Memories of murder

After 26 years gruesome killings are back in the news

Steven Crittenden, 46, has been on San Quentin’s death row for 24 years for the 1987 murders of a prominent Chico couple. A federal district court judge has ordered a retrial in the case.

Steven Crittenden, 46, has been on San Quentin’s death row for 24 years for the 1987 murders of a prominent Chico couple. A federal district court judge has ordered a retrial in the case.

PHOTO courtesy of the California Department of corrections

The news that a federal judge has ordered a new trial for a former Chico State student convicted in 1989 of the murders of a prominent Chico physician and his wife has stirred up memories of one of the most gruesome and racially charged cases in the city’s modern history.

In January 1987, Dr. William and Katherine Chiapella, who were then 68 and 67 years old, respectively, were found in their Downing Avenue home by their son, Joseph, also a physician. Both had been bound, gagged and stabbed multiple times and bludgeoned about the head with a fire extinguisher. There was evidence they had been tortured before being killed.

And, in a manner reminiscent of the Manson killings, the assailant had written a message in lipstick on two bathroom mirrors: “Just the beginning,” it read.

Five days later, Chico police arrested Steven Edward Crittenden, a 19-year-old from Fairfield, whom the Chiapellas had hired three months earlier through the university to do part-time yard work around their house, though apparently he had never shown up.

The Chiapellas were white, well-to-do and prominent members of the Chico community. Crittenden was a 6-foot-4-inch black man with a shaved head, an outsider who had come here to play football at the university.

Chico Enterprise-Record photographer Fred Arn captured the feeling shared by most people with a photo of a grieving Joseph Chiapella sitting on a curb outside his parents’ house, his head in his hands, just after finding their bodies. A neighbor and a police officer are both touching him sympathetically on the back.

When Crittenden was arrested, another E-R photographer, Ty Barbour, was positioned just outside his apartment door and caught the suspect’s white girlfriend crying as a cop led him away.

It was a huge story, one that was covered extensively not only by the local media, but also by outside television stations and newspapers.

Locally, African-Americans said they felt they were coming under heavier scrutiny when shopping or going to the bank. Steve Irving, a black financial-aid counselor at Chico State, told a CN&R reporter that his “big concern [was] that this [the killings] can be misconstrued by some people as ‘this is how they are,’ that it will reinforce the stereotype of black men as rapists and killers. This has more far-reaching effects than this case and this case alone.”

Ultimately, the trial was moved to Auburn, in Placer County, due to the extensive local publicity. As one local judge told Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey at the time, there was no way the accused could get an unbiased jury here because Dr. Chiapella, an obstetrician, “had delivered half of Chico.”

The evidence against Crittenden was circumstantial but convincing. Police found his shoeprint in the Chiapellas’ home and blood on shoes seized from his apartment. Sheets torn and used to bind the victims were in the same strawberry pattern as some found in his home. An eye witness placed him in the neighborhood just before the time of the killings.

Most damning was a $3,000 check signed by Mrs. Chiapella that Crittenden cashed shortly after the killings. He said it was payment for having sex with her at a local motel, but there was no record of either of them being registered there, and the room number he gave—96—didn’t exist.

As alibi, he said he was at the gym when the killings occurred. But none of the people he said would verify that claim were able to do so.

Crittenden spent more than two years in the Butte County jail. He escaped once, kidnapping a man and forcing him to drive to Sacramento, and tried to escape on two other occasions, in one instance throwing a jail guard against the cell bars.

In 1989, an all-white jury found him guilty of multiple crimes, including murder and kidnapping, and sentenced him to death. Gerald Flanagan, the Butte County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, used one of his 26 peremptory challenges to dismiss the lone black person in the jury pool of 50, on the basis that she had stated an opposition to the death penalty.

Like all death-penalty convictions, Crittenden’s has been appealed in just about every way possible up to the California Supreme Court and beyond, to the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2010, a three-judge panel of that court denied all of Crittenden’s points of appeal but one. It remanded the case back to district court for further review on the single issue of whether racism had played a role in the dismissal of the lone black juror.

Last week, Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ruled that racism was a “substantial” factor in the juror’s dismissal and ordered a new trial.

One of Crittenden’s attorneys, Mark Goldrosen of San Francisco, told The Sacramento Bee her ruling was correct but also courageous.

Ramsey said prosecutors have 60 days to initiate a retrial. In the meantime, the state attorney general will seek a stay and try to take the case back to the 9th Circuit. “We certainly don’t intend to release him, this butcher,” Ramsey said.