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Chino Escapee Denies Murdering 4 : Admits Hiding Out Near Slaying Scene, Flight to Mexico

Times Staff Writer

A cool and confident Kevin Cooper took the witness stand Wednesday and, under careful questioning by his attorney, denied committing four bloody murders in Chino Hills in June, 1983.

Cooper, 26, responded politely and without hesitation to questions from his attorney, San Bernardino County Public Defender David Negus. Cooper, a former mental patient, admitted that he escaped from the California Institute for Men in Chino on June 2, 1983. But he denied killing Doug and Peg Ryen, both 41; their daughter Jessica, 10, and Christopher Hughes, 11.

“No, sir, Mr. Negus, I didn’t,” Cooper answered when asked by his attorney if he killed the victims.

The hacked and stabbed bodies of the four were discovered in the Ryens’ Chino Hills home by William Hughes, young Christopher’s father, on June 5, 1983. The Ryens’ 9-year-old son, Joshua, survived a slashed throat and a beating on the head with an ax. Cooper was charged with the killings four days later.

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Cooper testified Wednesday that he “just walked out” of a minimum-security section of the prison on Thursday, June 2, and hid atop a roof at a nearby lumber yard before making his way after dark to an unoccupied ranch house down the hill from the Ryen home.

He said he hid at the house for two days before leaving on June 4, after making an 8 p.m. phone call to a friend in Pittsburgh.

Cooper’s testimony Wednesday detailing when he left the area conflicts with the opening statement of San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Dennis Kottmeier, who traced for the jury the whereabouts of the Ryen family and Cooper, and told the panel that Cooper was still in the nearby house when the Ryens returned home from a barbecue.

The timing of Cooper’s departure is a crucial point in the murder trial, as prosecutors have failed to produce any evidence that ties Cooper directly to the killings. However, Kottmeier has introduced circumstantial evidence lifted from the murder scene and from the Ryen station wagon, which was found in Long Beach, in an attempt to link Cooper to the killings.

Cooper said he never approached the Ryen home. Describing his entry into the neighboring house, he said he was startled to find that the front door was unlocked. He said he knocked at the door and let himself in when nobody answered.

The bespectacled defendant said he made several long-distance phone calls from the house, including one to Yolanda Jackson in Los Angeles. Cooper said that he “jokingly” asked Jackson to come and get him "(but) I didn’t know where I was at.” He said that Jackson urged him to surrender.

Records of the calls have been entered as evidence by the prosecution.

Cooper said that he decided to stay at the house because he knew that authorities would concentrate their search for him in the area around the prison “for about 48 hours.”

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Trying to Buy Time

“I was buying time . . . If I stayed there a little while longer my chances of getting away were that much better,” said Cooper. “I had already successfully escaped. I was trying to complete my escape.”

It was while watching a television commercial at the house that he decided to go to Mexico, Cooper said. The commercial for a local cruise line advertised a “two- or three-day vacation in Mexico,” he testified.

Cooper said he decided to leave his hideout after a tenant returned on Saturday.

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Eventually, he made his way to Ensenada, where he signed on as a deckhand on a 32-foot sailboat owned by Owen and Angelica Handy.

Cooper was captured aboard the boat on July 30, 1983, in an island bay 20 miles south of Santa Barbara.

The trial was moved to San Diego County after a Superior Court judge ruled that extensive publicity in San Bernardino County made it difficult for Cooper to receive a fair trial there.

Cooper’s testimony will continue today, when questioning by his attorney resumes.

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