The prisoner is waiting for the parole board’s decision. So does the family of the Modesto couple, who were brutally murdered in 1979


A final decision from the state parole board, expected at any time, could lead to the release of one of the four criminals convicted of a gruesome double murder in Modesto.

Family members of the two victims, Phil and Cathy Ranzo, were given another opportunity on Wednesday to oppose March’s decision to grant parole to 61-year-old Jeffrey Allen Maria.

Mariah, Marty Spears, Darren Lee, and Ronald Anderson were convicted of killing Phil and Cathy Ranzo in their Modesto home in 1979.

Former governor Jerry Brown overturned decisions in 2015, 2017 and 2018 that found Maria suitable for parole. But Governor Gavin Newsom did nothing to block the parole decision in March and, in late July, sent the matter back to the parole board for a final decision.

A decision on Maria’s parole is expected within 24 hours of Wednesday’s hearing.

Ranzo’s family members and others opposed to his release said that during her many years in prison, Maria learned to work the system and tell parole boards what they wanted to hear. But they said he did not keep his story clear about his involvement in the home invasion, rape and murder.

Retired Stanislaus County deputy district attorney Elizabeth DeYoung said the crime was “true evil” and that she continued to support the Ranzo family in countless hearings to keep the four perpetrators in prison.

Jeffrey Maria

Jeffrey Maria

Opponents said that, at various times, Maria claimed he had not entered Ranzo’s house and had no knowledge of Ranzo’s elephant death. However, he left the house with $500 in cash in his pocket.

Holding back tears, Phil Ranzo’s sister Sandy Howell told the parole board that Maria always engaged in denial and downplayed her role in the crime that killed the couple and left their 10-year-old son an orphan.

Mark Ranzo, a son and two granddaughters, also spoke on Wednesday, urging the board not to release Maria. “I saw the way this ruined my father’s life,” said Cathy Ranzo, daughter of Mark Ranzo. “I saw all the pain my family went through.”

Geoffrey Maria’s wife, Michele Baby Maria, said she continues to express remorse for his role in such a terrible crime, saying that without his participation it would not have happened. She said that during the 14 years of their marriage, her husband taught her to achieve goals.

If he is released, Baby Maria said her husband will be kept busy fixing up the house he bought in Sacramento.

Several pro-parole speakers said Maria was no longer the 17-year-old who committed the crime in 1979, but a responsible adult and caring individual.

Nursing home director Robert Polkinghorn said Maria is a force for good, as she volunteers in the hospice unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. His improvement efforts include self-help programs, obtaining a GED and three college degrees, as well as volunteering as a service dog trainer.

Cathy and Phil Ranzo were murdered in their Modesto home on June 25, 1979.

Cathy and Phil Ranzo were murdered in their Modesto home on June 25, 1979.

Housebreaking and murder

The four teens were convicted of planning a burglary at the Ranzos’ home. When Spears and Lee knocked on the door and told Phil Ranzo they were out of gas, Maria hid behind bushes.

When Ranzo takes them to the garage to refuel, Spears and Lee draw their weapons. Prosecutors say Maria also went to the garage, where Phil Ranzo was tied up and Spears hit him on the head with a baseball bat.

The evidence showed that Ranzo had been tortured and stabbed to death in the neck. Spears, Lee and Maria went into the house and forced Kathy Ranzo into the upstairs bedroom. She was tied up, beaten, raped by Spears, and stabbed to death.

The three teens then ransack the house for valuables. Anderson, the getaway driver, told investigators that Maria and Lee left the house carrying envelopes of jewelry and cash.

Newsom’s review of the parole board’s decision said that Maria’s characteristics as a 17-year-old minor reduced his guilt under the juvenile offender laws.

“Great effort to improve himself”

The governor noted that Maria made great efforts to improve herself while in prison. In order not to reverse his parole decision, Newsom wanted the parole board to consider whether Maria could be safely released and have the foresight to succeed on parole “in light of the unique challenges he is likely to face in society after 44 years in the prison”.

Because teen offenders are sentenced to life in prison, the quadrant has more latitude to request his release from prison, which has prompted victims’ family members to attend 30 or more parole hearings in opposition. Spears refused parole after a hearing earlier this month.

Howell said Maria denied any involvement in the crime. “He keeps blaming someone else for the choices he made. He plays down the crime and claims he had no part in it at all,” Howell said.

In a letter this week, Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirks expressed his opposition to the man’s release from prison. “Maria lied to the council about the facts, and he continued to fail to tell the truth about what really happened that day and his true involvement in the murders of Philip and Catherine Ranzo,” the sheriff wrote.

His message added: “He has not been rehabilitated. To release a convicted murderer back into my community is a failure of the system.”

Family members of the victims can request that Maria not be released to Stanislaus or San Joaquin counties. His marriage seems to point to the plan to release Maria in the Sacramento area.

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