When it comes to dealing with government, many folks don’t believe their voice matters.
This time, it did.
In July, after learning the state parole board had recommended freedom for convicted murderer Jeffrey Maria, a sizable contingent of people led by Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Beth De Jong, members of the Ranzo family and supporters took their frustration and disgust to the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento.
Maria is one of the four men convicted in the 1979 murders of Phil and Kathy Ranzo in their Modesto home. Kathy Ranzo also was raped. The others – ringleader Marty Don Spears, Darren Lee and Ronald Anderson – remain in prison as well, unsuccessful in their respective parole hearings.
“This was new ground in the process for us,” said Mark Ranzo, Phil and Kathy’s son, who was 10 years old when his parents were murdered.
New ground that required louder tactics. State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Sheriff Adam Christianson all made the trip to Sacramento to protest Maria’s release. Sandy Ranzo Howell, Phil Ranzo’s sister, was among those who pleaded to Gov. Jerry Brown to overturn the parole board’s decision, as he’d done to that point with 446 other convicted killers since 2011. Parole for Maria, they reasoned, might open the door for Spears and eventually the others to be released as well. All four murderers were teens when they killed the Ranzos, and could benefit from Senate Bill 260, which allows them the opportunity to seek parole hearings ahead of their next scheduled dates.
On that warm summer day, when the Legislature was out of session, few people roamed the Capitol grounds.
“(The sparse crowd) made you wonder if anyone was listening,” De Jong said.
They drew the Sacramento TV stations and also used Facebook to implore people to write letters to Brown demanding he keep Maria behind bars.
Most of those who attended hoped for the best – that Brown would indeed reverse the parole board’s decision – but pretty much resigned themselves that Maria would walk.
“I really didn’t think it would get overturned,” De Jong said. “But I was going to take all of the steps I could to support the Ranzos.”
Friday, Sandy Ranzo received a phone call followed by a letter from the state’s victims services office telling her that Maria is staying put. Brown indeed overturned the parole board’s recommendation.
Brown’s decision confirmed what the family and prosecutors have believed all along: Maria isn’t worthy of freedom.
“Mr. Maria’s crime was especially gruesome and disturbing,” Brown’s report stated. “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.”
Brown went on to criticize Maria for downplaying the violence of the crime during his parole hearing earlier this year, still not understanding the magnitude of what they did. Maria claimed, in essence, that he had no idea anyone would be hurt during the robbery, yet went there armed with the intent to subdue them and hurt them if necessary. The contradiction might have been lost on the parole commissioners who recommended Maria’s release. It was not lost on Brown, who also cited Maria’s lousy behavior while in prison that includes a foiled 2006 escape attempt, fighting with other inmates and marijuana possession.
If anything, the public protest and the number of letters he received along with direct input from Galgiani, Fladager and Christianson compelled Brown to perhaps look more closely at the case.
“I’m really pleased by the governor’s decision and his rationale,” Fladager said. “It’s the right decision for the victims’ family and for public safety. Unfortunately, with the current state of the law in California, it’s an uphill battle to keep them incarcerated and we will just have to keep showing up and trying to convince the parole board to keep them in.”
Sandy Ranzo Howell has been to every parole hearing involving the case. Each time, she’s had to relive the grief, anger and loss.
“When I heard (about Brown’s decision), my emotions ranged from elated to sad,” she said. “I think of all of the lives destroyed because of their choices. It wasn’t some kind of diminished capacity thing where you say, ‘I was high on marijuana. I wish I hadn’t done that.’” They committed a premeditated murder. They calculated it 24 hours in advance, a barbaric murder. They destroyed lives because of their choices. They hurt our family deeply. They hurt their own family.”
Brown’s decision likely compelled Spears, who requested and received an early parole hearing scheduled for Jan. 13 at San Quentin, to withdraw his request. He waived his hearing for a year, writing on the form, “I need more time to prepare.”
Which gives the Ranzos, De Jong and others who succeeded in stopping Maria’s parole more time to organize against Spears as well. The board denied Lee parole in March and he won’t be eligible again until 2020. Anderson, the getaway driver, failed his last parole hearing miserably in 2011 but could see another next year.
That Brown took the protesters’ efforts seriously speaks volumes toward future decisions.
“Our voices got counted,” said Mike Naranjo, Sandy Howell’s son and nephew of Phil and Kathy Ranzo. “We’re very excited that the process worked.”
And that they have a blueprint for the next time one of these killers gets a parole date.