Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper

Jan 30, 2012 - by J. Patrick O'Connor - 1 Comment

Special to Crime Magazine

An excerpt from the recently released book Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper by J. Patrick O’Connor, editor of Crime Magazine.  Published in January of 2012 by Strategic Media Books, Scapegoat is available at,, and other book sellers throughout the United States. Scapegoat won Silver in the 2013 Independent Publishers Book Awards for True Crime. It also won Bronze in ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Award competition in the True Crime category.

 by J. Patrick O’Connor


During the fall of 2008, I was in the San Francisco Bay area on a book tour for The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  The tour was arranged by Jeff Mackler, the executive director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and it involved about fifteen speaking engagements at different venues.   Jeff told me that supporters of death-row inmate Kevin Cooper – whom I had not heard of -- would be attending a number of these presentations, and that they would be asking me to write a book about Kevin’s case.  Indeed, two of Cooper’s most dedicated supporters, Carole Seligman and Rebecca Doran, did just that. 

Cooper had been convicted in 1985 of the brutal murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their ten-year-old daughter, Jessica, and eleven-year-old houseguest Christopher Hughes, and the attempted murder of the Ryens’ eight-year-old son Joshua. 

Jeff had gotten to know Cooper over the years, and had visited him about twenty times. Kevin’s case was quite different from Mumia’s, he said, in the sense that Mumia is essentially a political prisoner and Kevin was anything but. 

When I decided to begin researching the Kevin Cooper case in early 2009, I had no pre-conceived notions about his guilt or innocence.  Each case is different, radically so.  My first step was to read and notate the trial transcripts, documents of over eight-thousand pages.  I then read all the police reports, witness interviews and various newspaper accounts.  Finally, I read all of the appeals and the judicial rulings.  By this time I was ready to begin interviewing various people involved in Cooper’s trial and his subsequent appeals. 

One problem in researching a crime nearly twenty-five years after it occurred is that a number of key people involved in the investigation and trial have passed away or have retired or have simply forgotten important factual details.  Another obstacle is that, because Cooper technically still has appeals open to him, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office refused to discuss the case.

During the summer of 2009, I made arrangements to interview Kevin Cooper in a visitor’s cell on death row at San Quentin.  On several issues, particularly those regarding his criminal record previous to the Chino Hills trial, I found him protective and less than forthcoming.  That was all behind him, he seemed to suggest.

On the other hand, I was taken by his equanimity and his resolve to prove he was wrongfully convicted of the gruesome Chino Hills murders.  I could see that the many years he had spent on death row, instead of diminishing him, had turned him into a person worthy of the high regard that his supporters – and his attorneys at the Orrick law firm – felt for him.  On death row, Kevin Cooper had finally grown up. 

Contrary to popular belief, most of the nation’s more than three-thousand-five-hundred death row inmates do not profess innocence.  In fact, unlike Kevin Cooper, very few do.  For those who do, the road to exoneration is a long, slow trek that usually fails.  But it does succeed occasionally.  Since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions, one-hundred-thirty-six death-row inmates have been exonerated.  In the majority of those cases, the proof of the inmate’s innocence was so convincing that the prosecutor dropped the charges rather than retry the case.  In forty-five cases where there was a retrial, the inmate was acquitted. 

There are two things that do link the Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kevin Cooper cases: Each was prosecuted by a district attorney’s office hell bent on winning a death-penalty conviction; and neither defendant received a proper defense.  What separates the two cases is that, while Mumia’s trial was a mockery of the justice system’s standards for a fair trial, Cooper’s trial had the trappings of fairness – but was lost long before the trial opened.  Two pre-trial developments caused this outcome: The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department destroyed evidence that could have exonerated Cooper; and his public defender insisted on going it alone.  Not many Davids actually slay Goliaths. 

This then is a book about a gruesome murder case, painfully recounted; all quotes are from either documents or interviews I conducted doing my research.  It is also a book about how justice can go astray.  It is the true story of the Chino Hills murders, and the prosecution of Kevin Cooper, a prisoner who escaped once too often and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Since 1985, he has been on death row at San Quentin asserting his innocence in failed-after-failed appeal while awaiting his execution. 

Chapter One.  Chino Hills


Five years after Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848, the County of San Bernardino was formed out of the vast expanses of deserts and mountains of Los Angeles County.

In most ways it is the exact opposite of its glitzy neighbor to the west.  While Los Angeles County is home to the City of Angels, Hollywood, Pasadena, Brentwood, Malibu, Bel Air and Westwood, a majority of Americans could not name any city in San Bernardino County other than the county seat itself.   This is as it has always been, since the town of San Bernardino was so named on May 20, 1810 by Father Francisco Dumetz, a Franciscan missionary, to honor the feast day of Saint Bernardino of Siena.              

What San Bernardino County lacks in national lore, it makes up for in size alone.  It is the largest county in the continental United States, encompassing over twenty-thousand square miles that sprawl from the Riverside-San Bernardino area to the Nevada border and the Colorado River.  It is larger than nine U.S. states and is larger in area than Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.  It is the only county in California to border both Arizona and Nevada. 

The San Bernardino Valley is at the eastern end of the San Gabriel Valley, and, along with Riverside County, is part of the Inland Empire, so named to distinguish the region from the coastal areas of Los Angeles County.   The San Bernardino Valley includes the cities of Chino, Chino Hills, Colton, Fontana, Grand Terrace, Hesperia, Highland, Loma Linda, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Rialto, San Bernardino, Upland, and Yucaipa.  

Chino Hills is nestled in the southwest corner of San Bernardino County.  Its forty-five square miles of rolling hills border Los Angeles County on its northwest side, Orange County to the south, and Riverside County to the southeast.  In 1771 the Spanish founded Mission San Gabriel and began using the area to graze the mission’s cattle. 

Developer Richard Gird bought the land in 1910, the same year he founded the nearby city of Chino.  During Prohibition the Carbon Canyon Mineral Springs opened for business and the Los Serranos County Club soon followed, drawing both day visitors from Los Angeles and bootleggers to the isolated area. 

By the mid-1970s, Chino Hills was still unincorporated with less than twenty-thousand residents.   About half of Chino Hills consisted of undeveloped grazing land for equestrian ranchers and dairy farmers.   Over the next twenty years the area experienced rapid development.  When Chino Hills was incorporated in 1991, its population had more than doubled to forty-two thousand residents. 

A somewhat worrisome aspect of life in Chino Hills is the presence of a major state prison located just three miles away with over four-thousand convicted felons.  Over the preceding ten years, escapes had occurred with unsettling frequency, ranging from eight to thirty per year. 

The California Institute for Men sits in a barren southwest corner of San Bernardino County, sandwiched between two state highways, in the town of Chino.   When it opened in 1941 it was known as “The Prison Without Walls.”  Its first warden, Kenyon Scudder, believed in education and rehabilitation.  He took the title of superintendant and the guards – all unarmed – were referred to as “supervisors.”  The only fence Scudder allowed on the two-thousand-six-hundred acre property was a low barbed-wire one erected to keep dairy cows from wandering through the prison complex.  In 1952 Doubleday published Warden Scudder’s seminal work on penology, Prisoners Are People.  The 1955 movie, Unchained, was based on his book.  Chester Morris of Boston Blackie fame played the role of the groundbreaking superintendent. 

As California’s prison population exploded in the 1970s – thanks in part to the crackdown on drugs and the overcrowding that produced throughout the state’s prison system – CIM devolved to the traditional mode of simply incarcerating prisoners in maximum, medium, and minimum-security facilities.   

The minimum-security area, the only holdover from the Scudder days in terms of appearance, sits in an open, grassy area with dorms, surrounded by a waist-high, chain-linked fence.  Guards do not patrol its perimeter.


Chapter Two.  The Ryens of Chino Hills

The secluded area of Chino Hills that Doug and Peggy Ryen and their two-year-old daughter, Jessica, and infant son, Joshua, moved into in 1975 fulfilled a long-held dream for Peggy Ryen, joining a small, close-knit community of Arabian horse breeders who operated adjoining or close-by ranches.   Their neighbors referred to their ranches along Old English Road as the “Arabian Horse Center of Southern California.”

From their hilltop house, the Ryens looked out over a maze of white fences that hemmed in their and their neighbors’ ranches.  In the Ryens’ stables were more than a dozen white Arabian show horses, including their champion stallion, Tutal.  

Peggy had owned her own horses since she was twelve years old, gifts from her twice divorced mother, Dr. Mary Howell.  Peggy loved to train horses and enter them in competitions near her mother’s chiropractic practice in Lititz, Pennsylvania, not far from Lancaster.  As a teen she aspired to be become a veterinarian, but her mother persuaded her to follow in her footsteps.  Like her mother, Peggy attended the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, graduating in 1963 and then joined her mother’s chiropractic clinic in Santa Ana.  Three-and-half years later, Peggy opted to venture out on her own, opening her own clinic in Santa Ana.  At an alumni reunion at Palmer in 1970, Peggy Ann Howell met Franklin Douglas Ryen, an ex-Marine who was in the final year of the school’s four-year program and who by now was separated from the woman he had married in 1964.   Doug, who descended from Norwegian ancestry, grew up on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa. 

At a Lutheran Church in Corona Del Mar, California, two months after Doug’s divorce was finalized, Doug and Peggy were married on December 20, 1970.  For eighteen months, Doug joined Peggy at her clinic, but when Peggy became pregnant they decided to sell the practice.  They used the $10,000 proceeds to open their own clinic in Olympia, Washington.  Peggy bought her first two Arabian horses and threw herself into training them.  Jessica Kate Ryen was born in Olympia on November 9, 1972.

In Olympia, as they would be to an even greater degree in Southern California, the horses were an economic burden.  The cost to maintain them strapped the couple for cash.  At one point, Peggy was forced to tap her mother for money to buy hay.   With Peggy’s new responsibilities as a mother and her dedication to her horses, establishing the new chiropractic clinic fell mostly to Doug.   With the practice failing to take hold, the Ryens reluctantly opted to close their Olympia clinic and accept Mary Howell’s offer to join her successful and lucrative chiropractic clinic in Santa Ana in mid-1973.   

The Ryens, thanks to a $5,000 down payment provided by Dr. Howell, bought a home in Santa Ana with a backyard big enough to hold the Arabians.  By December Peggy had three Arabians in her backyard, one still in Olympia, and one in training about thirty-five miles away.  Her mare was pregnant.  In a post-Christmas letter to her half-sister Lillian Shaffer, she wrote, “We can’t wait for our ‘big mama’ to have her baby…We’re hoping for a filly (girl) – they sell for more.”

The hand-written letter was on newly printed stationery inscribed “Ryen Arabian Ranch” that Doug had given her for Christmas.  “Where we are now we should call it ‘Backyard Arabians!’  Look out a window and see a horse looking back at you – but we love it,” Peggy wrote.

When the Ryens’ neighbors in Santa Ana began to complain persistently about Peggy keeping her horses in her backyard, Dr. Howell bought a four-bedroom house in Chino Hills with six acres so the horses could be kept there. 

In another letter to Lillian, this one written in May of 1974, Peggy brimmed with enthusiasm about her plans to breed and train Arabian horses.  “Right now we are horse poor, but give us five years of our planned breeding program and we’ll have only the best.  It’s so exciting!  Finally, after all of these years of wanting I’ve got what I’ve always wanted.” 

  She wrote about Doug and her watching their mare foal at 2:30 a.m and described the newborn as “a real pistol.”  They named him Barna-B, but “of course we call him Barny.”  She said because Barny was a full brother to their dark stallion, he would be for sale later on.  “It’s so much fun having a little one to train since our other youngests are two years old already.  Jessa loves having one her size around.”

In other news, Peggy mentioned buying a five-year-old Arabian stallion she named Scruffy, and arranging to impregnate one of her mares with the highly regarded stud, Sahara Prince, whose photo was on the back cover of the current Arabian horse magazine.  “We’ll have the foal next year.  Can’t wait to see his babies – we should make a mint when we sell that one.” 

Her other two mares were going to be bred to two top stallions also featured in that issue of the magazine.  “These stallions are pure polish and really gorgeous animals,” she wrote.   “The dark stud’s fee is $1,500, a real bargain.  The blood line of our one mare is a very valuable cross and the foals are going for $20,000 or so.  Untrained!  But we won’t sell that one – I’ll show it next year.”

Her other mare would be bred to the white stud shown in the magazine “and what a movin’ machine we’ll have from that cross.” 

With three foals on the way next year and one already born, the Ryens began ranch hunting.   By now, Peggy was pregnant again.  Several months after Dr. Howell moved to Chino Hills, a five-acre, a hilltop ranch directly above Dr. Howell’s house came on the market.  Doug and Peggy Ryen sold their home in Santa Ana and bought it.  Peggy said that the property came with “a gorgeous barn and huge riding ring but rotten house!  Oh well, we can always change that.”  The three-bedroom, two-bath house featured a sunken living room, a family room, and a Jacuzzi in the patio off the master bedroom.  The Ryens would never get around to fixing up the well-worn house.


Chapter Three.  June 4, 1983

On Saturday, June 4, 1983, the Ryens and eleven-year-old Chris Hughes attended a potluck barbeque dinner with about a hundred other Arabian horse people and their families at the Chino home of George and Valerie Blade.  George Blade made his living as a horse shoer, a service he had provided the Ryens for the past eight years.  It was a BYOL affair.  Doug and Peggy brought a bottle of pink Chablis.  Earlier that afternoon, Chris called home to get permission to spend the night with his friend Josh.  That night, the Blades’ young son, Jason, pleaded with his parents to allow him to spend the night at the Ryens’ as well, but he was not allowed to because his grandmother was visiting and it was already 9 p.m., an hour after his normal bedtime. 

Around 9:30 p.m. the Ryens and Chris returned to the Ryens’ rambling, split-level, pentagon-shaped home.   After awhile, the children went to sleep, the boys in sleeping bags on the floor in Josh’s room and Jessica in her room.  Doug Ryen watched some television before joining his wife in bed, probably after 11 p.m.  As was their custom, the couple slept in the nude in their king-size waterbed. 

When Chris did not come home at 9 a.m. to join his family for church the next morning, his mother, Mary Ann Hughes, began calling the Ryens’ house only to get repeated busy signals.  At 11 a.m. she drove the short distance to the Ryens’ house, went to the front door and knocked.  When no one answered, she tried to open the door but found it locked.  She walked around to the west side of the house and looked into the children’s bedrooms but could not see or hear anyone.  She called out several names but got no response.  She noticed that the Ryens’ station wagon was gone and then drove home to ask her husband to go take a look. 

Bill Hughes, an agriculture professor at Cal Poly Pomona, got in his Audi and drove up to the Ryens’ house.  He went to the front door, but no one answered and the door was locked.  Hughes went around to peer through a sliding glass door into the Ryens’ master bedroom.  He could not at first believe what he was seeing.  “It was a very bloody scene and my first recollection was that this can’t be blood, this is paint, makeup…I thought what kind of crazy game is this?”

Peggy Ryen was lying on her back naked in the middle of the room and Doug Ryen, also nude, was kneeling over by the edge of the bed.  Both were covered in blood.  Not far from Mrs. Ryen, Chris Hughes was lying on his stomach and Josh, drenched in blood and curled up in a fetal position, was near him.  Josh was moving, but his eyes were glazed and the left side of his head was “gashed up.”  Josh had been left for dead with his throat slit from ear to ear, a hatchet blow to his head that fractured his skull, several stab wounds to his back that broke three of his ribs and collapsed one lung, broke his collarbone, and nearly severed his left ear.  He had survived by keeping his fingers pressed to his throat to staunch the bleeding, and then going into shock for eleven hours until help arrived.

Hughes tried to enter through the glass door, but couldn’t budge it.  The door was unlocked, but in his panic, he was tugging it the wrong way.  He yelled to Josh to open it. Josh tried to move but could not.  Hughes ran around to another side of the house and kicked in the kitchen door.  In the kitchen were the Ryens’ Irish setter, their golden retriever, and three kittens playing on the floor.  “I thought that was strange, that they were playing,” Hughes recalled.  As he approached the master bedroom he saw the bloodied, incredibly lacerated body of Jessica Ryen, sprawled across the doorway.  He reached down and touched her and by her stiffness knew she was dead.  He entered the master bedroom and called out to Josh.  When Josh looked at him, Hughes asked him what had happened, but Josh could only mumble.  He told Josh to just lie there.

Hughes checked his son and the Ryens for signs of life and found instead massive face and head wounds.  Rigor mortis had set in.  Hughes tried to call 911 from the Ryens, but both phones were out of order.  He raced to a neighbor’s house and asked Bob Howey to call the police and request an ambulance for Josh.  Hughes, recalling that he was “somewhat in a state of shock,” went home to tell his wife what he had seen while Howey went up to the Ryens to wait with Josh until help could arrive.  

A crew of six from the Chino Fire Department – three paramedics and three firefighters – arrived and soon began treating Josh in the master bedroom about 12:30 p.m.  Josh was lying on his left side, with his head turned toward the end of the water bed.  Ruben Guerrero, a fire department medic, put some Vaseline on Josh’s neck wound, then gauzed and bandaged it.  He then rolled Josh over on his back and attempted to start an IV but could not locate a vein in his arm.  Josh was manifesting numerous signs of being in shock:  no bleeding from an open wound, no blood pressure and no pulse.  His system had literally shut down, but he was able to raise eight fingers when Guerrero asked him how old he was. The medic tore Josh’s pajama top off and cut his clothes away and washed away some of the blood and fecal matter on him with a white towel another medic removed from the master bedroom bathroom.  The towel ended up on Peggy Ryen’s leg. 

As the medics were treating Josh, a firefighter was coming in and out of the master bedroom, providing treatment advice being relayed from the emergency room of Loma Linda University Hospital.  In response, Guerrero placed anti-shock trousers – called a MAST suit – on Josh.  Anti-shock pants are used to get any blood that is pulled to the lower extremities back up to the vital organs.

A little after 1 p.m., a helicopter arrived and air-lifted Josh to the nearby hospital, arriving there at 1:36 p.m.  En route, an IV was started and an oxygen mask attached.  Josh was given ten liters of oxygen a minute, a substantial amount.

At 1:50 p.m. Dr. Imad Shahhal, a neurosurgeon, began operating on Josh’s head wounds as another team of surgeons began treating the wounds to his neck.  Dr. Shahhal found Josh surprisingly responsive.  As he shaved the boy’s head he could see the fracture in Josh’s skull.  He cleaned and sutured the wound.  Another surgeon, Dr. Larry Habenicht, inserted an endotracheal tube in Josh’s windpipe to aid his breathing.


Chapter Four.  A Massacre

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Paul Beltz was the first officer at the crime scene, arriving six minutes ahead of the paramedics.   Dispatch had told him to go to 2943 Old English Road, a homicide scene with one survivor.  Beltz, with his gun drawn, entered through the kitchen door.  He soon saw Jessica sprawled in the bedroom doorway and checked her for vital signs.  He stepped over her to enter the master bedroom.  “I thought, my God, what in the hell have I come across.  The walls were all white, but smeared with blood – I mean everywhere,” he told a newspaper reporter from the Daily Bulletin.  “It was like something you see in a Helter Skelter movie.  That must have been one holy battlefield.  I felt inadequate holding a handgun.”

The murders had an uncommon viciousness to them, as if the killers meant not only to kill, but to send a message of payback or retribution.  There would be no open caskets at these funerals.  Each of the murder victims sustained numerous deep chopping wounds to the face and head and stabbing wounds to the body inflicted by a long knife.  An ice pick was also used.  Many of the wounds to Jessica Ryen were meted out post-mortem.  The autopsy reports stated that more than one-hundred-forty wounds, twenty-eight fractures, and two amputations were inflicted on the four murder victims. 

Forty-one-year-old Doug Ryen was found slumped kneeling against his bed, the victim of thirty-seven hatchet and knife wounds.  Two of the hatchet blows fractured his skull.  One of the knife wounds to his chest penetrated five inches through the right pleura cavity and then through the right lung.  Another transected the left carotid artery causing extensive hemorrhage and arterial blood spraying on the wall behind the water bed.  He sustained that injury on the opposite side of the bed from where his body was found, indicating he was mobile during part of the onslaught.  Oddly, all four fingertips of his left hand were lightly touching the edge of the waterbed on his side of the bed.  Another indication that the solidly built six-foot-two chiropractor had at least a few moments to attempt to ward off the attack was a severed finger on his right hand.  The blow that amputated the finger was delivered with such force that the finger was propelled into a bedroom closet.  Also suggesting that Doug actively resisted the attack were a number of defensive-type wounds slashed into both of his arms, one of them fracturing the ulna of his right forearm above his wrist.    

Peggy Ryen, also forty-one years old, was positioned in the middle of the bedroom with her arms straight out, her left leg straight out and her right knee slightly bent inward, much as though she had been nailed to a cross.  The blood drain pattern running from her right thigh to her right foot indicated to the medical examiner, Dr. Irving Root, that she was standing when she incurred that wound.  He said the bruising near her nose indicated that she was alive for one to three minutes after being hacked in the left cheek.  A smudge pattern on her left knee meant “she had to be elsewhere for a period of time” from where her body was found.  During the attack, and while still alive, she suffered hatchet wounds to both her face and the back of her head and a stab wound to her left breast.

Her body was covered with smeared dried blood and what the deputy coroner, David Hammock, described in his crime scene report “as a number of loose hairs about the subject body, including some very long brown hair, both on the left thigh and, in particular, about the auxiliary areas and arms.  These hairs are longer than the subject’s own head hair.”

Peggy sustained seventeen hatchet wounds to the forehead, face and chest and four separate knife wounds to her chest.  She, too, showed signs of resisting the attack, with stab wounds on fingers of both hands and left forearm.  The hatchet wounds exposed her skull to the bone and caused multiple skull fractures.  The medical examiner listed thirty-three separate wounds, most of them delivered with great force and destruction.  

Although San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell told the media that the killings were in no way “ritualistic,” a good deal of staging could be inferred from the placement of both Doug and Peggy Ryen’s bodies.  It was as equally unlikely that Doug Ryen would have died kneeling with his fingertips barely touching the front side of the bed as it was for his wife to have died with her body splayed straight out in a T.

Jessica, who died with a clump of blond or light brown hair clutched in her fingers, sustained the most wounds, forty-six, and had the most defensive type wounds to her hands and arms.  Her autopsy reported eight separate stabbing wounds to her right forearm and four to her right hand and wrist.  The little finger of her left hand was cut to the bone.  At four-feet-nine-inches and eighty pounds, she apparently sustained all those wounds before succumbing to having her forehead and face hacked in and her throat deeply slit.  One hatchet blow to the right side of her mouth was delivered with so much force that it caused three of her teeth to dislodge from her gums.

A knife was dragged across her back and then inserted.  Dr. Root said the bruising around the entry wound indicated it occurred early on in the assault. 

In another display of staging, Jessica’s chest was dotted with twenty puncture wounds most likely inflicted post-mortem with an ice pick in what the medical examiner described as showing “some type of pattern.”  Her head was twisted up so that her heavily mutilated face was visible.

Some of Jessica’s hair was found on her mother’s body.  This led Dr. Root “to believe the mother was cradling her daughter at one point during the attack.”

Chris Hughes endured twenty-six separate wounds, including a deep hatchet gash that ran from his eyebrows to the tip of his nose.  He sustained numerous skull fractures.  He was stabbed clear through his sternum.  His hands, wrist and arms also revealed numerous defensive wounds: his left arm was nearly severed and the second finger on his right hand was attached by a flap of skin. 

Theft did not appear to be a motive for the killings.  In reviewing the crime scene the day the murders were discovered, Detective John Clifford saw no signs of ransacking.  On a counter between the kitchen and the dining room, he saw coins and some bills in plain view next to Peggy Ryen’s purse.  Her purse contained over $40 in cash and numerous credit cards.  There was also a small amount of cash in Doug’s pants.  Clifford also located a coin collection in a safety deposit box on the upper shelf of a master bedroom closet.  Also visible in the bedroom was a jewelry box with jewels in it, as well as a video camera, stereo system, and a TV with a VCR.  In a nightstand drawer less than five feet from where Peggy Ryen’s body was laying, he found a loaded .22 Ruger pistol.  In Doug Ryen’s closet, about two feet from where his body was found, was a loaded .22 caliber Winchester Magnum rifle with scope attached.  An unloaded Smith & Wesson pellet gun was on the bottom shelf of that closest.  Doug Ryen’s wallet was missing, but it would be found under the front seat of his pickup truck in late July.  Only the Ryens’ station wagon had been stolen.  Their pickup truck, a 1976 Chevy Silverado with “Ryen Arabians Chino California” printed on the side, was still in the driveway with the keys in it.


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A recent book makes a compelling case.

From the Campaign to End the Death Penalty March 2013

By: Dan Sharber

This is a review of Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper by J. Patrick O'Connor, published in 2012 by Strategic Media Books.

Kevin Cooper is an innocent man on death row in California. And if you have been around the anti-death penalty movement for any amount of time, you most likely know this or have at least heard of Kevin Cooper. Now, thanks to the spellbinding new book, Scapegoat, by J. Patrick O’Connor, many, many more people will hopefully know his story too. 

This book is fantastic for a few different reasons. The first is that O’Connor is simply a talented writer.  He uses the facts of the story to reconstruct it in such a way as to build a tension-filled legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham. But unlike a Grisham novel or other true crime books of this ilk, O’Connor doesn’t just relay the story, he also spends a lot of time critiquing events and pointing out where things went wrong. This elevates the book above the level of a garden-variety true crime story and situates it firmly in the realm of political critique of the criminal justice system. 

O’Connor’s strength is his unwillingness to simply let the facts of the mishandling of Cooper’s case speak for themselves and rather to hammer home the police misconduct, the prosecutorial shenanigans and Cooper’s own defense attorney’s screw ups. 

Mainly, this is a simple story of racist scapegoating at its worst. 

On the morning of June 5, 1983, Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and Christopher Hughes were found dead in the Ryen home. They had been chopped with a hatchet, sliced with a knife, and stabbed with an ice-pick. Josh Ryen, the 8-year-old son of Douglas and Peggy, had survived though his throat had been cut.  It is important to note right away two things about this uncontested account. First, one person could not possibly have wielded that many weapons and subdue that many people. It is not humanly possible. And secondly, the only living witness Josh Ryen, initially said that Cooper was not the killer even telling a social worker in the emergency room that the murders were committed by 3 or 4 white men.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputies who responded to the call decided almost immediately that Kevin Cooper was the likely killer because he had admittedly hidden out in the vacant Lease house next door to the crime scene for two days (leaving on June 4th) and because he was a convenient black man in largely white San Bernardino. 

As anyone reading this will already know, the criminal justice system and specifically the application of the death penalty is full of racial bias. This bias extends not only to the race of the defendants singled out for death sentences but also to the race of the victim. 

African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of prisoners on death row. In Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Maryland, and in the U.S. military and federal system, more than 60 percent of those on death row are Black; Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio all have death rows where more than 50 percent are African American. Although Blacks constitute approximately 50 percent of murder victims each year, 80 percent of the victims in death penalty cases were white, and only 14 percent were Black. 

The cards were stacked against Cooper before his name was even known. Likewise, the misconduct in this case also began even before Cooper was pegged as the perpetrator.

In a shocking example of prosecutorial overreach, the District Attorney, Dennis Kottmeier had the crime scene torn down after only a couple of days of investigation. This prevented any experts from reconstructing or reenacting what happened that night in the Ryen’s home. Further, even the little bit of forensic work that was done was totally botched and contaminated at every stage of the process.

O’Connor does an especially good job of pointing out the shocking level of incompetence of both the police force and the District Attorney’s office, even prior to the racist scapegoating that occurs once they discover Cooper was in the area. 

It is then that things really heat up. Evidence is now pretty conclusively planted in the nearby house Cooper hid in.

A blood-stained khaki green button identical to buttons on field jackets issued at the state prison from which Cooper escaped was found on the rug at the Lease house; a hatchet covered with dried blood and human hair that was found near the Ryens' home was missing from the Lease house, and the sheath for the hatchet was found in the bedroom where Cooper had stayed.   

These two pieces of evidence appeared a day after the house had been searched and no such evidence had been found. Both the button and the sheath were clearly planted in the Lease house. It was established at trial that the prison jacket Cooper was wearing was tan, not green.  And it was never established that the sheath matched the hatchet that was used in the crime

The tragedy though is not simply that Kevin Cooper could be executed for a crime he didn’t commit but also that the Ryen family murders have not be solved and the perpetrators are still at large. The local police had access to evidence and multiple accounts from witnesses at various times pointing to a group of (3 – 4 white) men who were most likely the killers. Because this didn’t conform to their hardened view that Cooper was the murder, they disregarded all of it. 

What’s more, the police even went so far as to destroy evidence.  While destroying exculpating evidence by crooked cops is probably not all that uncommon, the disregard they show for finding the real killer is shocking. Shortly after the murders, a woman came forward saying she thought her (white) boyfriend was involved, as he had left a pair of bloody overalls at her house. It took many efforts on her part to merely get the police interested enough to come and pick up the overalls and interview the witness. However instead of using this new lead to expand the search away from Cooper, the police destroyed the overalls - what was likely the largest single piece of exculpatory evidence in their possession. This witness also claimed that a hatchet was missing from her garage.  

In a recent interview with Prison Radio, O'Connor pointed out that "while Cooper’s trial was in progress, an inmate in a California prison told prison authorities and a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detective that his cellmate had confessed to the Chino Hills murders, stating it was an Aryan Brotherhood hit but the three killers had gone to the wrong house." 

At this point the case just gets totally absurd. The defense attorney, David Negus, clearly did not know what he was doing and made mistake after mistake both procedurally and argumentatively.  Even with a large amount of tainted evidence and clear misconduct on the part of the police and the DA’s office, Negus still did not put together a coherent defense. Cooper was unsurprisingly convicted and sentence to death row.

But the misconduct isn’t over. Clearly Cooper had some solid grounds for appeals but those too were thwarted at every turn - from the incompetent police lab techs willfully destroying evidence (only to find it again when it served their case) to the appellate judge maliciously denying Cooper all sorts of legal maneuvers for no other reason than spite.

Overall, I, even as a seasoned anti-death penalty, anti-police activist, was shocked at the level of unfairness, corruption and general incompetence that riddled this case.

There is so much more to discuss on this case that I do not have the space to get into here. Suffice it to say, this book is well worth reading. It gives an inside view of not just how one man was railroaded and could be murdered by the state for a crime he didn’t commit, but it’s also a glimpse into the very real way that this racist scapegoating happened and continues to happen throughout the criminal ‘justice’ system. Get mad and then get involved!

What you can do:

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