By Mark Gutglueck
In one of his last acts as California Governor, Jerry Brown on Monday December 24 issued an executive order that new DNA testing be carried out on a number of pieces of evidence related to the conviction of death row inmate Kevin Cooper in the infamous 1983 killing of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and 11-year-old neighbor Christopher Hughes in Chino Hills.
Cooper in 1985 was convicted and then condemned to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin, where he has remained on Death Row for more than 33 years, having in the meantime launched a series of appeals, all of which were curtailed or failed to convince higher courts that he had been wrongfully convicted.
If Cooper is innocent, his timing was execrable. Thrice convicted of burglary and imprisoned in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cooper was released in 1982, to be shortly thereafter accused of kidnapping and raping an underaged girl who had interrupted him during yet another burglary. Confined to a Pennsylvania psychiatric facility, Mayview State Hospital, he escaped, fleeing to Southern California where he used the alias David Trautman. In Los Angeles County he was apprehended after committing two burglaries and was given a four-year prison sentence, which he began serving at the California Institution for Men in Chino in April 1983. Having been housed in the minimum security wing of that prison, Cooper on June 2, 1983 either scaled, or climbed through a hole in, the prison fence and made his way away from the prison west toward what was then the substantially rural and unincorporated community of Chino Hills. Cooper’s escape from the Chino Institution for Men came within the same approximate time frame that Michael “Fast Horse” Martinez, one of the wards at Boys Republic, an institutional all-boys home and school in Chino Hills for displaced, wayward and troubled youths, took flight from that facility.
There is no dispute that Cooper holed up in a Chino Hills home owned by Larry Lease and brothers Roger and Kermit Lang where a tenant, Kathleen Bilbia, had lived previously and moved out shortly before the murders occurred. Cooper spent at least a day-and-a-half there, sleeping in a closet in one of the house’s bedrooms.
Late in the morning of June 4, Virginia Lang briefly came into the Lease/Lang house to get a sweater, but Cooper withdrew toward the back of the house and managed to avoid her seeing him. The Lease/Lang home was some 375 feet distant from the home of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and their 8-year-old son Joshua. Phone records show that while there Cooper made calls to two female acquaintances/friends in an effort to get them to provide him with money or otherwise assist him in getting farther away, the last of which was made around 8 p.m. on June 4. He also smoked prison-issued Role-Rite tobacco rolled in prison issued rolling papers, the butts of which were left behind in the Lease/Lang house.
On June 5, 1983, another resident of Chino Hills, Bill Hughes, came to the Ryen home to pick up his 11-year-old son Christopher, who had spent the previous evening with the Ryen family attending a barbecue at another location and was going to sleep over at the Ryen home the night of June 4 through until the morning of June 5. The Ryen family station wagon was gone. He went around to the back of the house and looked through a sliding glass door into the master bedroom of the house. Visible were Douglas and Peggy and his son, all dead, and Joshua Ryen severely wounded. Hidden from his view was Jessica Ryen, who lay dead in the hallway. The four deceased – the husband and wife, their daughter and his son had been chopped with a hatchet, cut with a knife, and stabbed with an ice-pick, having sustained mostly to their heads, upper torsos or extremities, 37, 33, 46 and 25 wounds, respectively. Joshua Ryen was yet alive, his throat having been cut. The house phone was inoperable and Hughes left to summon help at once. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, after having Joshua Ryen transported to Loma Linda University Medical Center by helicopter, initiated an investigation that entailed deputies, detectives, sergeants, forensic specialists and department higher-ups including then-Sheriff Floyd Tidwell, traipsing all over the murder scene and its environs.
In his testimony at trial, Cooper stated that he had left the Lease/Lang house after sundown on June 4 and had hitchhiked to Mexico. It is established with certainty that Cooper checked into a hotel in Tijuana, just across the international border roughly 130 miles south of Chino Hills, at 4:30 pm on June 5, 1983.
A few days later, the Ryens’ station wagon was discovered in a church parking lot in Long Beach. Sheriff’s investigators after missing them in an initial search eventually extracted from that vehicle and logged in as evidence cigarette butts consisting of prison-issued Role-Rite tobacco rolled in prison-issued rolling papers similar to those found at the Lease/Lang house. An all points bulletin identifying Cooper as a suspect in the murders was issued.
From Tijuana, Cooper went to Ensenada, where on June 9 he made the acquaintance of an American couple, Owen and Angelica Handy of Humboldt County, who had come to Baja California on their 32-foot sailboat, the Illa Tika. Identifying himself as “Angel Jackson,” he persuaded them to allow him to accompany them as a deckhand as they headed back north up the California Coast, eventually anchoring in Pelican Cove off of Santa Cruz Island. Some seven weeks after the Chino Hills murders, during the last week of July, 1983, a 26-foot sailboat anchored near the Handys’ boat. Its occupants, a couple from North Hollywood, invited the Handys and Cooper aboard their sloop to a fish fry, during which some alcohol consumption was involved. Well after midnight, Cooper returned to the 26-foot boat, where, armed with a knife, he raped the wife. Her husband reported the rape and shortly thereafter Cooper was taken into custody by Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies and Coast Guard personnel. After the woman was treated at Goleta Valley Hospital and released, she went to the sheriff’s office to provide a statement with regard to the rape. There she saw a “Wanted for Murder” poster/flier in the detectives’ office bearing a photo of Cooper, whereupon Angel Jackson was identified as Kevin Cooper. Items from the Lease/Lang house were found by deputies searching the Handys’ sailboat in the follow-up to the arrest.
Then-San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier prosecuted the case himself with the assistance of one of his deputy prosecutors, John Kochis. The case was tried not in San Bernardino County Superior Court but in San Diego Superior Court before Judge Richard C. Garner. Cooper was defended by San Bernardino County Public Defender David Negus. The trial lasted from September 1984 until June of 2005.
Kottmeier and Kochis, though handicapped by an absence of any direct evidence linking Cooper to the killings, were nevertheless able to build a strong circumstantial case against the defendant. Kottmeier entered into evidence partial shoe prints found at the murder scene and at a nearby house where Cooper admitted he had hid after the escape. Kottmeier and Kochis further used the cigarette butts consisting of the Role-Rite prison-issue tobacco and prison-issued rolling papers found in the Lease/Lang house and in the Ryens’ abandoned station wagon to tie Cooper to the crime.
Another damning piece of evidence was a spot of blood on the hallway wall of the Ryen house that was consistent with Cooper’s blood profile.
A bloody shoeprint made by a Pro-Ked Dude shoe, matching the type of shoes issued to prison inmates was demonstrated as having been impressed on a sheet in the master bedroom of the Ryen house, along with a matching shoeprint on a spa cover outside the Ryen house, and another in the pool room at the Lease/Lang house. This was augmented with positive Luminol tests, demonstrating the presence of a quantity of blood, in a shower in the Lease/Lang house.
A bloodstained hatchet from the Lease/Lang house found near the Ryen home along with the sheath from the hatchet found on the floor of the bedroom with the closet where Cooper had slept were presented as evidence to the jury, along with a button found in the Lease/Lang house that matched a prison-issue jacket. Some hunting knives and at least one ice pick were missing from the Lease/Lang house. A strap fitting one of the missing knives was found in the same bedroom.
Another piece of evidence to suggest that Cooper had made his way from the Lease/Lang house to the Ryen residence consisted of an empty beer can in the field between the two homes matching a beer in the refrigerator at the Lease/Lang house.
The prosecution demonstrated that there were two burrs adhered to the inside of Jessica Ryen’s night-gown approximately ten inches up from the bottom hem. Kottmeier asserted to the jury that because the top of Jessica’s nightgown did not have holes corresponding with some of Jessica’s post mortem chest wounds, at some point the assailant had raised Jessica’s nightgown, and, in the process of inflicting her chest wounds, deposited the burrs. The prosecution also presented evidence to show similar burrs were found on the inside of the Ryen station wagon and on a blanket found in the closet where Cooper slept on June 3. Plants producing the burrs grew in the field between the Ryen house and the Lease/Lang house.
There were a total of 141 witness called, many of whom offered contradictory testimony. Some of the most dramatic, meaningful and important elements of the trial consisted of testimony from sheriff’s investigators and hospital personnel at Loma Linda Universtity Hospital where Joshua Ryen was flown by helicopter on June 5, 1983. Initially, in the presence of a sheriff’s detective and a social worker, the eight-year-old indicated his attackers were three white men. In a second interview an hour later, Dr. Mary Howell, Joshua’s grandmother, also testified that Joshua told Deputy Hector O’Campo that three Latinos were in the house when the family was killed. On June 15, Joshua told Reserve Deputy Luis Simo that Cooper was not the killer, saying “He didn’t do it,” upon seeing Cooper’s photo on television during a newscast.
Joshua Ryen’s testimony at trial was provided via videotape, during which he said he could not remember much about his attacker or attackers and did not see his attacker directly but as “a shadow on the wall.”
Cooper testified for five days under direct examination by Kottmeier., during which he admitted to being in the Lease/Lang house immediately adjacent to the Ryen property, but did not waiver in maintaining his innocence to the murders, while acknowledging that he had stolen a purse from a woman in San Ysidro after hitchhiking there to make his way into Mexico.
Cooper’s attorney, San Bernardino County Public Defender David Negus, put on testimony by Edward Lelko, the bartender at the Canyon Corral Bar, located not far from the Ryen home, that he had served beer to three men the night of June 4, 1983. The men were not among his regular set of customers, which generally consisted of cowboys and nearby residents. They never returned to the bar. One of those men was “extremely drunk” and was subsequently refused service. The three wore light-colored T-shirts, similar to a bloodstained tan T-shirt found on June 7, 1983, beside a road near the bar. That shirt bore the blood of Doug Ryen, it was later determined.
Based upon the circumstantial evidence he and Kochis had placed before the jury, Kottmeier convinced the jurors that there was full and convincing proof that Cooper committed the murders. Cooper was convicted on four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. The jury recommended the death penalty and Judge Garner sentenced him to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin. There followed reviews by and appeals to state and federal courts for more than 18 years. Cooper was scheduled to be executed on February 10, 2004. On January 29, 2004, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied a request that Cooper be granted clemency. On February 8, 2004, a three judge panel consisting of Judges Pamela Rymer, Ronald Gould and James Browning heard Cooper’s petition and rejected it by a vote of 2–1. Judge Browning, as the lone dissenter was able to assemble enough judges to get an en banc ruling blocking the execution to allow further DNA testing. Ultimately, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the stay, effectively blocking the execution of the death warrant.
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus took up Cooper’s cause. Over the years, Kottmeier was supplanted as San Bernardino County district attorney by Dennis Stout and then by Mike Ramos. The San Bernardino County sheriff at the time of the murders, Floyd Tidwell, had since been succeeded by Dick Williams, Gary Penrod, Rod Hoops and now John McMahon, with each successive administration considering the upholding of the integrity of the Ryen/Hughes death investigation and Kevin Cooper conviction to be synonymous with the credibility of San Bernardino County law enforcement.
The sheriff’s department’s handling of the case, which was already subject to obloquy given the fashion in which more than 70 individuals, many of them sheriff’s department personnel, had trampled evidence at the murder scene in the two days following the discovery of the bodies, had its reputation damaged further when what would later be represented as key evidence was mishandled or mislaid, lost or destroyed by the department. A tan-colored shirt with blood stains was found by sheriff’s personnel not very distant from the murder scene beside Peyton Road. That shirt was logged in as evidence and is yet preserved, and will be subject to the DNA testing ordered by Governor Brown. Also alongside Peyton Road, a local resident, Laurel Epler, came across a blue shirt which she said she believed had blood on it. She called the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and reported the find. The sheriff’s department misplaced that second shirt. A pair of bloody overalls alleged to have been worn by the man wearing the tan shirt, Lee Furrow, were thrown out without being examined by the sheriff’s department’s forensic experts, its scientific investigations division or its laboratory.
The blue shirt, the tan shirt and the bloody overalls became objects of intense scrutiny as the post trial examination and reexamination of Cooper’s guilt intensified. Investigators working on behalf of the legal team seeking to keep Cooper from being executed explored in far greater depth the trail of evidence involving the bartender at the Corral Canyon Bar, Edward Lelko, which was at the trial a cul-de-sac but which for many now looms as a major boulevard toward the goal of justice. Others in the Canyon Corral Bar who saw the three strangers that night were Shirley Killian, the bar manager; Pam Smith, a bar patron; Lance Stark, a bar patron whom the sheriff’s department tried to intimidate into not testifying in 2004; Christine Slonaker, a phlebotomist, who recognized blood on the strangers’ clothing; Mary Mellon Wolfe, who was with Slonaker and who, like Slonaker, testified to seeing the blood at Cooper’s evidentiary hearing in 2004; and Kathy Royals, a waitress who waited on the strangers. Investigators learned that another convicted murderer, Clarence Ray Allen, who was himself executed in 2006, had become embroiled in a dispute with Doug and Peggy Ryen over a horse he had purchased from them. Among Allen’s employees was another criminal, Lee Furrow, whom Allen had previously hired to kill Allen’s son’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Mary Sue Kitts. According to Furrow’s then-girlfriend, Diana Roper, Lee Furrow came home in the early morning of June 5, 1983 wearing bloody overalls and without the tan shirt he had been wearing earlier in the day. Lee Furrow changed out of the overalls and on June 9, Diana Roper called the sheriff’s department to tell them what had occurred and thereafter provided the overalls to the department. The sheriff’s department never had its scientific investigations division test the overalls for blood, never turned them over to Negus and instead disposed of them on the day of Cooper’s arraignment. Internal sheriff’s department phone logs established that a deputy sheriff made multiple attempts to give the overalls to the lead investigator. This contradicted the deputy’s later claim, when the defense made an issue of the overalls, that he never considered the overalls of evidentiary value. A supervisor admitted to an investigator that he signed off on disposing of the overalls, thereby impeaching the deputy’s testimony at trial that he made that decision.
It is believed by some that Furrow is one of the three men who were unfamiliar to Lelko, the bartender at the Canyon Corral Bar working the night of June 4, 1983. Killian, Smith, Stark, Slonaker, Wolfe and Royals, all of whom were present at the bar that night, would eventually provide testimony with regard to the presence of the three men at the Corral Canyon Bar on the night of June 4. The Ryen Family’s station wagon was found in Long Beach, within close proximity to Furrow’s mother’s home. There was blood matched to the Ryen family on both the driver side and passenger side of the font seat as well as in the back seat, an indication, Cooper’s defenders say, that three men attacked the Ryen Family and Christopher Hughes and then, splattered with blood, made their getaway in the station wagon.
Cooper’s defenders postulate that Furrow, who was part of a murderous gang that had murdered on behalf of Allen in the past, had been sent to Chino Hills to collect on a debt the Ryens owed Allen for the horse. Undercutting that theory is the consideration that by June 1983, Furrow and Allen were no longer on good terms. In 1977, Furrow had entered a guilty plea to killing Mary Sue Kitts at the bequest of Allen, who from prison sought to arrange to have another career criminal, Billy Ray Hamilton, murder Furrow and seven other witnesses to prevent them from testifying during the appeal process of Allen’s conviction in the Kitts murder.
By the early 2000s, Cooper’s legal team sought to have DNA testing carried out on several of the pieces of evidence used to convict him more than a decade-and-a-half following his conviction. Evincing a rather curious attitude for those so confident in Cooper’s guilt, prosecutors resisted those requests. Eventually, after Cooper’s 2004 execution was narrowly averted, an order for DNA testing of some of the evidence was granted. Pointedly, the DNA test showed that the tan shirt had both Douglas Ryen’s and Cooper’s blood on it.
Cooper’s advocates believe that Cooper’s blood, drawn from him after his arrest as part of the investigative process, was subsequently planted on the shirt. Furthermore, Cooper’s legal team believes that a clump of blonde hair found in Jessica Ryen’s hand is indicative that she was murdered by someone other than Cooper, an African-American.
On Christmas Eve, Governor Brown issued the order relating to the Cooper case along with 143 pardons and 131 commutations. Brown has traditionally granted clemency on or near Christmas. Since his second go-round as governor began in 2011, 28 years after his first two terms as governor concluded in 1983, Governor Brown has granted 283 commutations and 1,332 pardons. In Cooper’s case, neither a pardon nor a commutation was granted, but the governor made an executive order for new testing, using up-to-date scientific standards to be applied on four pieces of evidence: the tan T-shirt found in a ditch off the side of the road near the Corral Canyon Bar, an orange towel found near the scene and the handle of the hatchet used in the murders and the hatchet sheath. “I take no position as to Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time, but colorable factual questions have been raised about whether advances in DNA technology warrant limited retesting of certain physical evidence in this case,” Brown wrote in his executive order. Brown said that if the tests fail to turn up new DNA or some that does not lead to any identifiable individual, “this matter should be closed.”
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, District Attorney Mike Ramos and deputy district attorneys Grover Merritt and James Secord insist that Cooper was the killer, he was given a fair and adequate trial while represented by a competent attorney and that previous DNA tests and other scientific analyses point unerringly to his guilt. Ramos said courts at every level from the trial court to the appellate court to the California Supreme Court have confirmed Cooper’s guilt while allowing for reasonable retesting of DNA evidence pertaining to the case.
Cooper’s attorney, Norman Hile, said, “On behalf of Kevin Cooper, we are very pleased that the governor finally took some action to allow us to do advanced DNA testing that we think will exonerate Kevin. We also wish that we would get the innocence investigation we have asked for and will be trying to get in the future.”
Hile said the more sophisticated, sensitive and exacting DNA analysis that extends beyond blood to sweat and skin particles absorbed into or adhering to cloth means that more pertinent information as to Cooper’s guilt or innocence can be obtained. “The first item to be advance tested is the tan T-shirt,” said Hile. “That is something that could not have been done in the past which can potentially determine who was wearing the shirt. We are absolutely convinced that Kevin was not wearing the shirt and the person who was wearing the shirt was the likely murderer of the Ryens.”
Hile indicated the testing could also bear out Cooper’s defense team’s suggestion that the case against Cooper has been tainted by law enforcement misconduct and efforts to load the dice against his client. “The previous testing done in 2002 came to the conclusion that a blood stain on the shirt, which contained Douglas Ryen’s blood contained Kevin’s DNA,” said Hile. “We think that blood was planted. That is what testing done in 2004 showed. There were heightened levels of EDTA in that sample. EDTA is the preservative law enforcement uses to preserve blood when a sample is taken from someone who is arrested. We think that shows that blood was planted on the shirt by law enforcement. The more advanced testing we are waiting on now we hope will show who was actually wearing that shirt. That is the crucial question that needs to be answered.”
Hile said Cooper’s legal team had hoped that DNA testing would also be done on the clump of hairs found clutched in Jessica Ryen’s palm but “That was not one of the four items listed in the governor’s executive order. That is part of the innocence investigation we want to do, but the governor did not include that.”
Michael Rushford, the president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, told the Sentinel, “There will be no different outcome in the Cooper case. The same article of clothing was tested years ago. Those tests will yield the same DNA evidence provided in the previous test. There is a mountain of evidence showing that Kevin Cooper slaughtered that family.”
Rushford said, “A DNA test that is done on a piece of clothing found on the side of the road that does not have the same DNA as Cooper’s means nothing. It did not and does not exonerate Cooper or add any other evidence to condemn Kevin Cooper. It adds nothing to the case and adds nothing to the substantial body of evidence nailing him as the murderer. Sorting through that evidence leads to the conclusion that there is no one else who could have committed those murders.”
By Mark Gutglueck