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Lookout in 1979 murder stays in prison
Darren Lee, Jeffrey Maria, Ronald Ray Anderson and Marty Spears were all convicted in the 1979 slayings of Modesto couple Kathryn and Philip Ranzo, seen here.

Ronald Ray Anderson, the man who was convicted in participating in the brutal 1979 slaying of a Modesto couple, will remain behind bars after his legal attempt to win freedom failed last month.

Anderson’s murder conviction was upheld on April 30 following his legal challenge to overturn the conviction under newly created Penal Code §1170.95. 

Deputy District Attorney Erin Schwartz and Special Prosecutor Amy Neumann argued against releasing Anderson, who along with then teenagers Marty Spears, Jeffrey Maria and Darren Lee, Maria was involved in the brutal killings of Philip and Kathryn Ranzo on June 25, 1979. Philip Ranzo, 30, was a pharmacist and Kathryn, 29, owned her own beauty salon. The teenage suspects showed up at the couple’s door, pretending to be out of gas and needing to use a phone. Acting as a Good Samaritan, Mr. Ranzo directed them to his garage to retrieve a can of gas. Maria and Spears then forced Mr. Ranzo at gunpoint into the garage and hogtied him. Prosecutors say they used his 10-year-old son’s baseball bat to brutally beat him. The killers tortured Mr. Ranzo with a hatchet – slicing his throat and eyelids. He died from his wounds.

Philip Ranzo was the son of Marie Kathryn Rhodes Ranzo who worked as a nurse’s aide at the Memorial Hospital Ceres and who attended St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Ceres.

Kathryn Elaine Moore Ranzo was the daughter of Turlock Police Officer Joseph Moore. She graduated from Turlock High School in 1967.

The four suspects wanted to rob the Modesto home of the Ranzos because they believed them to have large amounts of cash in their home.

Anderson drove by the residence as many as five times before parking and letting the others out to execute their scheme. The plan was for the trio to claim to be out of gas and ask to use the telephone. Anderson acted as a “lookout” while the other three left the car armed with weapons to rope to overpower and tie up the victims.

Approximately 20 minutes later, Lee and Maria returned to the car in a hurry with envelopes full of cash and jewelry. Anderson admitted at a parole hearing that he believed that both Lee and Maria saw the Ranzos be murdered. Without seeking any aid for the victims, Anderson first drove Lee and Maria to safety before returning to the Ranzo home to pick up Jackson.

On June 26, 1979, the bodies of the Ranzos were found in their home. Both had been hogtied. Phillip Ranzo was found dead on the floor of the garage. He had been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument at least six times and had suffered a fatal stab wound to the neck. Kathryn Ranzo was found in a bathroom of the house. She had been struck multiple times in the head with an axe. There were signs she had been tortured with multiple cuts to her eyes and face. She had been sexually assaulted and suffered a fatal stab wound to the throat. The house had been ransacked, with cash, jewelry and a gun missing.

The deaths orphaned their 10-year-old child, Mark, who happened to have spent that night at his grandparent’s house.

Twenty-three hours before the Ranzo murders, the four suspects had robbed and assaulted a caretaker of a home in Newman. The men told caretaker Leonard Luna that they had run out of gas. Once inside the house, they hog-tied Luna, beat him in the head with a revolver, cut his scalp and knocked him unconscious. They ransacked the home, taking multiple guns and weapons which were used while at the Ranzo home.

Pre-trial publicity caused the trial to be moved to Alameda County on a change of venue. In 1979, an Alameda County Superior Court jury convicted Anderson of the murders and he was sentenced to serve life in prison.

In 2018, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 1437, which was signed into law by then Gov. Jerry Brown which dramatically changed the law regarding felony murder in California and narrowed the scope of who can and cannot be convicted of murder where multiple participants are involved. Under §1170.95, murder convictions are now restricted to 1) those who are the actual killers; 2) major participants in the underlying felonies who act with reckless indifference to human life; or 3) direct aiders and abettors who share an intent to kill.

Anderson filed a petition under the new law in the Alameda County Superior Court to have his murder convictions overturned. Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Erin Schwartz and Special Prosecutor Amy Elliott Neumann opposed Anderson’s petition in court filings and at hearings on the motion before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson.

Judge Jacobson reviewed transcripts of the entire trial testimony, Anderson’s statements at nine parole hearings as well as the written briefs and oral arguments by the prosecution and defense before denying Anderson’s petition on April 30. Jacobson found that Anderson’s claim that he never went inside the Ranzo home was not credible. A witness testified that Anderson told her that the murder scene was gruesome, that it would have made her sick and that he almost threw up when he saw it. Her testimony, along with the gap in time in his story, persuaded the judge that Anderson did indeed go inside the house.

“Anderson has declined to account for [a] period of 60 to 90 minutes, during which time he went into the house and viewed the murder scene before he and Jackson left the Ranzo residence,” said the judge.

In denying the petition to have the murder convictions vacated, Judge Jacobson found that prosecutors had “proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that Anderson was a major participant in the Ranzo murders as well as an aider and abettor who shared the intent to kill with his co-defendants.

Anderson continues to serve a life prison sentence. He has the right to appeal this decision to a higher court. He will also continue to appear before parole boards for consideration of release on parole.