The making of a killer

What turned James Karis Jr. into a cold-blooded murderer? A family tree from hell, for starters…

Sacramento attorney Michael Bigelow should have seen it coming. His client, convicted rapist and murderer James Karis Jr., has been saying it all along. During Bigelow’s visits to San Quentin’s death row, where Karis has been imprisoned for more than two decades, the inmate repeats his mantra: “You can present anything you want in court as long as I don’t have to be there.” Bigelow doesn’t take him literally. Why should he? The ante for Karis, 55, couldn’t be higher. His life is at stake. Of course he’ll be in court.

Except his client is telling him there’s no way in hell he’s appearing in person—and Bigelow can’t hear that.

This is James Karis: Twenty-six years ago this week, in broad daylight, he abducts two Placerville women and drives them to a secluded area just outside the town. He rapes one then shoots both in the back of the head, leaving them for dead. The crime rattles a rural hamlet unaccustomed to such brazen violence and sparks a statewide manhunt. Karis is captured one week later. One woman he shot survives to testify against him at the trial, which is held in Sacramento because of extensive pretrial publicity. In July 1982, a jury finds Karis guilty and sentences him to death.Like all death-penalty convictions, the case automatically is appealed. As it grinds through the legal process, it gradually becomes clear that there has been a significant omission in the first trial: the defendant’s horrific family history of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation, and mental illness spanning three generations. The history includes the violent beatings and molestation Karis received at the hands of his own father, as well as near-constant abuse from his mother and stepfather. This, too, is James Karis, or at least what makes him the menace to society he is today.

Call it the family tree from hell.

The evidence of Karis’ systematic abuse is so compelling that a federal judge overturns his death sentence in 1998, commuting it to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The state elects to retry the penalty phase, and in 2004 Bigelow and co-counsel Steven Bailey are assigned to defend Karis. Bigelow, Bailey, investigator Terry Butrym and a host of expert witnesses spend hours gathering, assembling and interpreting evidence that Bigelow distills down to a five-hour Power Point presentation he plans to present as his opening statement when the trial begins in April past.

And then comes the mantra.

“You can present anything you want in court as long as I don’t have to be there.”

Karis isn’t kidding. On the eve of the trial, he fires his defense team rather than sit in open court and relive his own terrifying past. By acting as his own attorney, he virtually guarantees his own death sentence. Apparently, some secrets are so painful they’re worth taking to the grave.

Sitting in his downtown Sacramento office on a pleasantly warm summer day months later, Bigelow still seems shaken by his inability to hear what Karis had been telling him all along.

“Some cases go away,” Bigelow says. “A case like this never goes away.”

Rangy and athletic with a shock of gray hair over a craggy countenance, the attorney still enjoys pick-up hockey games at a local ice rink even though he’s in his early 60s. He, his wife and their Australian Shepherd, Gus, often volunteer weekends on the Yosemite National Park emergency search-and-rescue team. Their two daughters are lawyers: One is a local assistant DA, the other works for the state. His law practice, situated in the Traveler’s Building, is thriving; he’s one of a handful of local attorneys who handles federal cases for indigent defendants. There’s no shortage of work. Bigelow currently represents one of the members of the alleged Hmong conspiracy to overthrow the Laotian government.

He couldn’t differ more from Karis, who never graduated from high school and has spent almost his entire adult life in prison. Yet there’s a connection between Bigelow and Karis that’s palpable, even though the convict is miles away on death row. Bigelow possesses a degree of empathy that’s rare in most people, particularly attorneys: an indefatigable need to root for the underdog. The extensive catalog of abuse his client endured seems etched on his face. The battle is over, but he’s still fighting to save Karis’ life.

Prison blues: Convicted murderer and rapist James Karis Jr. currently resides on death row in San Quentin, where some day he may be executed—if he doesn’t die of old age first.


“I say the kid didn’t have a chance,” Bigelow says. “There are kids who grow up and do fine who have been abused. But I doubt seriously there are very many kids walking around who have survived the kind of abuse I’m going to show you, the kind of environment I’m going to show you, the kind of genetic background I’m going to show you.”

Like James Karis Jr., he isn’t kidding.

Before Bigelow begins his presentation, some explanation is required—a little foreshadowing. For starters, all of the information presented below is taken from public documents. More than 300,000 pages have been filed on the case. The defense team interviewed some 400 witnesses.

Secondly, the key to Bigelow’s defense strategy is the now widely accepted psychological theory that young children who witness and experience violent abuse not only learn that such behavior is acceptable, in some cases they also undergo neurological changes that can lead to mental disorders such as depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder, particularly in individuals genetically predisposed to such disorders. It is also well-recognized that patterns of physical, mental and sexual abuse can be passed from one generation to the next. As Bigelow puts it, “Genetics is the gun and environment is the trigger.”

Of course, it’s possible to transcend such circumstances; some children do. But few do it without help from a mentor of some sort—a parent, an aunt or uncle, a coach or teacher. One question posed by the defense on its questionnaire for prospective jurors asked if they had such a mentor when they were growing up. “Every single juror wrote yes,” Bigelow says.

On the other hand, Karis belongs to a family where mentoring of any sort was nonexistent for generations. On Bigelow’s flow chart—which he calls the “template”—the family tree from hell begins on the paternal side with Karis’ grandfather, George Karis. Born in Greece in 1903, he immigrates to the Bay Area, where he marries native Californian and raging alcoholic Evelyn Daves in 1926. They have five children: George Jr., Eugene, James Sr., Thomas and Esther. Although he has a decent job with Union Pacific, George dresses his children in rags, locks the cupboards to conserve food and pays for medial care only when absolutely necessary. He punches, slaps and uses whatever household implement is handy to beat his wife and children into submission, according to his son, Thomas, a retired court reporter who today lives in Seattle.

James Sr., the future father of James Jr., is a favorite target of George’s onslaughts. When James breaks a window, George beats him with a heavy wooden board. Another time, he strikes James with a crowbar. Once, he nails his son between the eyes with a pair of scissors. The abuse takes its toll. By his early teens, James is physically assaulting all of his siblings and sexually molesting Thomas and Esther.

In 1937, George and Evelyn divorce and Evelyn hooks up with local bar owner and wife-beater Phino Cancilla. They have seven children; James Sr. molests two of them.

Thomas considers James Sr. a pedophile. In addition, his older brother exhibits wild, violent mood swings. Once, in an argument over a pencil, he stabs Thomas in the knee with a pair of needle-nose pliers, hobbling Thomas for six months. There are other signs of mental illness in the Karis family. George Jr. eventually develops schizophrenia. Esther suffers from severe depression. Tom graduates from high school and moves to the Pacific Northwest after a stint in the Air Force, escaping the family legacy.

Things aren’t much better on the maternal branch of the family tree, which takes root in Oklahoma. Elizabeth Howell, Karis’ great-great grandmother, is “Bible crazy” and rumored to have poisoned her husband. She is institutionalized for an unknown mental ailment. Karis’ great-great grandfather, William Murrin, is a notorious moonshiner who shared the family business with his son-in-law, John Otto Howell, Karis’ grandfather. They take turns molesting Dona Howell, 9, John’s second daughter.

John Howell is a violent inebriate prone to fistfights and raining blows down upon his family. In addition to molesting Dona, he sexually abuses her older sister Cora Lee. They move from farm to farm, barely eking out livings. Later, when Dona is in her teens, her father comes into her room at night and rapes her as her younger sister Eva Marie, Karis’ mother, lies next to them in bed, her face buried in a pillow. When she is older, Marie becomes the object of her father’s “affections.” During the great migration of Oklahomans to California in the Dust Bowl’s aftermath, the sisters work their way across the west, picking cotton one row at a time.

At age 16, Marie meets James Karis Sr. and falls madly in love with him. As one of the defense team’s psychological experts notes: “It is hard to envision a union more ill fated, one more predestined to produce damaged offspring. Marie and Jim were forged through trauma, and carried heavy loads of individual pathos. Not having received protection and consistent care during their childhoods, neither had effective abilities to cope with stress or to empathize with others. Nor, especially, did either possess the parenting skill of putting one’s dependent child above one’s own needs and desires.”

Meet James Karis Jr.’s parents.

Defense attorney Michael Bigelow and the family-tree template he would have used to defend James Karis Jr. against the death penalty—if Karis hadn’t fired his defense team.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

It is 1951.The couple marries in Reno then moves in to a dusty, cobweb-ridden tar-paper shack in San Jose owned by James Sr.’s stepfather, Cancilla. The honeymoon ends in a barrage of punches that blackens both of Marie’s eyes. Into this world comes James Jr., despite the pills James Sr. has been force-feeding his wife to induce a miscarriage. The Army drafts James Sr. A pornography aficionado since his teens, when he also molested several of his half-sisters, he has Eva Marie pose for soft-core photographs that he peddles at the Army base. He suggests they could make a lot more money peddling Marie.

The fights continue, young James Jr. watches on. Eventually, the couple separates. James Sr. provides no financial support but stalks his wife for years. Marie takes two jobs, leaving James Jr. with whoever is available. Once, after leaving him with his father, her son returns home with a circular burn from an automobile cigarette lighter on his hand. There are other mysterious injuries, scrapes, cuts and bruises.

James Sr. remarries and has four daughters, all of whom he eventually molests. When his oldest daughter prays as he rapes her just before Sunday school, he tells her, “Your God can’t help you now.” Later, James Sr. tearfully confesses to a half-brother that he molested James Jr., as well.

Marie is by no means any saint. Neighbors often witness her whipping young James Jr. with an extension cord. She burns through four husbands in six years, finally settling for Courtney Jones, who regularly beats her and James. “I’ll make you wish you were dead,” Courtney frequently tells Marie. Again, James Jr. watches on. They have a son, Kevin, who is favored over James Jr.—an ongoing, multigenerational theme on both sides of the Karis family. The family constantly moves; James Jr. attends eight different grade schools and sometimes doesn’t go to class at all. When he is 10, Courtney and Marie separate and he becomes the male head of the household, responsible for the care of the difficult, hyperactive Kevin while his mom is at work or out partying all night.

Bigelow halts the presentation briefly, as if to catch his breath.

“People say, everybody’s had it bad in their life. Yeah? But not so much. I don’t know anybody who’s ever had it quite like this.”

By this time, the sadness and depression that will define Karis for the rest of his life has set in. Teachers notice his far-away stare, as if he is off somewhere else. His futility, his sense of helplessness, is overwhelming. But Karis catches one of the few breaks he’ll ever get. His family moves in with his mother’s brother Jack Howell and his wife, Marlene. An alcoholic and an abuser, Jack nevertheless maintains a steady job as a truck driver and is a good provider. He becomes the first and only positive role model Karis will ever have. A mentor. They go on family camping and fishing trips. His grades in school stabilize. Things are looking up.

Bigelow clicks to the next slide in the demonstration. It’s a newspaper clipping from the San Jose Mercury News, dated June 1, 1966:

Driver of Truck Dies in Flames

A truck driver was burned to death in his cab after a spectacular 60-ft plunge off the 105th overpass. California Highway Patrol officers said Jack Howell, 41, lost control of the big-truck trailer rig after striking a parked car.

The impact of the slide is shattering.

“Remember my question about the mentor in the questionnaire?” Bigelow asks. “That’s it. Who was the one person in his life that James looked up to? Jack Howell. Who did he lose? Jack Howell. From there on, it was … a spiraling gyro, down to destruction.”

Karis holds on for a semester after Jack’s death, but by 10th grade his grades slip from Bs to Ds. Family, friends and teachers note his despondency. A dark, gloomy cloud hovers over him. He drops out of school at 16 and begins hanging out with Bob Baker, a 24-year-old with a criminal record who cultivates high-school-age boys with beer and drugs. Karis and Baker share an interest in motorcycles, and Karis purchases a used Triumph. The gang gather down by the river, where Karis often drinks beer until passing out. It’s the mid-1960s and the party is on. He smokes marijuana and drops LSD, peyote and mescaline. He sniffs paint and Freon. He injects methamphetamine, heroin and even whiskey.

James Karis Jr.’s great grandfather, William Murrin, in an undated photograph.

Courtesy Of Mountain Democrat Archives

In July 1968, Karis drinks whiskey at Baker’s house with his date, “Bubbles,” who dares him to rob a local liquor store. “Let’s do a Bonnie and Clyde,” she says. His judgment impaired, he agrees. He makes his getaway on the bike with police in hot pursuit, losing them but crashing after rounding a corner too fast. The Triumph pitches him into a field where he wakes up the next morning. Baker convinces him to turn himself in to authorities. The judge offers 17-year-old Karis a deal: Go to juvenile hall or join the Army. He chooses the latter.

He yearns to go to Vietnam, but isn’t old enough. The Army stations him in Alaska, where he repairs helicopters, shoots speed and makes trouble. A doctor records the track marks on his arm, the head injuries from various motorcycle accidents and his unruly behavior and recommends him for discharge. He is unfit for service and, perhaps, already incapable of living in open society. Big trouble waits just around the corner; the victim is about to become the abuser. His discharge is approved, and with nowhere else to go, he moves in with Baker, who has relocated to Anaheim.

Alcohol and drugs are his constant companions. Life with Baker is aimless, a nonstop party that undoubtedly damages Karis’ warped faculties even further. During a drunken binge in February, he and a roommate accost three women parked at a service station in Garden Grove. While two of the women use the restroom, Karis climbs into the front seat and sticks a knife in 24-year-old Susan Maguire.

“Do as I say,” he whispers.

The other two girls return, and Karis directs them to a deserted warehouse district. His roommate pulls up behind them in his car. Karis forces Keri Alvarado, 22, into the roommate’s car.

“Take off your clothes.”

Then Karis and the roommate take turns raping her.

They are apprehended hours after the crime. Karis pleads guilty, the court sentences him to six months to life for aggravated rape. He is released in August 1975. In November, he rapes 17-year-old San Jose high school senior Deborah Brinker. After just four months of freedom, he returns to prison for his second aggravated rape conviction. Unfortunately, it will not be his last.

Karis is 27 when he is paroled from Vacaville in January 1981. All but 8 months of his adult life have been spent behind bars. As a condition of his parole, he registers as a mentally ill sex offender and attends monthly therapy sessions. Nevertheless, he holds his head high, determined to put the shame of two forcible rape convictions behind him.

His plans are doomed from the start.

He arrives at his mother’s small, one-bedroom apartment in Placerville only to find that his half-brother Kevin and his girlfriend have taken up residence the day before. The hyperactive younger sibling he cared for as a 10-year-old had flowered into a fully dysfunctional cocaine addict. Mom is on disability, waiting for her Social Security checks to start coming. Kevin and his girlfriend are deadbeats. The foursome live off Karis’ weekly $220 unemployment check.

Things quickly go from bad to worse. They move to a house in the country, 10 miles north of Placerville, near Kelsey. They pack water in old milk cartons from a stream several miles away. They wash laundry in a tub. More often than not, breakfast, lunch and dinner consist of a thin brown gruel made from flour and water.

Karis tries to remain optimistic. In prison, he’d become an accomplished artisan, and now he sells some of his wares—wooden clocks, toys, jewelry—to The Crafty Lady in downtown Placerville. He cultivates a small marijuana crop. With his mother’s first Social Security check, he purchases gold prospecting equipment.

Murrin abused granddaughters Cora Lee and Eva Marie Howell, shown in this 1940 photograph. Eva Marie gave birth to Karis in 1951.

Courtesy Of Michael Bigelow

But none of the money-making schemes pan out.

Once a month, he visits Jay Rogust, a friend and fellow jewelry maker from prison who lives in Rancho Cordova with his girlfriend, Peggy Steubens. Steubens becomes one of the few people Karis feels comfortable confiding in. She listened patiently as Karis, often on the verge of tears, tells her of his crushing depression, his feelings of inadequacy, his fear of failure.

At night in the house near Kelsey, he sleeps little, stares at the TV or the wall.

On the Fourth of July, Steubens and Rogust return home from a fireworks display to find Karis waiting for them. A rambling conversation turns to the issue of keeping a gun in the home and self-defense. A year later, at his trial for rape and murder, she will testify that Karis tells her he would kill a witness if it meant not going back to prison.

Sometime during that hot holiday weekend in 1981, three generations of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation and mental illness, a lifetime of beatings, rejection, and failure coalesce in a single, dangerous mind. The family tree from hell looms large over James Karis Jr., and he reaches for the only thing that has ever made the pain go away, if only temporarily.

He sticks a needle in his arm and squeezes the plunger.

The first blast of methamphetamine washes away the pain with a wave of euphoria. When the pain returns, he shoots some more dope. Then some more. Days pass. When the meth runs out, whiskey takes the edge off, but it can’t stave the inevitable. The pain, the depression, the stress return with a vengeance, and the lethal machinery of genes and experience that make Karis brutalize women clicks into gear.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 8, he finds himself parked in Placerville on Clay Street beneath the Highway 50 overpass. A gun sits in his lap. It is just about 10:30 a.m., and Peggy Pennington, 34, and Patty Vander Dussen, 27, two employees of the nearby El Dorado County Welfare Department, are on their daily walk around the block. He jumps out of the car.

“Get in or I’ll kill you,” he says.

He drives out to a secluded area on Rock Creek Road, halfway between Placerville and Kelsey, his dark, staring eyes keeping watch in the rear view mirror. He marches them down to the dry, overgrown creek bed and orders them to remove their clothes.

He ties Pennington’s hands with her pantyhose and rapes her.

After it is over, he marches the women farther up the creek bed to a shallow depression in the ground. He orders them down into the hole and to turn their backs toward him. He’s not going back to prison. He shoots both women in the backs of their heads, buries them beneath a pile of rocks and leaves them for dead.

Bruised, battered and with a bullet hole in her neck, Vander Dussen miraculously survives the attack. She directs authorities to the shallow grave off Rock Creek Road, where Pennington is declared dead at the scene. Police, tipped off by Karis’ parole officer, apprehend the suspect in Sonoma County one week later.

Peggy Pennington’s murder and James Karis Jr.’s subsequent capture made headlines for weeks in the normally peaceful foothills town of Placerville.

Courtesy Of Mountain Democrat Archives

At the trial in July 1982, the thing Vander Dussen remembers most is those dark, staring eyes in the rear view mirror. Although his public defender is aware of it, no evidence of Karis’ extensive family history of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation and mental illness is presented. It takes the jury two days of deliberation to find Karis guilty and two-and-a-half days to sentence him to death.

As Karis returns to prison in August 1982, the automatic appeals process for death-penalty convictions engages. In 1988, the California Supreme Court unanimously rejects the contention that the death penalty was disproportionate punishment for his crimes and that the jury received improper instructions for applying the penalty. That same year, the court rules that a written affidavit from Karis’ half-brother Kevin, who suffered an aneurysm and was unable to testify, was properly admitted. It also decides that testimony provided in the penalty phase by Brinker, the 17-year-old San Jose high school senior Karis raped in 1975, was admissible, even though Karis’ attorney had conceded to the crime.

In 1993, Karis finally catches a break. Eastern District Federal Judge Lawrence Karlton decides to consider more than 30 legal claims made by Karis’ attorneys. The ruling is a boon to Karis and other death-row inmates and a blow to the state’s efforts to grease the rails leading to the gas chamber. Karlton stuns prosecutors in 1998 when he overturns Karis’ death sentence, commuting it to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless a new penalty phase is conducted.

It is only the third time a death sentence has been overturned since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Heading Karis’ defense team on the federal appeal is Sacramento attorney Norman Hile, whom Bigelow credits with gathering much of the evidence used in the Karis template. Bigelow and co-counsel Bailey take on the case in 2004, and by the time they bring it to trial in April of this year, millions in taxpayer dollars have been spent.

All of if for nothing, as it turns out.

Just before the trial begins, Karis, seated next to Bigelow at the defense table, turns to the attorney and says, “Mike, I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to have to go Faretta.” Faretta refers to legal precedent that grants a defendant the right to act as his own attorney. Karis has just fired his own defense team.

Bigelow still grimaces at the memory. He should have seen it coming.

“I wasn’t smart enough to hear it the first times we met,” he says. “If he said it to me once, he must have said it to me 100 times. I’d go down to San Quentin and talk to him, he’d call me on the phone and I’d talk to him. He would say to me, ‘Look, you can present anything you want as long as I don’t have to be there. You keep me from being in that courtroom and you can present anything you want.’”

Bigelow cynically figures that Karis doesn’t want to hassle with transferring from San Quentin to the Sacramento County jail, universally known as “the worst facility in the United States.” They’ll roll him up, shackle him, lose his possessions. Bigelow doesn’t understand that some secrets are so painful, they’re worth taking to the grave. He doesn’t really hear Karis until the defendant speaks in court.

“I know everything Bigelow is going to put on,” Karis tells the judge. “I can’t live it again.”

Bigelow’s eyes well up recalling the scene.

“He’s crying when he’s saying this, and they’re not false tears,” he says hoarsely. “That is what he’s been saying to me for three years, and I didn’t hear it.”

Without competent attorneys to present the defense, the trial degrades into a procedural. It’s over in weeks rather than months. The jury and judge send Karis back to death row. The loss weighs heavily on Bigelow, even though it’s through no fault of his own.

James Karis Jr.’s father, James Karis Sr., shown here with daughters Sherri and Terri in 1958, was by all accounts a violent, abusive man who molested nearly all of his children, including his son James.

Courtesy Of Michael Bigelow

“We’re going to execute a man,” he says simply. “We all lose.”

He’s convinced that jurors would have decided otherwise had they been presented with the evidence—had they seen the family tree from hell. It’s been more than two months since the trial ended and he took a well-earned vacation with family and friends, and he’s a little rusty on the material. But as he nears the end of what would have been a five-hour Power Point presentation in court, Bigelow is back in full swing. A photograph of a smiling, innocent 6-year-old boy fills the screen: James Karis Jr.

“When all of the evidence is in, I’m going to ask you a question,” he says. “I’m going to ask you how we got from here to where we are today.”

The Karis family template comes up next.

“These are all the people in the Karis lineage who suffered from drug and alcohol abuse,” he says.


The next layer of the template is overlaid on the first.

“These are all the people in the Karis lineage who physically and mentally abused their children.”


“These are all the people who repeatedly sexually abused their children and the women in their lives.”


“These are the people with mental disorders.”

When he’s done, there’s hardly a soul in the three generations depicted on the chart who hasn’t abused a family member or been touched by some form of abuse or mental illness. It truly is the family tree from hell. Some members have taken up residence on all the template’s levels.

“Look at this!” Bigelow growls as his laser pointer lands on James Karis Sr. The red dot flicks across the five daughters from his second marriage. “Sexually abused by him, every goddamned daughter!”

The same man who beat his wives and his children mercilessly and once tearfully confessed he had molested his son, James Karis Jr.

“So, that’s what we theoretically would have gotten into the jury room,” Bigelow sighs. “I’d ask if this might have something to do with why James Karis is who he is, and explain, without excusing, why we are here. If it does, he should go back to prison for the rest of his life and not be executed.”

He pauses, as if he has once again convinced himself.

“And you know what?” he smiles. “I don’t think they would have killed him.”