State will release Jeffrey Maria, one of four convicted of murdering Modesto couple in 1979

The state Parole Board on Wednesday affirmed a decision to grant parole for one of the four offenders convicted in a horrific double murder in Modesto.

Jeffrey Maria, 61, was found suitable for parole in March over the objections of family members of Phil and Kathy Ranzo, who were viciously slain in a home invasion robbery in 1979. Gov. Gavin Newsom did not reverse the March decision but returned the matter to the Parole Board for a final determination.

The board released its decision Wednesday evening after hearing comments earlier in the day from people supporting Maria’s release and those opposing it.

“I am just numb,” said Sandy Howell, the sister of Phil Ranzo, after the final decision was posted. “And I’m concerned about my family and their safety. It is beyond devastating. The family did everything we could.”

Howell said the Ranzos’ son, Mark, who was 10 years old when the murders occurred, was deeply upset about the decision. She said the family will ask for stay-away orders to keep the parolee out of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

Maria along with Marty Spears, Darren Lee and Ronald Anderson were convicted of killing Phil and Kathy Ranzo at their Modesto home.

Phil Ranzo, a pharmacist, was hogtied in the home’s garage, where Spears beat him with a baseball bat and fatally stabbed him. Spears, Lee and Maria went into the home and forced Kathy Ranzo to an upstairs room. She was bound, raped by Spears and fatally stabbed. Prosecutors said an ax was used in the assault against the married couple.

The four teenagers were sentenced to double life sentences for the murders.

Ranzo family members and others opposing his release told the Parole Board on Wednesday that Maria learned during many years in prison how to work the system and tell parole panels what they wanted to hear. But they said he hasn’t kept his story straight about his involvement with the home invasion, rape and murders.

Elizabeth De Jong, a retired deputy district attorney for Stanislaus County, said the crime was “true evil” and she’s continued to support the Ranzo family at uncounted hearings to keep the four offenders in prison.

Jeffrey Maria
Jeffrey Maria

Opponents said Maria claimed he did not go inside the Ranzos’ home and did not know Phil Ranzo was dead. Yet he left the home with $500 cash in his pocket.

Mark Ranzo and two granddaughters also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, urging the board not to release Maria. “I have seen the way this has ruined my dad’s life,” Mark Ranzo’s daughter Kathy Ranzo said. “I have seen all this pain my family has gone through.”

Michaele Beebe-Maria, the wife of Jeffrey Maria, said he continues to express remorse for his role in such a horrible crime, saying that without his participation, it would not have occurred. She said that in their 14 years of marriage, her husband has taught her to meet goals.

Beebe-Maria said she expects her husband, after release, will keep busy fixing up the home they purchased in Sacramento.

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

Robert Polkinghorn, a hospice director, said Maria is a force for good, volunteering in the hospice unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. His efforts to improve include self-help programs, earning a GED and three associate degrees and also volunteering as a service dog trainer.

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

Newsom’s review of the Parole Board decision said Maria’s characteristics as a 17-year-old minor diminished his culpability under youth offender laws.

The decision to parole Maria was opposed in a letter this week from Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse. “Maria has lied to the board about the facts, he has continued to fail to tell the truth about what really transpired that day and his true involvement in the murders of Phillip and Kathryn Ranzo,” the sheriff wrote.

Dirkse’s letter added: “He is not rehabilitated. Releasing a convicted murderer back into my community is a failure of the system.”

Family members of the victims could ask that Maria not be released to Stanislaus or San Joaquin counties. His marriage would seem to indicate a release plan placing Maria in the Sacramento area.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown reversed decisions in 2015, 2017 and 2018 that found Maria suitable for parole.