Kevin Cooper

San Bernardino County, California
Date of Crime:  June 4, 1983

Kevin Cooper was sentenced to death for the murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their daughter, Jessica, 10, and a houseguest Christopher Hughes, 11.  Another child, Joshua Ryen, 8, suffered a slashed throat and a skull fracture but survived.  Two days before the murders Cooper, then 25, had escaped from a minimum security prison in Chino where he had been sent a month earlier on a burglary conviction.

Upon his escape Cooper traveled four miles and hid out for two days in a deserted house that was just 125 yards from the unlocked Ryen home.  While in the deserted house Cooper made several calls seeking money and assistance from two women friends.  The women refused to help.  The last of these phone calls was completed at 8:30 p.m. on June 4, 1983 just hours before the the murders.  Cooper testified he left the house immediately after this phone call and hitchhiked to Mexico.  Evidence shows that he registered at a hotel in Tijuana at 4:30 p.m. the following day.

Since prison escapees occasionally murder others to facilitate their escape, there is good reason to suspect Cooper of the murders.  The odds of a recent prison escapee innocently coming so close to a mass murder would appear remarkable.  Nevertheless, despite the odds, other evidence in the case casts serious doubt on Cooper's guilt.

Authorities initially believed the murders were committed by a gang or cult as the five victims suffered 143 stab wounds from three different weapons.  While in the hospital, Josh Ryen told Deputy Erwin Sharp on June 6 through a hand squeezing code that three white men were in his home during the murders.  Since Cooper is black and presumed to have been alone, such a statement excludes him.  On June 15, while Josh was recuperating and playing Uno with Reserve Sheriff's Deputy Luis Simo, a wanted poster depicting Cooper flashed on the television screen.  Simo testified that Josh told him without prompting “that was not the guy who did it.”  Some time later Cooper's picture again appeared on television.  Josh's grandmother, Dr. Mary Howell, asked him if he had ever seen Cooper before.  Josh replied, “No.”  Cooper was arrested 7 weeks after his escape.

Four days after the murders, a woman named Diana Roper gave authorities a pair of bloody coveralls she said her ex-boyfriend, a convicted contract killer named Lee Furrow, had left at her home in Mentone the night of the murders. Early on the night of the murders Roper had seen Furrow wearing a tan Fruit of the Loom T-shirt she had bought for him. In a sworn statement she said he was not wearing the T-shirt when he was later dropped off by a car, shed the coveralls, and took off on his motorcycle.

Roper's account was dismissed by prosecutors as the unreliable word of “a scorned woman,” and police destroyed the coveralls before Cooper's defense ever learned of their existence.  A tan T-shirt identical to the one Roper described was found about a mile from the crime scene, stained with blood. A blue T-shirt with bloodstains was also found nearby and turned in to police.  The shirts suggested that at least two assailants committed the Ryen-Hughes murders.  Both shirts were withheld from Cooper's defense at trial; the blue shirt disappeared altogether from the Sheriff's Department's records.

On the night of the murders a married couple in their car had seen another car driving rapidly down Carbon Canyon Road from the direction of the Ryen house.  They described the car as a “light color” station wagon with wood grain paneling and a luggage rack.  This description matched the Ryen's car which disappeared on the night of the murders and was found on June 11 in a Long Beach, CA parking lot.  The husband described the driver as a white male while his wife remembered thinking she saw three or four people in the car.

At trial the prosecution presented some physical evidence against Cooper that allegedly put him at the scene of the murders.  However, the evidence was not very definitive and post-trial examination of it showed that it was wholly lacking in credibility due to the circumstances of how, when, and where it was found.

Lastly, despite being an escapee, Cooper had no clear motive to murder four people and attempt to murder a fifth.  The Ryen's car had keys in the ignition, if he wanted to use it to escape.  Although the car was taken, robbery did not appear to be a motive for the murders.  Money was found in plain view on the kitchen counter of the Ryen house and was untouched.  Credit cards and money in Peggy Ryen’s purse were also untouched.  Cooper clearly needed money and was an experienced burglar.

Cooper was scheduled to be executed in 2004, but managed to get a stay of execution.  In 2009, a substantial minority of judges agreed with his appeal and issued a vigorous dissent.  This dissent, Cooper v. Brown, describes in detail the lack of direct evidence against Cooper, the evidence that others committed the murders, as well as the planting and withholding of evidence in the case.  Cooper is the 6th California inmate who is cleared for execution once a federal judge approves revised procedures for the implementation of lethal injection in California.  [1/10]


References:  L.A. Times, Justice: Denied,, Cooper v. Calderon, Cooper v. Brown

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Southern California Cases, Quadruple Homicide Cases