Fighting to Free Kevin Cooper

Santa Barbara G-Man Reinvestigates Decades-Old Murders to Prove Death Row Inmate Innocent

Fighting to Free Kevin Cooper

Santa Barbara G-Man Reinvestigates Decades-Old
Murders to Prove Death Row Inmate Innocent

By Lily Mae Lazarus | July 22, 2021

“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 time.

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 impossible.

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 who 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 tunnel.” 


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