[Pnews] Fighting to Free Kevin Cooper

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 23 18:32:42 EDT 2021

to Free Kevin Cooper
Santa Barbara G-Man Reinvestigates Decades-Old
Murders to Prove Death Row Inmate Innocent By Lily Mae Lazarus | July 22,
“Free Me!!” by Kevin Cooper

Kevin Cooper awaits death in his San Quentin prison cell, as he has during
the 36 years since he heard the ultimate punishment pronounced in a San
Diego County courtroom. He has always protested his innocence since being
arrested for the horrific murders of four people in 1983. His appeal for
clemency was answered by Governor Gavin Newsom a month ago, spurred in part
by the footwork of Tom Parker, the former assistant agent in charge of the
FBI’s Los Angeles office who retired to Santa Barbara and is convinced of
Cooper’s innocence.

Parker is somewhat of a G-man turned local criminal justice warrior. Prior
to his retirement in 1994, Parker was second in command at the FBI’s Los
Angeles bureau. He led the FBI’s investigation of the Rodney King beating
in 1991. Parker also served on the Santa Barbara Fire and Police Commission
for two years. He joined Cooper’s defense team in 2011 and now works free
of charge in the quest to prove Cooper’s innocence. Using his investigative
expertise, Parker has traveled across the country, gathering evidence that
debunks the prosecution’s side of the story.

Parker’s trust in Cooper’s proclaimed innocence is out of the ordinary for
him. “I’m always skeptical on cases where somebody has gotten the death
penalty, but I’ve seen some that were wrongful convictions,” said Parker.
This skepticism changed after Parker reviewed Cooper’s case files and saw
“a very good likelihood” Cooper is innocent.
AT SAN QUENTIN: Kevin Cooper (left) has protested his innocence since day
one of his arrest in the Ryen murders of 1983; helping Cooper in his quest
for freedom is Tom Parker (right), a former FBI agent who retired to Santa
Barbara. | Credit: Courtesy

“I continued going through these cases to see if I could figure something
out that would be a plausible motive,” said Parker, “number one, for the
murders, because it didn’t make a lot of sense that Cooper would have
committed these murders; and number two, a plausible basis to prove that he
was in fact wrongfully convicted and that somebody else did it.”

Parker believes he’s found a connection between the victims, who raised
Arabian horses, and the last man executed in California, Clarence Ray
Allen. Parker then ran down what he believes to be new suspects with means
and motive that prove Cooper was simply at the right place at the wrong

It has been an uphill battle. The prosecutor built a strong case based on
what Parker views as circumstantial evidence that connected Cooper to the
murders, which were brutal and bloody. Late at night on June 4, 1983, four
victims — Franklin Douglas Ryen; Peggy Ryen; their daughter, Jessica, 10;
and an 11-year-old houseguest, Christopher Hughes — were killed by dozens
of blows with a hatchet or ax, a knife, and possibly a third weapon like an
ice pick, according to the coroner. Young Joshua Ryen, having a sleepover
with his friend Chris, survived, though he sustained serious wounds. Their
home was in an affluent section of Chino Hills, roughly 130 miles from the
Mexican border.
Kevin Cooper | Credit: Courtesy

Two days before the murders, Cooper, a serial burglar and accused rapist,
had escaped from minimum security at the California Institution for Men in
Chino. He’d hidden out in a vacant house, the Lease residence, next door to
the Ryens’ home until the night before the murders.

It was Chris Hughes’s father, come to pick up his son, who found the murder
scene. During the investigation, deputies with the San Bernardino County
Sheriff’s Department conducted two searches of the Lease residence. While
the first proved insignificant, secondary searches uncovered a host of new
evidence, including a bloodstained khaki-green button, identical to some
sewn on field jackets worn by inmates at the prison; prison-issue loose
tobacco; cigarette butts; and a hatchet sheath. Investigators also found
hairs in the Lease residence similar to the murder victims’.

In the Ryen house, investigators found shoe-print impressions that appeared
to come from tennis shoes worn by prison inmates. Investigators found a
single drop of blood that did not belong to the victims, which a
criminalist who analyzed the blood linked to “a Black person.”

The Ryen family’s station wagon was missing from their home. The vehicle
was found in a church parking lot in Long Beach, 40 miles west of where the
murders occurred. Upon first inspection, the car had blood smeared across
the front and back seats. Deputies later found a small hair they believed
probably came from a Black person and two cigarette butts with the same
prison-issue tobacco.

Cooper’s story was that he’d hidden at the Lease house but left at dark the
night before the murders and hitchhiked to Tijuana. He found work aboard a
boat that was headed south, but bad weather caused the captain to turn
instead across the border to Santa Cruz Island, off Santa Barbara. Cooper
was captured after a couple boating at Santa Cruz had returned to town and
recognized his photograph on a wanted poster. They contacted authorities,
and the young woman told officers Cooper had raped her. This rape
accusation, which was never formally charged, contributed to Cooper being
sentenced to death.

Kevin Cooper has sworn for 36 years he is innocent. He has long declared
that investigators framed him and that law enforcement ignored potentially
exonerating evidence. And central concerns remain regarding evidence that
was missing, tampered with, destroyed, and possibly planted or hidden from
the defense.
*Governor Orders Review*

Since his sentencing, Cooper has filed multiple appeals; all have been
denied. Notably, in 2009, five federal judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals signed a dissenting opinion on Cooper’s case with the opening
remark: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

This year, on May 28, Governor Newsom signed an executive order calling for
an independent investigation into Cooper’s clemency application. As a
result, the law firm of Morrison & Foerster will conduct a comprehensive
review of Cooper’s trial and appellate records. It allows a reevaluation of
all existing evidence and recently conducted DNA tests, which could never
happen on appeal. Newsom’s executive order is the latest progression in the
governor’s opposition to the death penalty since he suspended it in
California in 2019.

Cooper’s defense attorney, Norman Hile, is excited that an independent
investigation will occur. He stated, “We are very confident it will show
Kevin Cooper is innocent and that he should be released from prison.”

According to Parker, “The courts, unfortunately, have been swayed into
believing that the police are always right, and that the police always tell
the truth. And that just isn’t the case.”

On the other hand, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson
wrote to Newsom, stating, “Cooper’s claims and defenses are not new or
novel, and they have been repeatedly examined and tested for more than
thirty-five years.” (Cooper’s trial was moved to San Diego due to the
notoriety of the crime in San Bernardino.)
*Questions Emerge*

Cooper’s defenders have expressed numerous concerns about the behavior of
law enforcement and the investigators, as well as the contamination and
disposal of evidence. They point to confessions — albeit third-party
hearsay — pertaining to a longtime suspect. Many question how one man could
use the multiple murder weapons in the short time in which the coroner said
the murders occurred. And Joshua Ryen’s testimony, as well as hairs found
at the crime scene, described three white perpetrators; Cooper is Black.
Parker has investigated the validity of these concerns as a part of his
work on Cooper’s defense.
TAINTED EVIDENCE? Kevin Cooper has been on Death Row at San Quentin since
1985 and has filed multiple appeals. Gov. Newsom ordered a reexamination of
the case that enables a new review of evidence, such as a tan T-shirt that
Parker believes had Cooper’s blood planted on it. | Image of Mr. Parker by
Paul Wellman

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has a history of skirting the rules.
The sheriff at the time, Floyd Tidwell, was later convicted for the theft
of more than 500 firearms from county evidence rooms — he would gift them
to his supporters. A lab technician, who claimed he found shoe-print
evidence pointing to Cooper’s guilt, was later fired for stealing heroin
from an evidence room; he was also responsible for “discovering” evidence
in a separate case that was later found to be planted.

Only four days after the Ryen murders, Sheriff Tidwell announced to the
media that investigators had identified the killer. His certainty,
according to Parker, was based solely on the fact that Cooper had just
escaped from prison. The evidence found at the scene certainly supported
that conclusion, though Parker and members of the judiciary question the
validity of that evidence. For instance, the prison-jacket button allegedly
recovered was the wrong color for the uniform Cooper wore, and the fingerprint
evidence placed a deputy in the Lease house, possibly planting the hatchet
sheath, who denied ever being in that house.

Similar questions remain regarding evidence found in the Ryen residence,
including a pin-sized drop of blood in a hallway. Prosecutors claimed it
belonged to Cooper; Parker believes it was planted after the fact. “There’s
no reason that that blood drop would’ve been where it was,” he said. That
drop of blood had a strange trajectory after it was tested at the crime
lab. First, the criminologist altered his records to show a result
conforming to Cooper’s known blood characteristics. The drop was labeled
totally “consumed” during testing; inexplicably, it reappeared in a
different form when further testing was useful to the prosecution.

A bloody T-shirt had an even stranger history after it entered the crime
lab. Found nearby shortly after the murders, the T-shirt’s first tests
disclosed only blood from the victims; Cooper’s blood was not on the
T-shirt. Subsequent tests, however, located not simply Cooper’s blood, but
Cooper’s blood containing a preservative only used to store blood samples.
Cooper’s defenders believe that authorities took blood from samples he’d
given, one vial of which was discovered empty, and contaminated the shirt.
That T-shirt was improperly stored, the DNA degraded, and retesting is now

The same pattern surrounds the stolen family car, which had been parked in
the driveway with its keys in the ignition. The first detailed search of
the vehicle found no evidence tied to Cooper. In a second search, deputies
found evidence of prison-issued tobacco and cigarette butts, akin to those
found in Cooper’s hideout, some of which disappeared from police evidence.
Despite a legal obligation to preserve evidence in death-penalty cases,
Parker said the Ryens’ station wagon was scrapped years ago, along with any
surviving evidence it might have held.
*Parker Points the Finger*

The Ryen family’s stolen car and a pair of bloodied coveralls may connect
to hearsay testimony collected by Parker that paints a different picture of
the murders.

Two former girlfriends of a longtime potential suspect named Lee Furrow
provided sworn statements, said Parker, in which they relayed identical
stories of a confession to killing people that match the Ryen murders. One
of these women claims Furrow carried a briefcase containing knives, a
hatchet, and an ice pick. More recently, two different witnesses claimed
Furrow bragged to them about having murdered an entire family.

These accounts relate to testimony in 1983 from a woman named Diana Roper.
She told the authorities her boyfriend, Lee Furrow, returned home late on
the evening of the murders wearing blood-spattered coveralls. He was
driving a white station wagon with wood paneling and a luggage rack, like
the one stolen from the Ryen driveway. Although deputies entered the
bloodied coveralls into evidence, on the day of Cooper’s arraignment, their
superior officers said to get rid of them; they were not tested for the
victims’ blood.

Roper also stated that on the day of the murders, she noted Furrow returned
to her home without his hatchet. The tool, resembling one of the reported
murder weapons, was missing from his tool belt.
PRIME SUSPECT: Evidence points to Lee Furrow as a prime suspect in the Ryen
murders, Parker believes. Furrow served time at San Quentin for the murder
of Mary Sue Kitts in the 1970s. | Credit: Courtesy

What is known about Furrow is that he is a convicted murderer
in 1977 pleaded guilty to killing Mary Sue Kitts in 1974 on the orders of
Clarence Ray Allen, who was covering up a burglary. According to Parker,
“Clarence Ray Allen had a long record of basically either going after and
injuring or killing people that have turned against him for one reason or
another.” Furrow was released the year prior to the Ryen family massacre.

Allen and the Ryens both raised Arabian horses, a popular trend among
equestrians in the early 1980s. They had disagreed over a horse he had
purchased from them, and there are indications the Ryens had repossessed
the animal.

Furrow has never been arrested or charged in connection to the murders.
However, after collecting statements from Furrow’s acquaintances and
potential suspects, Parker and a fellow retired FBI agent decided to
interview Furrow and attempt to collect his DNA. Furrow lived in
Pennsylvania, and Parker invited him to a hotel across the border in New
Jersey to talk about the Ryen murders. Unlike Pennsylvania, New Jersey
allows recordings with the consent of only one party to the conversation.

“We got the two adjoining hotel rooms. We wired one up with hidden cameras,
and we put a couple of other cameras in the room, too, so that we could
observe him from all angles,” said Parker. “We staged the room the way we
wanted it: where we wanted him to sit, and where I would sit.”

Furrow denied having any involvement in the murders, Parker said. He also
maintained his innocence when he was questioned about the bloody coveralls
by San Bernardino authorities a year after the murders. Furrow agreed to
Parker’s interview voluntarily and agreed to have his DNA collected.

That evidence will be part of the independent investigation, Parker said.
And as Kevin Cooper waits in San Quentin, it is evident that the counsel
appointed by the governor will have much to examine.

Parker noted, “It’s such a complicated situation where you’ve got a case
that’s 36 years old, and times have changed so much in terms of what
technology is capable of, but hopefully there’s a light at the end of the
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