Escaped convict Kevin Cooper was convicted of first-degree murder Tuesday in the brutal deaths of four people who were hacked and stabbed to death in a Chino Hills home in June, 1983.
Cooper, 27, displayed no emotion as the clerk announced "guilty" on each murder count and then again for the attempted murder of the sole survivor of what became known as the Chino Hills Massacre.
The multiple first-degree murder convictions and the jury's finding that he inflicted great bodily injury on the survivor mean that Cooper could face the gas chamber when the jury returns to deliberate the penalty phase of the trial, beginning Thursday.
The verdict followed five days of jury deliberation and a five-month trial built on circumstantial evidence and marked by complex and sometimes contradictory testimony.
The jury convicted Cooper of killing Doug and Peg Ryen, both 41; their daughter, Jessica, 10, and Christopher Hughes, 11, in the Ryen home. The victims were hacked and stabbed with a hatchet, knife and ice pick. The bodies were discovered on June 5, 1983, by Christopher's father three days after Cooper escaped from the Chino Institution for Men.
Cooper was also convicted of attempted murder for the attack on 9-year-old Joshua Ryen, who survived a slashed throat and blows to the head. Dr. Mary Howell, Joshua's grandmother, who has custody of the boy, attended Tuesday's hearing and said the boy would be satisfied with the verdict. Howell is Peg Ryen's mother.
"Maybe tomorrow I'll feel better; right now, I just don't know," said Howell, fighting back tears after the jury's verdict was read. "I'd have been disappointed if it (the verdict) had been anything else. Right now all I can do is picture my family."
Asked by one newsman if she had anything to say to the 12 jurors who convicted Cooper, Howell said simply: "Thank you." Her answer was equally terse when asked what she would say to Cooper if she could speak with him: "I'd ask him, 'Why?' "
Defense attorney David Negus, who charged throughout the trial that investigators had botched the case and arrested the wrong man, appeared stunned when the clerk announced the verdicts. After the session, he walked out a back door and avoided reporters.
Although the crime occurred in San Bernardino County, the case was tried in San Diego because of pre-trial publicity.
San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Dennis Kottmeier met briefly with reporters after the verdict and said the case is not over yet.
"I look forward to being able to present evidence in the penalty phase," Kottmeier said. "We're seeking the death penalty, as we have all along."
The penalty phase of the trial is expected to last two weeks. Jurors have the option of imposing the death penalty on Cooper or sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
New Evidence Planned
Kottmeier said that prosecutors will present evidence during the penalty phase that was not introduced at the trial. He declined to reveal what evidence he plans to introduce, but presumably it will include evidence about Cooper's criminal history in Pennsylvania, including a 1982 escape from a mental hospital there.
Prosecutors in Allegheny County, Pa., charged Cooper with escaping from Mayview Mental Institution in June, 1982. Cooper had been sent there after a judge found that he was incompetent to aid in his own defense when he was charged with burglary.
After walking out of Mayview, Cooper allegedly burglarized a home, abducted a young woman and drove her to a park in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he allegedly threatened her with a screwdriver, raped her and left her naked, Pennsylvania authorities said.
Cooper was serving a three-year term at the Chino prison under the alias David Trautman when he walked away from the prison's minimum-security wing on June 2, 1983, after a paper work foul up. Cooper's true identity had been learned before his escape, and Pennsylvania authorities had begun submitting extradition papers.
Kottmeier, handicapped by the absence of direct testimony linking Cooper to the killings, relied on circumstantial evidence.
Shoe Prints Noted
Kottmeier and Deputy Dist. Atty. John Kochis introduced into evidence partial shoe prints found at the murder scene and at a nearby house where Cooper admitted that he hid after his escape. The prints bore a diamond pattern distinctive to prison shoes; the footwear has not been recovered. The evidence also included traces of prison-issue tobacco found in the Ryen station wagon.
On Tuesday, Kottmeier said that the lack of fingerprints or other hard evidence did not worry him during the trial.
"I said all along that we had a good case. We just had to present the evidence to the jury in a manner that would make sense. I've been confident since we began gathering the evidence in the case," Kottmeier said.
The verdict ended a trial that featured contradictory testimony from many of the 141 witnesses for both sides. Included among the conflicting testimony were differing statements by Joshua Ryen to investigators and hospital officials about his attacker or attackers.
When Joshua was airlifted to Loma Linda University Hospital on June 5, the boy indicated to a sheriff's deputy and a clinical social worker that his attackers had been three white men.
'Shadow on the Wall'
In a second interview with the deputy an hour later, Joshua said his attackers were three Latino men. On June 15, after seeing his picture on a television newscast, the boy told another deputy that Cooper was not the killer. Cooper is black.
Joshua testified on videotape during the trial and identified his attacker as only "a shadow on the wall."
The theme that ran through Negus' defense was that San Bernardino County sheriff's investigators botched the investigation.
He alleged, for example, that much of the evidence was compromised by the 83 people who tracked through the Ryen home in the hours after the bodies were discovered.
Negus also charged that investigators ignored clues that more than one person may have committed the murders and that they stopped looking for other suspects when San Bernardino authorities charged Cooper with the murders on June 9, 1983. One investigator, Sheriff's Detective Hector O'Campo, testified that he decided "some time between June 6 and 9, 1983" that Cooper was the killer.
'Botched' Case Denied
After the verdicts, Sheriff's Sgt. Bill Arthur, who headed the prosecution's investigation, said that in hindsight, "we would do some things differently . . . but I don't think we botched the case."
Late in the trial, Superior Court Judge Richard Garner allowed jurors to visit the Ryen home and the nearby house where Cooper admitted hiding between June 2 and 4, 1983. The jurors examined both houses during the day and at night. Cooper testified that he never saw the Ryen home during his two-day stay at the neighboring house. Prosecutors argued that there was no way he could miss the Ryen home, which is about 150 feet up the hill from where Cooper stayed.
During the trial, Cooper took the stand for five days. Despite three grueling days of cross-examination by Kottmeier, Cooper remained cool and confident and repeatedly maintained his innocence.
After escaping from the Chino prison, Cooper fled to Tijuana and Ensenada, where he signed on as a deck hand on a small boat. He was captured on July 30, 1983, on an island 20 miles south of Santa Barbara and arrested on charges of rape, unlawful sodomy, forcible oral copulation and assault with a deadly weapon. Those charges were not connected to the Chino Hills killings but may be mentioned to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial.