For many years, I have followed the life of Kevin Cooper, a man sentenced to death for the murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10 year old daughter and an 11 year old neighbour. The Ryen’s 8 year old son at the time Josh, was the only survivor.
After being incarcerated for more than half of his life, 37 years in San Quentin prison, 35 of them on Death Row, Cooper now a double survivor of death row and Covid 19 continues to maintain, he was framed for the murders.
To better understand this case, it is important now to delve into Coopers history.
He was born Richard Goodman on January 8, 1958, and placed into an orphanage at the age of 2 months. At 6 months, he was adopted by Melvin and Esther Cooper, who changed his name to Kevin. As a child, he endured physical abuse and ran away from home numerous times and later as a adolescent, he was placed in juvenile custody numerous times.
Coopers life turned to crime at an early age, which included stealing and burglary.
He served a one year sentence for a burglary in 1977. During the burglary, he was interrupted by a young girl, one of the occupants of the house at the time. He threatened to kill her, raped her and held her against her will.
Over the next five years, he was convicted and sentenced to jail twice for burglary but later released on probation.
In 1982, he escaped from a psychiatric facility, the same one he had escaped from 11 times prior, and fled to California. Here he was convicted again of two burglaries in the Los Angeles area.
It was here, at a Californian Institution for men, where he would be assigned to the minimum security section of the facility.
Then on the 2nd of June, 1983, as he had done many times in the past, Cooper decided to make a break for it. He climbed through a hole in the fence and fled into an adjoining open field. Now on the run, Cooper had to contend with finding food and shelter.
Douglas and Peggy Ryan owned an upscale horse property in Chino Hills, California. On the morning of the 5th of June, Bill Hughes a friend, arrived at the property to pick up his 11 year old son Christopher who was there for a sleepover. To his horror, inside the house he found Douglas, Peggy, their 10 year old daughter Jessica and his own son Christopher butchered to death. They had been brutally stabbed with an ice pick numerous times, sliced with a knife and chopped with a hatchet. Miraculously the sole survivor, 8 year old Josh Ryen, was found clinging to life having endured broken ribs, a punctured lung, hatchet cut to the head, ice pick stab to the back of the neck and throat cut.
A coroner would later document in his report that the victims collectively sustained up to 140 wounds.
Robbery was ruled out, as Peggy’s purse was later found in plain sight on the counter full of money. The only item missing was the families station wagon, which would be discovered several days later in a church carpark in Long Beach, California about 50 miles from Chino by a man walking his dog. Neighbours would later testify that they saw three people on the night in question, drive off in a car that looked exactly like it.
As news of the deaths came to fruition, nearby residents went into panic mode, stocking up on guns, attack dogs and locks. Although the downtown section of Chino was a high crime area, Chino Hills was always considered safe.
Finding someone to pin it on was very important.
As Cooper was still “at large” and known to be in the area, he became the sheriff’s number one suspect.
Meanwhile Coopers DNA would later be found just 125 yards away in a vacant house next door to the Ryens. It was here he made repeated calls to two female friends asking for money to help with his escape, but both women refused.
The man-hunt was on.
Cooper would be in police custody, several weeks later. After being captured and questioned by the police, Cooper maintained that he left the property during the night of the 4th June, hitchhiking to Mexico. It would later be established that Cooper checked into a hotel in Tijuana, 130 miles south of the Chino Hills at around 4.30pm, 5th June.
It was here in Tijuana, he befriended a couple who owned a sailboat. He hitched a ride on the boat, as a crew member, sailing the Baja and Southern California coasts.
Whilst staying on the boat, a woman on a nearby dock alerted nearby boating enthusiasts that she had been raped by Cooper. She immediately went to the sheriffs office to report it, and whilst there noticed Coopers wanted poster.
The coast guard and deputies stormed the boat he was residing on, and detained him after he jumped ship and tried to swim ashore.
Now in custody, the police turn to the only living survivor of the tragedy to solve the case. In a videotaped testimony, Josh Ryen said that in the evening prior to the murders, three Mexican men came to the house looking for work. Ryen told the Sheriff that he thought the three men did it, who were white or Mexican appearance, but he did not see three people during the incident. He only saw a single man attacking his mother.
However by the time Cooper went on trial, the memory of the only witness now 10 year old Josh Ryen had changed. The District Attorney questioned Josh, and he no longer remembered three attackers. In his own words, “I remember seeing a shadow or something”. When further pressed how Many shadows did you see? Josh replied, “Just one”.
Cooper a black male no in custody, testified in his own defense. He admitted escaping from CIM hiding out and sleeping at the house next door, but denied committing the murders or being anywhere near the Ryen House.
Upon obtaining evidence at the vacant house where Cooper had been hiding, it was noted that a hatchet was missing. The leather hatchet cover was later found on the property.
One single spot of blood, found at the Ryen home would later prove through DNA testing, to belong to Cooper. Based on this one drop of blood, Cooper was convicted on four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intention of infliction of great bodily harm. He was then told, he would be sentenced to death via lethal injection.
Cooper to this very day believes he was “set up”. That evidence was planted and tampered with.
America seems very divided with this case. Cooper has a lot of people pulling for him not only within the prison, but also outside of it including the Pope Francis and Kim Kardashian West.
For years, 48 hours (American current affairs show) have been following Coopers case, and they have raised many questionable irregularities in the case.
Why haven’t any of Coopers fingerprints been found on the Ryen’s Property.
Why haven’t any of his hairs been found on the property. They found some light coloured hairs clutched in Jessica Ryen’s hand. These did not match Coopers.
And then there is the question of all the weapons used. How could one man wield three weapons at one time. An ice-pick, a knife and a hatchet.
Then theres the crime scene itself. It was a bloody massacre, blood everywhere, yet with all that blood, all they could find is one drop that isn’t a match to the dead.
Then there was the family car which was dumped in a church car park. If Cooper used the car to get away, why was blood then found on three different seats.
Cooper for many years had asked that DNA evidence be reworked and he finally got his wish. Blood samples obtained at the scene were re-done, but what would it reveal about Coopers case?
There wasn’t enough hair to test, but cigarette butts found in the car, a tan t’shirt found at the scene and that tiny blood spot found on a piece of the wall that had been removed were all sent to the lab.
In 2002, when the results came in, no-one seemed more shocked than Cooper. The evidence tested positive for his DNA.
Josh Ryen now a teenager, feels that the evidence has convicted the right person and its time for him to pay the price for his crime. Christopher’s grandmother is of the same opinion, however, Cooper has an unfamiliar ally in Josh’s grandmother Mary Howell who isn’t of the same opinion. She feels that the killers are still out there and she still wants the police to find the truth and if they kill Cooper, they will be killing an innocent man. Sadly in 2008, the 94 year old grandmother passed away, clueless to the answer she had longed for.
Cooper was told, he was now scheduled to die February 10, 2004 and the date has now been set.
Cooper is prepped for execution, as masses of people protest the execution outside the prison. With only a few hours to go, the ninth circuit court stayed his execution. Cooper came within three hours and 42 minutes of paying for a crime, he says he didn’t commit.
One year on Cooper finally gets a break. His case was back in front of the ninth circuit court with 27 judges. While the majority refused to re-open the case, 11 judges were not of the same opinion. There is not a case in American history, where 11 judges have stated that they don’t feel a person has received a fair hearing.
One of the judges, Judge Fletcher believes that Josh’s memory of that night was influenced by a deputy who had visited with Josh approximately twenty times during his hospital stay. He went on to say that it should also be noted that at no time what so ever has Josh volunteered Cooper as the killer, in fact, whilst in hospital, Josh saw a picture of Cooper on the television on two separate occasions and on both occasions, Josh said quite clearly that Cooper was not the killer.
Judge Fletcher said it appears that as soon as the police identified Cooper, as black escaped prisoner who had stayed at a house a short distance from the murders, they stopped looking for the three men focusing totally on convicting Cooper for the murders.
He also questioned the key piece of evidence in the case. That single blood spot on the wall the state says proves Cooper was in the Ryan home. At first the criminalist said it was one blood type and then altered his notes to say it was another. When he found he wrote the one blood type down and it didn’t match to Cooper, he changed the result so it did.
And according to court documents, before the DNA tests were done, a glassine envelope which contained the paint chip with the blood drop on it, was checked out overnight, signed out to the same criminalist who had matched the blood on it to Cooper. His reason? He said it was to assure there was enough evidence to test.
And that’s not all that blows this whole case apart. When the sheriffs deputies first searched the Ryen station wagon for evidence, no smoke butts were present, however upon the second search of the car, they miraculously appeared. It appears that those cigarette butts were moved from the vacant home where Cooper was hiding out and planted in the car. Not even more damaging is that when a cigarette butt was first tested it was 4mm long, yet when they did the second test on butt, it had grown out to 7mm long. The SBCSD investigators drew the conclusion that they discounted, disregarded, and discarded evidence pointing to other killers and that they manipulated and planted evidence in order to convict Cooper.
Days after the murders Diana Roper called the sheriffs office after she found blood overalls left in her closet. She told them that the overalls belonged to her ex boyfriend a paroled killer by the name of Lee Furrow. Furrow had murdered before unlike Cooper a burglar and sex offender.
Roper told investigators that Furrow also owned a hatchet that looked very similar to the weapon used. Furrow kept all his tools on the back porch hanging on nails, the only one now missing was the hatchet and on the day of the murders, Furrow was wearing a similar looking t’shirt that was found.
This evidence that was totally ignored and plays a significant part in the case. On the night of the murders, three white men were seen at the Canyon Corral bar, one of them in a light coloured t’shirt and another in bloody overalls.
Roper died three years later but was very vocal in her support that Cooper was the wrong guy.
She did hand over the overalls to the authorities but they were never tested. Rather, a deputy threw them away before Coopers trial. A disposition report stated that the coveralls were destroyed and described as having no value to the case.
Both Cooper and Judge Fletcher believe those coveralls would have helped his case.
And the defence discovered something alarming about the vial of Coopers blood the state had taken for evidence. It was tainted. The vial that contained Coopers blood, had a second DNA result on it. And when you look at all the other vials of blood taken at the time, the vials were near full, yet Coopers vial was near empty.
There appears to be a suspicious pattern in Coopers case. Judge Fletcher believes that it is quite evident based on all the evidence above, that Cooper was framed.
Coopers lawyers have long believed that Lee Furrow a known killer was involved in the murders but continues to walk a free man. He maintains he has made mistakes in the past and paid for those mistakes, that he never owned a pair of overalls and that on the night in question was at a concert 30 miles plus away from the crime scene.
In 2018, Furrow agreed to give Coopers team a sample of his DNA but only saliva. He refused to have his blood drawn saying he didn’t want to end up with them tampering with his blood like they did with Cooper.
Two weeks before leaving office, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order directing DNA testing be carried out on only four items. The Hatchet, the tan t’shirt, an orange towel that was found next to it, and the hatchet sheath discovered at the house where Cooper was hiding.
Two month later, Cooper got more good news. The new Governor Gavin Newsom, ordered more testing including the vial of Coopers blood.
Coopers defence team think that he saw in the petition for clemency that there was significant doubt about whether Cooper was in fact guilty of serial murder.
Whilst Coopers defence waited for the DNA results, three people came forward and testified under oath that Furrows confessed to the killings.
When the DNA results came in, all tests were inconclusive on the hatchet, the sheath and fingernail scrapings from the victims. At the time, the evidence wasn’t handled or stored very well which made things more difficult.
The only item that gave a result was the orange towel found next to the t’shirt. The towel is believed to have been taken from the Ryen home by the murderer perhaps to wipe off sweat and then discarded. On that towel it was determined that it contained a single male profile, and that profile was not Cooper. But given it was a towel, it would be fair to say that anyone’s profile could be found on it in a home. Even someone as innocent as a friend visiting.
Since these tests were issued, the public has heard virtually nothing about how the tests are proceeding other than to say that the tests are ongoing and that the special master is working closely with the parties and supervising this process to ensure that it proceeds in a fair, thorough and appropriate fashion.
A fresh round of DNA tests could rule Cooper out as the killer, or potentially undercut his argument that he is innocent. Yet the process has dragged on and on. If the test exonerate Cooper, as he and his advocates believe they will, the longer this process drags out, the worse the injustice becomes.
Whilst there is growing recognition in criminal justice circles that Cooper may be innocent, he remains in prison because the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office continues to resist an investigation into whether he is innocent, just as it previously resisted comprehensive DNA testing.
This is not a case just of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The entire system has failed, decade after decade.
My conclusion what is indisputable is not Cooper’s guilt or innocence, but doubt. We can’t undo the tragedy that unfolded nearly forty years ago, but we can put end to another.