A 36-year-old sex offender pleaded guilty Thursday to the kidnapping, rape and killings of four Orange County women in Anaheim.
Franc Cano, who has been in custody since April 2014, was immediately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors were originally seeking the death penalty, but announced to Cano’s defense team last week that due to newly revealed mitigating factors, capital punishment was no longer being considered in the case.
That decision led to Thursday’s guilty plea from Cano.
He admitted to the 2013 killings of 34-year-old Josephine Vargas and 20-year-old Kianna Jackson, and the 2014 killings of 28-year-old Martha Anaya and 21-year-old Jarrae Nykkole Estepp. Authorities said the women were working as prostitutes.
Cano’s co-defendant, Steven Dean Gordon, 53, was convicted of the killings in 2016 and sentenced to death the following year. Gordon acted as his own attorney during his trial, and ultimately conceded that he deserved the death penalty for the killings.
Only Estepp’s body was ever found. That discovery led to clues tying Gordon and Cano to the other killings, with prosecutors relying on DNA and evidence of the pair’s movements from GPS-tracking devices they were wearing due to prior sex offenses.
Parole and probation officials drew criticism in the case because Gordon and Cano, who were both registered sex offenders, were socializing together, which is a violation of their terms of release. The defendants also cut off their GPS devices and left the state at one point.
It was not immediately clear what circumstances led prosecutors to drop the death penalty for Cano.
In a Dec. 7 letter to Cano’s attorney, Chuck Hasse of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, prosecutors informed him that the District Attorney’s Office was no longer pursing the death penalty against Cano. Earlier this year, Hasse had asked the District Attorney’s Office to review the death penalty decision based on “new mitigation,” according to the letter.
“During these months, the prosecution evidence concerning your client was revisited and the victims’ families were contacted for input,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said in the Dec. 7 letter to Hasse.
“You also presented comprehensive mitigation on Oct. 24, 2022, including information concerning your client previously not presented,” Walker wrote. “After careful consideration of all of these materials in this case, it is the decision of the Orange County District Attorney not to pursue the death penalty against your client.”
During Gordon’s trial, Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin compared Gordon and Cano to the shark in “Jaws,” but in his closing argument, Yellin said that was an “insult to the sharks.”
“These guys not only did horrible things — killing, multiple sexual assaults — they also psychologically terrorized (the victims). They gave them hope, `If you just do this we’ll let you go,”’ the prosecutor said.