A Santa Rosa man was sentenced Friday to seven years to life in prison for strangling a 31-year-old woman in her La Palma apartment four decades ago.
Still undetermined, however, was how long Larry Stephens, 68, will have to wait for a parole hearing, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker. Orange County Superior Court Judge John Conley, who sentenced Stephens under laws in place when the murder occurred in 1974, asked attorneys to return to court next Friday to discuss how much credit Stephens deserves for time served behind bars.
It’s unclear whether Stephens should have to wait seven years for a parole hearing, or half of or one-third of that time. He was arrested July 31, 2015, according to jail records.
Jurors deliberated for about two hours March 6 before convicting Stephens of first-degree murder for killing Patricia “Annie” Ross on the evening of Dec. 11, 1974.
Ross’s brother, John Bingham, told the judge in a statement that his sister “was the center of our family.”
Ross was “kind, generous, thoughtful, intelligent, loving and enlightened. She was exceptional in almost every area of life in which she participated,” Bingham said.
When she was killed, “my parents almost died of grief. Father had a heart attack and mother was grief stricken from losing a child,” he said.
Bingham added, “My family is all gone now, and I uphold the values that they instilled in me.”
He asked Conley to “lock up Larry Stephens for the balance of his life. I am not a hateful, hurtful, vindictive person, but I realize that this person does not need to be exposed to freedom anymore.”
Ross did not know the defendant but had been a roommate of a neighbor, Paul Williams, who lived a couple of doors down from the victim, according to Walker, who said a motive for the killing was unclear.
Walker argued that Stephens was a misogynist, referring to how he characterized himself in a letter from jail to his third wife. The prosecutor said there was evidence that the victim was sodomized, but the defendant was charged only with the murder count.
Ross had just sold her share in a plant store business to take a job at Hughes Aircraft Co. She left work early to pick up pizza because she was going to celebrate in Seal Beach that night with her boyfriend, Bob Johnson, a girlfriend, Shari Rosen, and another friend, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy named Rod Walthers. When she didn’t show up, Rosen sent Walthers to check on Ross, and he found her body at her apartment at 5600 Orangethorpe Ave., Walker said.
The victim’s small dog, which was found locked in a drawer, was an “unsung hero” because the canine’s bites of the suspected killer eventually allowed authorities to charge Stephens, the prosecutor said.
Crime scene investigators collected blood samples, hoping to make a blood match with the killer — DNA technology did not exist yet — and the case grew cold, she said.
When the case was reopened in 1996, DNA technology was emerging, so blood from a window sill was tested and a profile was developed, but there was no match in criminal databases.
In 2009, crime lab investigators determined that blood on a comforter matched the profile of the blood on the window sill, Walker said.
In May 2015, investigators were able to match the DNA with the defendant when he was arrested for domestic violence and was compelled to contribute his genetic material, Walker said. Stephens had never been questioned before in the case, she said.
In August 2015, investigators developed a match of Stephens’ DNA with genetic material found under Ross’ fingernails, Walker said. Investigators believe Ross fought for her life as she tried to loosen the grip of her killer, the prosecutor said.
After his arrest for domestic violence, Stephens penned incriminating-sounding letters to his wife from his jail cell, Walker said. In one letter, he wrote, “I know I’m a monster and that in some ways this may be for the best,” referring to his link to the Ross murder, according to the prosecutor.
Stephens’ attorney, Jay Moorhead of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said the DNA on the victim’s fingernails matched males in his client’s family, but did not specifically match only the defendant.
While the evidence may show Stephens was in the victim’s apartment, it doesn’t say when he was there, Moorhead argued.