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Another participant in the brutal Ranzo murders of 1979 denied parole
parole board

The vicious murder of a Modesto couple in 1979 sent four young men to state prisons to serve lengthy sentences. Darren Lawrence Lee, who was a 16-year-old participant and now 60, was rejected for parole during a June 29 hearing of the State Board of Parole Hearings at San Quentin Prison.

Deputy District Attorney Amy Elliott Neumann appeared and successfully argued that Lee posed a risk to public safety if released.

On June 25, 1979, Lee, Ronald Ray Anderson, Marty Spears and Jeffrey Maria gained access to the home of Phillip and Kathryn Ranzo and killed them after torturing them. Philip Ranzo was a 30-year-old pharmacist and wife Kathryn a 29-year-old beauty shop owner. Kathryn Ranzo grew up in Turlock. She was the daughter of Turlock Police Officer Joseph Moore and graduated from Turlock High School in 1967.

The teenage suspects targeted the Ranzos because they believed them to have large amounts of cash in their home. They 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 him with a hatchet – slicing his throat and eyelids. He died from being beaten over the head with a blunt objects six times and stabbed in the neck.

The hogtied body of Kathryn Ranzo was found in a bathroom. 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.

Both bodies were found the next day. 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 grandparents’ house.

Twenty-three hours before the Ranzo murders, the four suspects robbed and assaulted a caretaker of a home in Newman. The men had also told caretaker Leonard Luna that they had run out of gas. Once inside, 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 in the Ranzo home.

Pre-trial publicity caused Lee’s 1980 trial to be moved to Sacramento County on a change of venue motion. A jury convicted Lee of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of robbery while armed with a firearm. Originally, Lee was sentenced to life without parole, which an appellate court later deemed to be “cruel and unusual punishment” for a minor. Lee was re-sentenced and is currently serving two consecutive sentences of 25 years-to-life.

At the hearing on June 29, Neumann argued that Lee still posed an unreasonable risk to public safety. The sister of the victim Phillip Ranzo argued against release and also asked the Board to deny parole based on Lee’s continued minimization of his role in the crimes. After deliberations, the board agreed that despite his “youthful offender status,” Lee still presents an unreasonable risk to public safety and denied parole for another three years.

Previously, in 2019 Lee filed a petition to be resentenced under a 2019 change to California’s Felony Murder law. The Stanislaus County District Attorney vigorously opposed that petition on the basis that Lee was a major participant in the killings who acted with reckless indifference to human life. His petition was denied by the Sacramento County Superior Court and is currently pending before the Court of Appeal.