Governor Newsom Orders Special Counsel To Examine Evidence In Cooper Conviction

For the sixth time, a reexamination is to be done with regard to the still extant physical evidence related to Kevin Cooper’s 1985 conviction for the June 1983 murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and 11-year-old neighbor Christopher Hughes in Chino Hills. The examination is to include the results of recent DNA testing of certain items tied to the crime.
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 36 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.
Like his predecessor Jerry Brown before him and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger prior to that, California Governor Gavin Newsom is calling for a very deliberative process with regard to Cooper, who remains in prison and unlikely to be executed by the state, which in the years since Cooper’s conviction has changed its means of putting the condemned to death and has not executed anyone since January 2006.
Initial efforts to prevent Cooper’s execution proceeded from the standpoint that his guilt was presumed but emphasized the lack of complete certainty thereto. Later efforts on his behalf have sought to propound that he is innocent. Most recently, Cooper has applied for clemency, and it is in accordance with that application that Newsom today, May 8, 2021, called for the review of the investigative and evidentiary record to aid him in his decision. The application for clemency appears to be a retreat by Cooper’s defenders from the somewhat problematic assertions of innocence that had been posited on his behalf, and instead consists of a return to the position that the case for his guilt is not airtight. That retreat was prompted by the consideration that DNA testing of evidence insisted upon by Cooper’s defense team produced results that did not, as his lawyers had hopefully insisted, indicate his innocence, and instead seemed to shore up an element of the prosecution’s case for Cooper’ guilt.
If Cooper is innocent, his timing was execrable, and by his own actions he entangled himself in a set of circumstances which lend themselves to a logical conclusion that he murdered the Ryens and Hughes.
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, a school teacher, had lived previously and had temporarily vacated when she went on holiday following the end of the school year 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 at the Lease/Lang home Cooper made calls to two female acquaintances/friends, one in Pennsylvania and another in Los Angeles, 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, 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 a 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 Bill 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 indistinguishable from 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,” Cooper 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 accompanied his wife to Goleta Valley Hospital, where she was treated and released. The couple then went to the sheriff’s office to provide a statement with regard to the rape. There the woman saw a “Wanted for Murder” poster/flier in the detectives’ office bearing a photo of Cooper, whereupon Angel Jackson was identified as Kevin Cooper.
Cooper was taken into custody shortly thereafter by Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department deputies and Coast Guard personnel. 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 the Lease/Lang house, where Cooper admitted he had hid after his prison 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 that contained 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 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 nightgown 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 University 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 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 a judicial panel to block 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, followed by Mike Ramos, and currently by Jason Anderson. The San Bernardino County sheriff at the time of the murders, Floyd Tidwell, was 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’s 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 criticism 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 was subject to the DNA testing ordered by Governor Brown just before left office in 2018. 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 acute scrutiny and speculation as the post trial examination and reexamination of Cooper’s guilt intensified. Those items and the goings-on at the Canyon Corral Bar became the core of an alternate murder suspect(s) theory centering around Furrow.
While the projection of Furrow as the possible perpetrator of the murders held promise for Cooper’s legal team and can be credited with having kept Cooper from being put to death more than 17 years ago, the succession of unlikely layers of happenstance this theory involves, when compared to the far more likely causal presumptions in the original prosecution’s theory has created a level of skepticism about the defense theories and the assertions of Cooper’s innocence, at both the governmental and public levels, that is militating against Cooper far more than in his favor.
Investigators working on behalf of the legal team seeking to keep Cooper from being executed explored in far greater depth the trail of testimony and evidence involving Edward Lelko, the bartender at the Canyon Corral Bar the night of the murders. Lelko’s information explored at the trial proved to be a cul-de-sac for the defense at that time. Many years later, however, it loomed as a major boulevard toward what Cooper’s advocates considered to be 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.
Defense 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 Lee Furrow, another criminal 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 report 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, Cooper’s defense attorney, 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 five miles of Furrow’s mother’s home. There was blood matched to the Ryen family on both the driver side and passenger side of the front 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 after his trial. 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.
The presence of Cooper’s blood on the shirt delivered a seemingly irrefutable blow to the assertions of Cooper’s innocence. Nonetheless, Cooper’s defenders doubled down, saying they believed 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 staked the credibility of its case on a clump of blonde hair found in Jessica Ryen’s hand, maintaining it was indicative that she was murdered by someone other than Cooper, an African-American.
On Christmas Eve 2018, just prior to his leaving office, Governor Brown issued an executive order relating to the Cooper case calling 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 failed to turn up new DNA or some that did not lead to any identifiable individual, “this matter should be closed.”
Over the years, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, district attorneys Kottmeier, Stout, Ramos and deputy district attorneys Grover Merritt and James Secord have insisted 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.
In appeals to Governor Brown in 2017 and 2018 that led to Brown’s Christmas Eve 2018 order, Cooper’s defense team, led by attorney Norman Hile, insisted that Cooper had never worn the tan shirt and the person who was wearing it was the person who had murdered the Ryens and Hughes. Hile said modern DNA analysis is more sophisticated and exacting than what was previously available, extending beyond blood to sweat and skin particles absorbed into or adhering to cloth, allowing a determination to be made that it was not Cooper who was wearing the shirt. The testing would also bear out Cooper’s defense team’s suggestion that the case against Cooper has been tainted all along by law enforcement misconduct and efforts to load the dice against his client, most notably Hile said, by saturating the tan T-shirt with blood drawn from Cooper as part of the investigative process after his capture.
Brown’s order did not extend to DNA testing on the clump of hairs found clutched in Jessica Ryen’s palm. In the spring of 2019, however, Hile and Cooper’s advocates convinced Brown’s successor, Governor Newsom, to augment the testing on the shirt, the orange towel and the hatchet handle and hatchet sheath with DNA testing on the hairs in Jessica Ryen’s hand, other preserved blood evidence, fingernail scrapings from the victims and a green button found at the Lease/Lang house.
Bode Technology, a respected forensic laboratory, carried out that analysis. The results beyond what was already known, that the shirt bore Cooper’s blood and that of Douglas Ryen, were inconclusive. The hairs in Jessica Ryen’s hand were her own and non-human animal hair.
Both camps – those representing Cooper and the district attorney’s office – maintain the Bode Laboratories examination results support their positions with regard to Cooper’s innocence or guilt. The Bode results do nothing to add to the prosecution’s case that Cooper is the murderer, Hile and his team maintain. The Bode results confirm that Cooper’s blood was on the shirt along with Douglas Ryen’s, the district attorney’s office has countered, and there was nothing in the testing to suggest that anyone other Cooper murdered the Ryens and Hughes.
To resolve the dispute, Newsom’s order calls for an independent investigation of the evidence marshaled so far in the aftermath of Cooper’s conviction, one which is to be carried out by the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, which is to serve as a special counsel. Newsom considers Morrison & Foerster to be an independent trier of fact, with no interest in sustaining Cooper’s conviction nor in making a determination of Cooper’s innocence.
Under normal circumstances, an appeal of a conviction extends only to issues raised at trial. Newsom’s order gives Morrison & Foerster license to explore any issues relating to Cooper’s guilt or innocence, whether previously considered in the official record of the trial and the appeal process or not. The review will extend to the 1984-to-1985 trial, the sheriff’s department’s investigative file, evidence and testimony presented pre-trial and during appeals, and any material or evidence that did not make it into the trial or appellate record, along with all DNA testing results.
-Mark Gutglueck

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