The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department
deputies who responded to the call decided almost immediately that Kevin
Cooper was the likely killer. He had admittedly hidden out in the vacant
house next door, the Lease house, 125 yards away, for two days. He had
made repeated calls from this house to two female friends asking for
money to help with his escape, but they had refused. Cooper testified at
trial that he had left that house as soon as it got dark on June 4 and
had hitchhiked to Mexico. It was established that Cooper checked into a
hotel in Tijuana, about 130 miles south of Chino Hills, at 4:30 pm on
There, Cooper befriended an American couple who owned
a boat, and hitched a ride on the boat with them; he was arrested
shortly thereafter when the boat sailed to Pelican Bay near Santa
A blood-stained khaki green button identical to
buttons on field jackets issued at the state prison from which Cooper
escaped was found on the rug at the Lease house; tests revealed the
presence of blood in the Leases' shower and bathroom sink; hair found in
the bathroom sink was consistent with that of Jessica and Doug Ryen; a
hatchet covered with dried blood and human hair that was found near the
Ryens' home was missing from the Lease house, and the sheath for the
hatchet was found in the bedroom where Cooper had stayed; Cooper's semen
was found on a blanket in the closet of the Lease house; plant burrs
found inside Jessica's nightgown were similar to burrs from vegetation
between the Lease house and the Ryen house and to burrs found on a
blanket inside the closet where Cooper slept at the Lease house, and in
the Ryen station wagon; two partial shoe prints and one nearly complete
one found in or near the Ryens' house and in the Lease house were
consistent with Cooper's shoe size and Pro-Keds Dude tennis shoes issued
at CIM that Cooper did not deny having; a hand-rolled cigarette butt and
"Role-Rite" tobacco provided to inmates at CIM were in the Ryens'
On Cooper's motion, the court changed the venue of
the trial from San Bernardino County to San Diego County. Cooper pled
guilty to the charge of escape from prison.
In videotaped testimony, Josh Ryen said that the
evening before the murders, just before the family left for the Blade
barbecue, three Mexicans came to the Ryen home looking for work. Ryen
did not identify the killer, but said in an audiotape with his treating
psychiatrist that he saw the back of a single man attacking his mother.
Ryen told a sheriff he thought three men had done it because "I thought
it was them. And, you know, like they stopped up that night," but he did
not actually see three people during the incident.
Cooper testified in his own defense. He admitted
escaping from CIM, hiding out and sleeping at the Lease house, but
denied committing the murders or being in the Ryen house. Cooper said he
left the Lease house on foot, hitchhiked, stole a purse, and eventually
made his way to Mexico. The defense pointed out the inconsistencies in
Ryen's testimony, presented evidence of other events apparently not
involving Cooper that might have had something to do with the killings,
and presented an expert witness that criticized the forensic
A jury convicted Cooper of four counts of first
degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intentional
infliction of great bodily injury, and then imposed the death penalty.
In 2001, Cooper became the first death row inmate in
California to successfully request post-conviction DNA testing of
evidence. The results of those DNA tests failed to exonerate him of the
1983 murders and indicated that hairs found on three of the victims were
likely their own.
The tests suggested that there is "strong evidence"
that it was Kevin Cooper's DNA that was extracted from the following
items of evidence:
Cooper was scheduled to be executed on February 10,
2004, but his execution was postponed only hours before it was to take
place to allow for further DNA testing. The postponement followed a
campaign by various groups in the Bay Area and around the country, such
as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the ACLU, Death Penalty Focus,
and The Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
On May 11, 2009, the Ninth Circuit denied Cooper's
request for a rehearing en banc of the 2007 panel decision. Four judges
(Fletcher, Wardlaw, Fisher, and Reinhardt) filed dissents, indicating
that they disagreed with the decision. Judge Fletcher stated that there
was a strong likelihood that the police may have tampered with the
evidence. Eleven judges joined the dissents (fourteen votes were
required to grant the request for a rehearing). Judge Rymer, who
authored the original panel decision, filed a concurrence.
Cooper's petition for certiorari to the United States
Supreme Court was denied on November 30, 2009
Cooper eventually was convicted
of the murders and sentenced to die Feb.10, 2004 at San Quentin State
But after 18 years of appeals,
his attorneys prevailed in convincing a federal appeals court to halt
the execution. The court ruled that the state couldn't put Cooper to
death without a federal judge first reviewing several bits of evidence
his attorneys say could exonerate him.
The Chino Hills murders for
which Cooper sits on Death Row have become lore in the Inland Valley, as
much for their grisly nature as for the questions that have been raised
since Cooper's trial.
The Ryens' 8-year-old son,
Joshua, survived a slashed throat, a hatchet blow to the head and stab
wounds to his back.
Cooper, who escaped from the
state prison two days before the killings, denies involvement.
A passionate legion of
supporters back his claims that authorities bungled the investigation
and framed him for the crimes.
"While I am an innocent man
about to be murdered by this state, I realize that innocence makes no
difference to the people who control the criminal justice system,
including this prison," Cooper, 46, wrote from San Quentin State Prison
a few days before his scheduled execution date. "This is the same system
that has historically and systematically executed men, women and
children who look just like me, if only because they can."
The contentions hinged on bits
and pieces of scattered evidence the defense says pokes holes in the
prosecution's case and proves Cooper's innocence.
Prosecutors, the courts and
relatives of the victims, say the claims are nonsense.
They say a crushing mountain of
evidence, 19 years of appeals and DNA tests prove beyond all doubt that
Cooper is a murderer, and that the time has come for him to take
responsibility for the killings and accept the punishment he has earned.
"Now I know for sure and beyond
a shadow of a doubt that Cooper is the killer," Josh Ryen, now grown,
wrote in a 2004 letter to the governor. "I really want him to die, not
only for what he did to me and my family, but because he tormented me so
much with his claim of innocence."
Paul Beltz cannot forget the
The first sheriff's deputy to
respond to the Ryens' hilltop horse ranch on English Road, Beltz found a
home strewn with bodies and stained with blood.
"I thought, "my God, what in the
hell have I come across,"' he said in 2004, describing a massacre scene
still fresh in his mind. "The walls were all white, but smeared with
blood - I mean, everywhere. It was like something you see in a Helter
Skelter movie. That must have been one holy battlefield."
Four bodies lay on the bedroom
floor, another in a nearby hallway.
Douglas Ryen, a chiropractor,
was slumped against his bed, the victim of at least three dozen hatchet
and knife wounds. One of his fingers was severed, probably while he
fought off a hatchet blow to his head.
Peggy Ryen suffered at least 32
wounds. Her body was found only three feet from her daughter, Jessica,
who was hacked at least 46 times and died on a hallway floor.
Hughes, a neighborhood boy who
spent the night with the Ryens following a barbecue with his friends the
day before, also lay on the floor. He suffered at least 25 wounds,
including a hatchet gash that ran from his eyebrows to the tip of his
Joshua Ryen was found in a fetal
position, his throat deeply slashed, barely alive.
The carnage frightened Beltz to
"I felt inadequate holding a
handgun," the former deputy said.
The Ryen family station wagon
had been stolen from the driveway, yet money on a countertop was
Joshua Ryen, the sole survivor,
told paramedics in the hours after he was found that he remembered three
men coming to his house that day, and that he thought they returned to
kill his family.
Unable to speak because of the
wounds on his neck, he communicated by squeezing the hands of staffers
at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
But later, during interviews
with police, Joshua told a different story.
He said the three men he
remembered were Mexican workers who came to his house looking for jobs
well before the killings.
He said that on the night of the
murders he remembered seeing only the shadow of a single person standing
over his murdered parents' bed before he, too, was struck in the head
and blacked out.
He lay bleeding for 12 hours
before help came.
A WANTED MAN
Cooper became a suspect in the
first days of the investigation.
He had walked away from a
minimum-security yard at the nearby California Institution for Men two
days before the murders and hadn't been seen since.
Escape was easy for a man like
Cooper, a wanted rapist who already escaped from eleven other mental
hospitals and jails by the time he turned 25.
But authorities didn't know who
he was when they sentenced him to the Chino prison.
He was convicted of burglary in
Los Angeles County under a fake name - David Anthony Trautman - and sent
to the prison April 29, 1983.
The prison, thinking it had a
two-time burglar with no prior arrest record, assigned him to its
minimum security facility June 1.
He walked out through a hole in
It wasn't until two hours after
the prison staff figured out he was gone that they realized exactly who
they had lost.
Cooper was a former mental
patient in Pittsburgh and had escaped from jails, mental hospitals and
youth facilities nearly a dozen times before.
He had a lengthy criminal record
dating back to his youth, and was wanted for burglary, kidnapping and
rape in Pennsylvania in which he held a screwdriver to a woman's throat,
threatened to kill her and stole a car.
Cooper evaded prison officials
by hiding in a lumberyard until dark. He then sneaked across fields and
roads in a path that took him straight to an unoccupied house along
It was 126 yards from the Ryens'
He entered the vacant house's
garage through an unlocked door, drank two beers from a refrigerator and
then went inside.
It made a good hideout, complete
with a television, working telephone and a nice spot to sleep.
That much Cooper admits.
He claims, however, that he only
stayed there a while before hitchhiking out of town. He says he never so
much as looked at the Ryen family home.
It was only a coincidence, he
said, that the murders happened next door.
They say Cooper found a hatchet
and knife inside the vacant home, and on June 4, 1983, crept to the Ryen
home armed with the weapons.
Once inside, he systematically
hacked down its occupants, starting with Doug, Peggy and Jessica.
Joshua and Christopher were
likely attacked after screams awoke them and they came out to
After the murders, authorities
say, Cooper stole the family's car and sped out of town.
Christopher's father, Bill
Hughes, found the bodies the next morning and called police.
Detectives obtained a warrant
for Cooper's arrest June 9, 1983, sparking widespread publicity and a
Meanwhile, Cooper made his way
to Ensenada, Mexico, where he found a job as a deckhand on a 32-foot
sailboat, the Illa Tika, in exchange for food and shelter.
The couple who hired him later
told authorities that he told them his name was Angel Jackson and that
he was an artist from Philadelphia.
He drew sketches for them and
their 5-year-old daughter as they sailed north from Mexico and along the
They said they heard reports of
the manhunt for Cooper on their boat's A.M. radio, but never suspected
their deckhand because the broadcasts never included Cooper's
Cooper was arrested on the boat
July 30 in Pelican Cove off Santa Barbara after a woman there claimed he
had raped her aboard another boat anchored nearby.
She later testified that Cooper
held a knife to her throat and forced her to have sex with him after her
husband drank too much and passed out.
He was never charged with the
The prosecution's case against
Cooper relied entirely on circumstantial evidence.
But prosecutors had a mountain
A hatchet had been stolen from
inside the house where Cooper hid out, according to the home's owner,
and its leather sheath was lying on the floor of the bedroom in which
The hatchet, with blood and hair
from some of the Ryens, was later found along the only paved road
leading out of the neighborhood.
Also missing from the hideout
house were two knives - one hunting knife with a five-inch blade and
another folding knife with a 2 1/2-inch blade - and an ice pick.
Prison-issue tobacco was found
inside the Ryen family car, which turned up in a parking lot near a
church in Long Beach six days after the murders.
Detectives found a shoe print on
a bloody bedsheet inside the Ryens' master bedroom. Another was found
outside on a spa cover, and yet another in the dust of the hideout house.
The diamond prints matched the
type of ProKeds prison-issue shoes Cooper was issued at the California
Institution for Men before his escape.
A spot of blood found in the
hallway of the Ryen family home matched Cooper's rare blood type.
Investigators found indications
of blood in the shower and bathroom sink in the hideout home, indicating
Cooper went back there to clean up before he fled.
A blood-stained button from a
prison-issue jacket was also in the hideout home, and telephone records
showed that Cooper made two calls from the house to friends asking for
help with money or transportation.
The last call was made about an
hour before the Ryens returned home from their barbecue.
"We had overwhelming evidence of
his guilt," said San Bernardino County Chief Deputy District Attorney
John Kochis. "The footprints, the tobacco, the timing, the murder weapon,
the missing car - overwhelming."
Cooper took the witness stand
during his trial and admitted hiding out near the Ryens' home. However,
he repeatedly insisted that he went no closer.
He testified that he braided his
hair, shaved his beard and made several phone calls at the hideout house,
and then quietly left town.
"I didn't kill anybody," he told
Jurors heard testimony from 141
witnesses and sifted through 788 pieces of evidence during a three-month
trial, which was moved to San Diego County because of excessive
publicity in San Bernardino County.
David Negus, the deputy public
defender who represented Cooper at the time, says he still doesn't know
if Cooper killed the Ryens and Hughes.
He's convinced, however, that
investigators botched critical parts of the investigation so badly that
some questions may never be answered.
"Obviously if it wasn't Kevin,
then it was a tremendous coincidence that Kevin was hiding out next door,"
Negus said. "But coincidences happen."
Negus tried to convince jurors
during the trial that sheriff's investigators were sloppy and that the
parade of people - more than 50 - who went through the crime scene could
easily have contaminated evidence.
He said he also believed
investigators locked on to Cooper as their suspect early in the
investigation simply because he was an escapee, and possibly to the
exclusion of others who may have committed the crimes.
"They had a horrible crime and
they had an escaped convict who was right next door," Negus said. "To
them, that was all they needed. They got the arrest warrant with those
facts and came up with all the other evidence later."
Jurors didn't buy it.
The seven-woman, five-man panel
convicted Cooper of four counts of first degree murder and one count of
attempted murder Feb. 19, 1985.
The same jury recommended on
March 1, 1985, that Cooper deserved to die for his crimes.
"It was just one of those things
where there was so much there it couldn't have been a coincidence," said
juror Shirley LaPage, now 72. "It all just came together too well.
A 20-YEAR STRUGGLE
Long after his conviction,
Cooper continues to maintain his innocence from San Quentin State
Prison's Death Row, even as court after court knocks down his claims.
Among his chief contentions:
* A cluster of blond hairs found
clutched in Jessica Ryen's hand could hold clues that somebody other
than Cooper - who is black - was the killer.
* Joshua Ryen saw three white or
Mexican men kill his family.
* Detectives ignored a pair of
bloody coveralls and a jailhouse confession that could have led to other
suspects, and then planted evidence that links Cooper to the killings.
The California Supreme Court
reviewed his case in 1991, finding that the evidence gathered by
prosecutors established his guilt "overwhelmingly."
Dozens of his other appeals have
been denied. Appeals of his appeals were denied.
His attorneys once claimed
Cooper should not be executed because he is mentally retarded.
In 2001, Cooper became the first
Death Row inmate in the state to obtain DNA testing of the evidence
against him after a conviction.
Those tests, completed in
October 2002, showed that the spot of blood found on a wall inside the
Ryen home belonged to Cooper.
They determined Cooper's DNA was
on the cigarette butts in the stolen Ryen station wagon. And they
revealed that blood on a brown T-shirt found along a road about a mile
from the Ryen home contained DNA from Cooper and Doug Ryen.
Cooper remained defiant.
His defense claimed that the DNA
evidence connecting him to the killings was planted by police and asked
a federal judge to allow testing to see if the blood spots contain
traces of a crime-lab preservative. The court rejected the request.
***But U.S. District Court Judge
Marilyn Huff ordered mitochondrial DNA tests on a cluster of blond hairs
found clutched in Jessica Ryen's hand - hairs the defense says could
lead to the identity of other suspects.***
And, the appeals court ordered
some old leads re-examined.
Among those are coveralls turned
over to deputies by a woman in May 1984, who told investigators she
thought they were linked to the Ryen slayings.
The woman told deputies that her
boyfriend, Lee Furrow, who had already been convicted of manslaughter,
came home wearing them the night of the Ryen murders and that they
looked like they had blood and hair on them.
She told investigators Furrow
had also been wearing a brown T-shirt similar to the one found on the
roadside, and that his hatchet was missing from his tool belt.
Deputies from the Yucaipa
Sheriff's station checked the coveralls into their evidence locker and
notified homicide detectives.
But the deputies threw away the
coveralls six months later because the detectives never came to pick
Jurors heard about the coveralls
at Cooper's trial, but Cooper's attorneys claim the importance of the
coveralls is compounded by another piece of evidence jurors didn't hear
While incarcerated at Vacaville
prison in 1984, an inmate told police that his cellmate, Kenneth Koon,
had confessed in detail to committing murders along with two friends as
part of a hit.
Cooper's defense says Koon and
Furrow were friends.
Koon, who testified before the
federal court in San Diego, said he married a woman who had been
Furrow's girlfriend, but the men were never friends.
"I had a very strong dislike for
Furrow," Koon said. "I would never had gone to the bar and had a drink
with him, let alone commit a murder with him."
They say those nuggets of
information, compounded by Joshua Ryen's initial statements about the
three men who came to his house, offer a strong theory that Cooper
didn't commit the crimes.
"There are too many unanswered
questions," said Lanny Davis, one of several attorneys defending Cooper.
"All these things don't add up."
DEFENDING THE CASE
Kochis, the prosecutor, said
each of those leads has been exhaustively investigated and discounted.
DNA testing done on the hairs
shows they belonged to the victims, and not to another attacker, as the
defense has contended.
Prosecutors also don't believe
the coveralls were linked to the crime. The story is one of several
false leads that came in after the killings by people who had heard
about the case through the media and sought attention, they say.
The woman's story about finding
the coveralls has changed through the years, they say, and Koon's
jailhouse confession has been fully investigated and ruled out.
Prosecutors say it came while he
and his were cellmate high on marijuana, and was never again repeated.
"These people had alibis to
where they were," Kochis said. "They didn't appear to be involved."
Kochis said prosecutors oppose
further tests on the blond hair or blood spots because doing so would
only cause more unnecessary delay.
"Cooper has already received DNA
tests and has had his appeals litigated. He comes up with some new issue
each time and will continue to do so until the day he dies," Kochis said.
"They want to engage in a
process that, if they were allowed to engage in, would go on for months
and years," he said. "That's the name of the game. He doesn't just get
to keep going."
Until he won a stay on his
emergency appeals, Cooper would have become the second inmate from San
Bernardino County executed in the last 40 years.
Stephen Wayne Anderson was put
to death in January 2003 for shooting to death 81-year-old piano teacher
Elizabeth Lyman inside her Bloomington home in 1980.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
denied Cooper's clemency request and has seemed unwilling to reconsider,
but on Feb. 9, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay,
which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld later the same day.
LaPage, the ex-juror, said she
still thinks about the Cooper trial and has closely followed the media
coverage during the years since.
Six of the jurors who convicted
Cooper have since written to the governor asking for more investigation
into the case.
LaPage isn't one of them.
She said she's unmoved by the
questions Cooper has raised, and is still as firm in her belief of
Cooper's guilt today as she was when she first heard the evidence.
"It gives me the shivers," she
said. "But the children - that family - they were butchered, and we can
never forget about that."
Joshua Ryen's court statement
in the Kevin Cooper execution case
April 23, 2005
Joshua Ryen made the
following statement during a hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego
on Friday, April 22, 2005. Ryen is the sole survivor of a 1983 hatchet
massacre in Chino Hills in which his parents, sister and friend were
killed. Ryen, then 8, survived the attack despite having his throat
The first time I met Kevin
Cooper I was 8 years old and he slit my throat. He hit me with a hatchet
and put a hole in my skull. He stabbed me twice, which broke my ribs and
collapsed one lung. I lived only because I stuck four fingers in my neck
to slow the bleeding, but I was too weak to move. I laid there 11 hours
looking at my mother who was right beside me.
I know now he came through the
sliding glass door and attacked my dad first. He was lying on the bed
and was struck in the dark without warning with the hatchet and knife.
He was hit many times because there is a lot of blood on the wall on his
side of the bed.
My mother screamed and Cooper
came around the bed and started hitting her. Somehow my dad was able to
struggle between the bed and the closet but Cooper bludgeoned my father
to death with the knife and hatchet, stabbing him 26 times and axing him
11. One of the blows severed his finger and it landed in the closet. My
mother tried to get away but he caught her at the bottom of the bed and
he stabbed her 25 times and axed her 7.
All of us kids were drawn to the
room by mom's screams. Jessica was killed in the doorway with 5 ax blows
and 46 stabs. I won't say how many times my best friend Chris was
stabbed and axed, not because it isn't important, but because I don't
want to hurt his family in any way, and they are here.
After Cooper killed everyone,
and thought he had killed me, he went over to my sister and lifted her
shirt and drew things on her stomach with the knife. Then he walked down
the hallway, opened the refrigerator, and had a beer. I guess killing so
many people can make a man thirsty.
I don't want to be here. I came
because I owe it to my family, who can't speak for themselves. But by
coming I am acknowledging and validating the existence of Kevin Cooper,
who should have been blotted from the face of the earth a long time ago.
By coming here it shows that he still controls me. I will be free, my
life will start, the day Kevin Cooper dies. I want to be rid of him, but
he won't go away.
I've been trying to get away
from him since I was 8 years and I can't escape. He haunts me and
follows me. For over 20 years all I've heard is Kevin Cooper this and
Kevin Cooper that. Kevin Cooper says he is innocent, Kevin Cooper says
he was framed, Kevin Cooper says DNA will clear him, Kevin Cooper says
blood was planted, Kevin Cooper says the tennis shoes aren't his, Kevin
Cooper says three guys did it, Kevin Cooper says police planted evidence,
Kevin Cooper gets another stay from another court and sends everyone off
on another wild goose chase.
The courts say there isn't any
harm when Kevin Cooper gets another stay and another hearing. This just
shows they don't care about me, because every time he gets another delay
I am harmed and have to relive the murders all over again. Every time
Kevin Cooper opens his mouth everyone wants to know what I think, what I
have to say, how I'm feeling, and the whole nightmare floods all over me
again: the barbecue, me begging to let Chris spend the night, me in my
bed and him on the floor beside me, my mother's screams, Chris gone,
dark house, hallway, bushy hair, everything black, mom cut to pieces
saturated in blood, the nauseating smell of blood, eleven hours unable
to move, light filtering in, Chris' father at the window, the horror of
his face, sound of the front door splintering, my pajamas being cut off,
people trying to save me, the whap whap of the helicopter blades,
shouted questions, everything fading to black.
Every time Cooper claims he's
innocent and sends people scurrying off on another wild goose chase I
have to relive the murders all over again. It runs like a horror movie,
over and over again and never stops because he never shuts up. He puts
PR people on national television who say outrageous things and then the
press wants to know what I think. What I think is that I would like to
be rid of Kevin Cooper. I would like for him to go away. I would like to
never hear from Kevin Cooper again. I would like Kevin Cooper to pay for
what he did.
I dread happy times like
Christmas and Thanksgiving. If I go to a friend's house on holidays I
look at all the mothers and fathers and children and grandchildren and
get sad because I have no one. Kevin Cooper took them from me.
I get terrified when I go into
any place dark, like a house before the lights are on. I hear screams
and see flashbacks and shadows. Even with lights on I see terrible
things. After I was stabbed and axed I was too weak to move and stared
at my mother all night. I smelled this overpowering smell of fresh blood
and knew everyone had been slaughtered.
Every day when I comb my hair I
feel the hole where he buried the hatchet in my head, and when I look in
the mirror I see the scar where he cut my throat from ear to ear and I
put four fingers in it to stop the bleeding which, they say, saved my
life. Every year I lose hearing in my left ear where he buried the knife.
Helicopters give me flashbacks
of life flight and my Incredible Hulks being cut off by paramedics.
Bushy hair reminds me of the killer. Silence reminds me of the quiet
before the screams. Cooper is everywhere. There is no escape from him.
I feel very guilty and
responsible to the Hughes family because I begged them to let Chris
spend the night. If I hadn't done that he wouldn't have died. I
apologize to them and especially to Mr. Hughes for having to find us and
see his son cut and stabbed to death.
I thank the judge who gave my
grandma custody of me because she took good care of me and loves me very
I'm grateful to the ocean for
giving me peace because when I go there I know my mother and father and
sister's ashes are sprinkled there.
Kevin Cooper has movie stars and
Jesse Jackson holding rallies for him, people carrying signs, lighting
candles, saying prayers. To them and you I say:
I was 8 when he slit my throat,
It was dark and I couldn't see.
Through the night and day I laid there,
trying to get up and flee.
He killed my mother, father, sister, friend,
And started stalking me.
I try to run and flee from him but cannot get away,
While he demands petitions and claims, some fresh absurdity.
Justice has no ear for me nor cares about my plight,
while crowds pray for the killer and light candles in the night.
To those who long for justice and love truth which sets men free, When
you pray your prayers tonight, please remember me.