Jeff Jardine

Victims’ family frustrated by parole board ruling in 1979 murder case

In 2011, Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth Owen, from left, Sandy Ranzo Howell, Mark Ranzo and Mike Naranjo attend the parole hearing for Marty Spears, who killed Phil and Kathy Ranzo (shown in photographs) in 1979.
In 2011, Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth Owen, from left, Sandy Ranzo Howell, Mark Ranzo and Mike Naranjo attend the parole hearing for Marty Spears, who killed Phil and Kathy Ranzo (shown in photographs) in 1979. Modesto Bee file

Driving to Vacaville last week, Mark Ranzo and his aunt, Sandy Ranzo Howell, sensed something might be different this time.

They were headed to the parole hearing for 53-year-old Jeffrey Allen Maria, one of four men convicted in the 1979 murders of Mark’s parents, Phil and Kathy Ranzo, and the rape of Kathy Ranzo.

They’d been to several of these hearings before, including Maria’s first parole attempt in March 2013, when the commissioners gave him five more years to reform. They’ve also attended 2011 hearings for Marty Don Spears, who actually killed both Ranzos, and getaway driver Ronald Ray Anderson, and for Darren Lee a year later and again last March.

Each time, the Ranzo family members went in confident the commissioners would deny parole, and the commissioners didn’t disappoint. But with SB 260 allowing inmates to apply for parole well ahead of their scheduled hearings and giving more weight to parole those who offended as juveniles, the Ranzo family members feared the worst. And that’s what they got Wednesday, when the commission determined Maria is suitable for parole after more than 35 years in captivity.

“I was so shocked,” Howell said, “that when I talked to my husband I couldn’t even bring myself to say it.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said. “The problem with parole rules is that they were changed. (Commissioners) can’t consider the facts of the case. They focus on whether (the inmates) would currently be a danger to the community.”

How they can use that as a criterion when the inmates have been in prison and therefore in a controlled setting for decades perplexes Fladager, Deputy District Attorney Beth O’Hara De Jong and the Ranzo family members. The panel ignored that the controlled setting didn’t stop Maria from attempting a failed prison escape at Solano, when he tried to chisel his way out over three years (2003-06).

Maria and the others went to the Ranzo home on June 25, 1979, planning a home invasion. Pretending to be out of gas, they asked to use the Ranzos’ phone, which, like some others in the new development, was out of order at the time. When Phil Ranzo went to the garage to get them a gas can, Spears, Maria and Lee tied him up and attacked him with a baseball bat and ax. At gunpoint, they ordered Kathy Ranzo upstairs, where she was raped, struck with the ax and stabbed to death. Then they went back to the garage and stabbed Phil Ranzo numerous times, killing him as well before looting the home for cash and jewelry.

Mark Ranzo, then 10 years old, was playing with his cousin, Mike Naranjo, at their grandmother’s house at the time.

All four were convicted of murder, but the Rose Bird-led California Supreme Court in 1983 converted the sentences of Spears, Lee and Maria to consecutive 25-years-to-life terms because they were 17 or younger when convicted, leaving the window open for parole for each.

That is why Ranzo, his aunt and others have attended the parole hearings. The family members go to remind the commissioners what these men did to their family – the grief and emotional trauma they caused, the lifetime of hurt they imposed – and why they should never enjoy another minute of freedom. Like so many other families of victims, they fear retribution should a convicted killer be released.

“Definitely,” Mark Ranzo said. “Most definitely. (Maria) would want forgiveness, and that wouldn’t happen. He’d turn violent again. He’s been locked up with some very bad individuals. He’s been institutionalized. He’d have a hard time finding a job, then he’d revert to hurting someone else.”

De Jong said Board of Prison Terms Deputy Commissioner Steven Mahoney stated as the hearing concluded that it was one of the most heinous cases he’d ever reviewed, but that he was compelled to follow the law, which considers a juvenile offender to have acted in a “diminished capacity.” Hence, the recommendation for parole. Howell isn’t buying: Maria was five months shy of adulthood when her brother and sister-in-law were murdered.

“In my mind, it’s not a diminished capacity,” she said. “It’s a lack of responsibility.”

The recommendation for parole is neither immediate nor guaranteed, however. It goes to the parole review board and then on to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has overturned 446 parole recommendations since he returned to office in 2011, each time determining the inmate would be a danger to society.

The Ranzos and local authorities are organizing a letter-writing campaign to the governor to convince Brown that Maria is no different. They are imploring supporters to send those letters in a hurry. They’re also contacting state legislators asking for their help. The cases are generally reviewed within 120 to 150 days of the hearing, but reviews are happening more rapidly these days, according to the District Attorney Office’s Cheryl Titus.

This one is important, Howell said. Lee just had his early hearing and lost. Anderson is up for parole again in 2016. And Spears, the ringleader, could conceivably get an early hearing within the next year or so.

“Our concern is that it could set a precedent for Spears when he gets his next one,” she said, “since one of them is being considered for release.”

Where to send letters

Letters can be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Parole Hearings, P.O. Box 4036, Sacramento, CA 95812-4036, Attention: Legal Unit – Tom Remy.