficult to believe Brown would even consider paroling Spears, considering the governor has voided both of Maria’s paroles thus far. Still, until the governor rules, Sandy Ranzo Howell and others who vehemently oppose Spears’ release will sweat it out. And they know that if they win – if Brown overrules Spears’ parole, too – they won’t get to relax for long.

SB 260 forced them to attend four more hearings than had the killers been held to their normal five- or seven-year parole schedules. Spears and Maria both can and no doubt will apply again in 2018, Anderson in 2019 and Lee in 2020.

“I should keep the (protest) signs wrapped in plastic,” Howell said. “But really, this has been like a cloud hanging over our heads. Every time we get a notice of parole hearing, it is so discouraging that we have to fight so hard all over again to keep them in prison.”

They know what’s worked so far: Get loud, write letters, keep those emails flooding the governor’s inbox. If Spears, Maria and the others expect them to back down or show mercy, think again.

“Every time we have to go through one of their hearings, we have to listen to the details all over again,” Howell said. “How (the Ranzos) suffered, how they bled to death, that (the killers) showed no compassion.”

And therefore can expect none in return.

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