The Ryen Family Murders

This is a case that took a little more research than normal due to the length of the case as well as my own lack of full knowledge of the case itself.  The crime occurred in the summer of 1983 and two years later Kevin Cooper was convicted and sentenced to death.  And yet just within the last few months (in 2016) there has still been activity involving the case.  It has become a rather infamous case in which high profile people and celebrities have come to the aide and defense of Kevin Cooper proclaiming his innocence and wrongful conviction. Even after doing all my research I am uncertain my own feelings on the case.

It is definitely not unusual to have a defendant proclaim their innocence.  Nor is it unusual for celebrities or high ranking officials to be on their side. All you have to do is look at the case of Roger Coleman to know that no matter what someone convicted says and no matter how hard the protest their innocence, science still has a way of proving guilt.  However, then one look at the Steven Avery cases (i.e. Making a Murderer) and although you may not be able to determine guilt or innocence for yourself, you can clearly see that there was some shady and questionable things done to ensure a conviction.  To be truthful, after looking through all I could find on this case I cannot tell you for sure, at least as I am writing this, which of those cases (Coleman and Avery) that Kevin Cooper's case most resembles, if either of them.  Was this a case of tampering?  Was this a case of tunnel vision? Is Kevin Cooper one of the most unlucky men on earth?  As I have done in more than a few cases I leave that up to the individual reader.  For me, at least at this point, there seems to be a strong case for his guilt, but enough questions to make you wonder.  I have began blogs in this manner before where I am conflicted on where I stand, but often compiling the evidence together helps me lean more in one direction by the time I am done.  From time to time however, even putting everything together does nothing and I can be more conflicted than ever so the best thing to do is start with the facts.

Here is what we do know....  On the morning of July 5, 1983 Bill Hughes went to the Ryen home just down the road from his in Chino Hills California.  His 11 year old son, Christopher had spent the night with the Ryen's 8 year old son Josh. Bill and his wife, Mary Ann had attempted to call the Ryen home several times that morning and had not gotten an answer.  Some reports say that the doors to the home were locked and the family station wagon did not seem to be there but that Bill Hughes had walked around the house looking in windows.  This is when he saw several of the family members seemingly dead.  I am sure some would argue why did he not immediately call police but we have to remember that in 1983 cell phones were things of the future so Bill made his way into the home and presumably called the police from there.  Inside the home were the bodies of Doug and Peggy Ryen (both 41), their 10 year old daughter, Jessica and Bill's son, Christopher.  Josh Ryen was inside also clinging to life with his throat cut. He would be the only survivor.  The Ryen's car would be found several days later about 50 miles away in Long Beach California.  

Police would quickly focus on Kevin Cooper.... but why?  In 1977 Cooper had been convicted for burglary in Pennsylvania and served a short prison term. After his release he would have a few more run ins with the law and was released in 1982 on probation but apparently had escaped from a psychiatric facility and went to California.  Once there he apparently went by the alias, David Trautman and was one again, arrested and convicted of burglary.  He was serving time at a minimum security prison and once again escaped on June 2, 1983... just 3 days before the family was found in their home.  Cooper apparently admitted to staying in a "vacant" home next door to the Ryen family after his escape.  I put the word vacant in quotes because apparently it belonged to the Lease family and according to prosecutors Cooper made phone calls while at that home which indicates that it is possible that they were simply not home rather than the home being empty or vacant.  It was determined that around 4:30 pm on June 5th, the day the bodies were discovered, that Kevin Cooper checked into a hotel in Tijuana, 130 miles south of Chino Hills.

Upon recovery of the body the coroner determined that the victims had been attacked with multiple weapons including a hatchet, a knife and an ice-pick.  A hatchet was recovered not far from the home.  I found no indication that either of the other two weapons were found.  In 1983 DNA testing was not available and although Cooper was allowed testing to be done on evidence in 2004 the results have been in dispute as well as some of the evidence that the prosecution would later claim pointed to Cooper.  So, as far as undisputed facts in the case, all that we know is that the Ryen family was killed sometime between 10 pm on June 4, 1983 and 11 am the following day; that multiple weapons were used in the murders and that Kevin Cooper was staying in the home directly next door very close to the time of the murders.

As I stated earlier Cooper was almost immediately on the police radar, but I cannot say for sure why.  It could have been because the prison he escaped from was nearby and they were already looking for him; it could have been they found the Lease home had been empty yet would later state there was blood and evidence in the house and presumably Cooper's fingerprints; or it could have been any number of reasons.  At any rate by the time the bodies were found Cooper was no longer in the area.  He would claim that he left the Lease house "at dark" on the evening of June 4th and began hitchhiking his way to Mexico.  Prosecutors would claim that he made a phone call from the home around 8 pm.   He did in fact make his way to Mexico and then onto a boat.  By the time he was arrested it had been 7 weeks since the murders.

Cooper openly pleaded guilty to the charge of escape and as I stated earlier, admitted to being in the Lease home, but that is where his admissions ceased. At his trial in 1985 prosecutors would claim to have much more evidence.  I will present that here but in an attempt to be as least confusing as possible with also tell the opposing side of the evidence.

1) Prosecutors would claim that inside the car belonging to the Ryen family there was a cigarette butt found.  They claimed that the papers and the tobacco used was the same kind that Cooper used and was issued to him in the prison. Supporters, defense attorney's and even a judge on one of the appeals court have questioned this evidence claiming that this was not supposedly found in the initial search of the car and that when it was claimed to have been found that it was said to have been too small for any kind of testing and yet "grew" to be presented in court and also to be tested in 2004 where it was claimed to have saliva DNA matching Cooper.  

2) Prosecutors would claim that blood stained buttons recovered from the Lease home contained blood consistent with the victims and came from a green prison jacket like those worn at the prison Cooper had escaped from.  Some reports claim that Cooper did not have a green jacket but a tan or brown one. Apparently they were both issued at the prison.

3) Blood was said to have been found in the shower and bathroom sink of the Lease home.  There have been questions as to who that belonged to and even where it came from with claims that bleach was also present, indicating cleaning had occurred.  If I understand supporters correctly there is question as to if it was cleaned to remove any other DNA so other DNA could be planted.

4) Hair was found in the Lease bathroom sink found to be consistent with both Jessica and Doug Ryen.  Again there is the open question of if blood could be planted so could hair.

5) Prosecutors would claim that the hatchet found near the scene was missing from the Lease home (another indication that they simply were not there and home not necessarily "vacant" or abandoned as indicated) and that the sheath from the hatchet was found in the room in which Cooper claimed to have slept. There is a larger issue with the hatchet that I will go into at a later time but at this point lets just say that defenders do not believe that the hatchet came from the Lease home.

6) Prosecutors claim that two shoe prints found in the Ryen car and one near the scene were consistent with shoes Cooper owned in type and style. 

7) Burrs were found both on Jessica Ryen as well as things found in the Lease home that prosecutors claim came from vegetation that was between the two homes indicating that was the route the killer took to get there.

At Cooper's 1985 trial Josh Ryen (who was now around 10) testified, although most, including the convicting jury found his testimony unreliable.  To fair however, to this day Josh Ryen believes that Kevin Cooper is in fact guilty of killing his family and his friend and injuring him.  While testifying Josh would say that on the evening before the murders "three Mexican men" came to the door asking for work.  The Ryen family went to a barbecue at another friends house that evening and by all indications did not leave there until at least 9 pm so presumably the men who Josh came to the door came earlier in the evening. His first indication apparently at trial was that it was those men who had come back to the home but he would testify that he only saw one person (and the back of them) attacking his mother and could not identify that person specifically.  Jury members have been interviewed and said that they gave little weight to Josh's testimony, feeling as if he was confused and traumatized obviously from the event. This could be very true but both the prosecution and the defense likely liked at least some of his testimony because in essence he gave both sides things to work with.  Some would argue that the prosecution, through child therapists may have manipulated Josh's thoughts to help their case but obviously no one has admitted to this.  For the defense, the idea that three people came to the home earlier in the evening helped their case a bit. Why? Because three weapons were presumably used.  And... I have to say as someone who has studied and read about crimes for several years this was the first moment in which I paused to think about the case.  It is highly unusual for one perpetrator to use three different weapons, especially on the same victim. It seemed apparently that all five victims (which includes Josh) were hit with the hatchet and stabbed by a knife and an ice pick, multiple times with each weapon.  Now, just because it is unusual does not mean that it does not happen but it is one of the more rarer things you see with one perpetrator.  In fact, the number of weapons used is often the first clue to indicate the number of perpetrators.  On the other side of this, the fact that Josh then stated he only saw one person attacking his mother helped the prosecution a bit.  In the same respect, I found no indication of his identification or describing his own attack which obviously for anyone, but especially an 8 year old child, would have been traumatic and could have been suppressed.  However, if we believe that he could have suppressed his own attack, how do we know that the attack on his mother is accurate?  Another thing I found interesting about Josh's testimony is it was stated that he only saw the back of the person attacking his mother but I saw no real indication of any kind of identification.  Defenders claim that in his original testimony to police he claimed three white men were involved (were these the "Mexican's" he later mentioned?).  Kevin Cooper is a black man, which he claims has played a large role in his conviction but more than that, in 1983 Kevin Cooper had a rather large Afro hairstyle, which clearly could not be confused with a white man.  If he did in fact describe the person who attacked his mother, I would find it suspicious if he did not mention the hair of the person since he claimed to have only seen the person from the back. But, as I said the juror members have said they did not give his testimony any weight and it played no part in their decision to convict Kevin Cooper and later sentence him to death.

Now, I mentioned earlier that there were questions regarding the hatchet that was presented at trial as the murder weapon.  As I stated prior, prosecutors would claim that he hatchet came from the Lease home and that the sheath was found in the room that Cooper admitted to staying in while at the house. However, reports claim that on June 9, 1983, four days after the discovery, a woman by the name of Diana Roper called the police.  She claimed that on the night of June 4/5 her boyfriend, Lee Furrow had come home wearing overalls that seeming had blood on them but not a shirt that he had wore previously in the evening.  She claimed that he arrived at the home in a station wagon she had never seen before and that while he came inside there were others outside in the car.  Roper would say that Furrow changed clothes and left.  It is claimed that she turned the overalls over to the police and that she also identified the hatchet as one missing from her garage as well as a shirt that was found on the side of the road near the Ryen home as one belonging to Furrow.  Cooper's defense claims that the police had the overalls tested but never turned them over to the defense and in fact threw them away in a dumpster on the day of Cooper's arraignment.  The reports I read claimed the police had the overalls tested.... but tested for what I am unsure.... and, I found nothing to say anything about results found.  

In 2001 Cooper became the first person on California death row that was granted the right to DNA testing post conviction.  According to authorities this did nothing but confirm they had brought the correct person to trial.  According to the defense the results remained questionable with words like contamination and planting being thrown around quite often.  On February 10, 2004 Cooper was scheduled to be executed but just a few short hours before it was to take place he was given a stay of execution to allow more DNA testing.  I could find nothing about if this was actually done and what those results were.  However, at least at this point it really matters little.  Although California still has dozen of people on death row they have not executed anyone since 2006 when through the courts all executions were put on hold and it is yet to be resolved.  I have done research on this issue for past blogs and as I recall there does not seem to be a resolution coming any time soon.  

In 2011 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reviewed the case and decided there had been at least 8 instances of Cooper's due process rights being violated.  But as with much in this case I was unable to determine what those instances involved or when they occurred.  On March 19, 2016 the ABA President, Paulette Brown wrote a letter to current Governor, Jerry Brown suggesting that he grant Cooper clemency and an investigation into the original investigation and prosecution.  This has obviously not been addressed at this time.

So, is Kevin Cooper guilty of killing four people (including two children) and attacking another small child? I guess that depends on who you ask.  Just as there are those who are adamant that he is guilty there are those just as adamant that he is innocent and that this is a case of tunnel vision and racism. For me... I cannot say if he is guilty or innocent for sure.  What I can say is something you have heard me say often if you are a reader of my blog... I think there are too many questions at this point to execute him.  I agree with the defense about the issue of multiple weapons being used and the rare idea that one person solely committed this crime, but I also know that it is not impossible or unheard of.  I also agree with the defense if the claim by Diana Roper is true about her boyfriend, Lee Furrow, and the things happened as they said. However, what sticks with me is that I rarely believe in coincidences and the fact of the matter is that Cooper has admitted to being at the Lease home at least just prior to when prosecutors claim the murders occur.  It seems very convenient that according to his testimony he left the home at dark and just a few short hours the people in the home next door are murdered.  Where did he get the money for the hotel he was proven to be at later in the afternoon only 130 miles away when he had been in prison?  In the same respect, I found nothing that said fingerprints were found on the weapon (the hatchet) or even the car.  In fact, nothing in my research mentioned fingerprints other than at the Lease home.  Since DNA was not available in 1983 fingerprints and blood typing was the best things available as far as evidence.  If we believe the DNA that was tested in 2001 then I think as some judges have said, it has proven once and for all that Cooper is responsible.  But, if we have questions about the investigation that leads to questions of handling of evidence then you almost have to, even if a bit, question those results.

In my opinion, this will likely never truly be fully resolved.  No matter what answers ever come out there will remain those who steadfastly believe they are legitimate answers and there will those who will believe just as fiercely that there were issues of tampering.  It is my belief that Kevin Cooper will die in jail, not by lethal injection but likely from old age or a medical condition. 


Comments

  1. In an La Crime Story the police have concluded their examination and to charge somebody with a criminal offence will often be made by institute legal proceedings against person advice having considered the witness produced by the police.

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  2. Has anyone other than Cooper been charged/convicted?!?

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    Replies
    1. No, Kevin Cooper is the only person they have found 'physical evidence' for. However there is evidence that has not been tested that could indicate that there was more than just Kevin Cooper present at the time of the murders, and there is speculation that Kevin Cooper might not have been involved at all.

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  3. Since DNA evidence put Cooper at the scene, I have to say that it's believable he had something to do with these murders, although I do admit that others were likely involved. I have to wonder one thing: why did Cooper insist on DNA testing to exonerate himself if he knew he was there on the scene? Why would he think that the DNA tests would free him from prison? While I cannot say that mistakes and cover-ups don't occur, I also have to say that every time a DNA test convicts somebody, I find it hard to believe that every single DNA test was "tampered with" by the authorities. One final thought: MOTIVE was never discussed. WHY would Cooper or anybody else for that matter wipe out this family?

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  4. "...although I do admit that others were likely involved".

    Likely? Your evidence for this claim is what, exactly?

    As for motive, that's not hard to figure out. A prison escapee is still hiding out near the prison, knows that police are looking for him, and he desperately wants to get away and not go back to prison. He sees someone drive up to a nearby house in an otherwise secluded area. He wants that car to use in his escape from the area but he needs the keys. He gains entry to that house in order to get the keys but can leave no living witnesses who would logically call the police ASAP and identify him and the car he was driving. How far would he have gotten without buying himself a head start?

    As for trying to find logic in the crime itself and why after thirty years in prison and under threat of impending execution he would grasp at straws and ask for DNA testing, perhaps logic is expecting a bit too much. In his desperate mind, what did he have to lose?

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  5. If anyone reading or following this case then we know there is still one big piece of evidence that has yet to be tested for dna. The hair that was grasped in the daughters hand when they found the bodies. Why has that not been tested??? I'm not saying Connelly is innocent but seems like a lot of mistakes were made in this investigation, which leads me to think that the police screwed this investigation up. Think about it to, why would one person bring a hatchet, a ice pick,a screwdriver and two knives to do this? Seems a little to much to be carrying all these weapons when if it was one person then one maybe two would have done the job. But only the hatchet was found, hmm. And why would the deputy throw out blood soaked coveralls when the police were informed by this guys girlfriend that he returned home in blood stained coveralls, in a station wagon she never seen before with other people in it and hmm, there hatchet is missing from the shed. Maybe there was more then one killer but they neglected and still neglect to test and rexamine all the evidence.this guy was in jail for robbery but he turns around and goes and kills four people to steal a car. Don't Make sense. There should be a complete review of this case including charges for the people who committed perjury by lying on the stand. Maybe that would help in completely resolving this case

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