The state parole board Wednesday found suitable for parole a two-time jail escapee convicted of bludgeoning a former girlfriend with a claw hammer and fatally shooting her husband in 1983.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas opposed Ivan Von Staich's parole bid, but if the 55-year-old is ultimately cut loose at least T-Rack, county judges and state justices can take solace in possibly ending the legal reign of one of the state's most litigious inmates.
A larger parole panel must still review the suitability finding, and Governor Jerry Brown can still block Von Staich's parole. Federal prosecutors also have a hold on Von Staich for an unrelated federal crime alleged to have been committed around the time of his murder arrest.
If Von Staich can clear those hurdles--a tall order, indeed--he could be freed from the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo in four months, according to the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA).
The crimes that put him in prison were quite brutal. Around 1 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1983, then-27-year-old Von Staich arrived at the home of his ex-girlfriend Cynthia Topper, who by then was married to Robert Topper. The "ex-" can be explained by what happened six months earlier. On parole for arson in Riverside County, Von Staich hit Cynthia, a waitress he met and started dating in 1980, in the jaw and threatened to kill her. Pleading for her life, she told him she loved him to make him stop the abuse.
Cynthia later reported the incident to Von Staich's halfway house, and the parolee threatened to kill her again. Later that month, he broke into her home and stole some photographs. He discovered she was dating Robert Topper and started calling and harassing him. Due to the threats and harassment, Staich's parole was revoked.
He was released on Nov. 17, 1983, with orders to stay away from the Toppers. Just a few weeks later, he cut the outside telephone wires of the Toppers' Santa Ana home with pliers and kicked open the front door. Wearing gloves and armed with two hammers, he walked to the master bedroom and struck Cynthia with the claw hammer before she ran to the kitchen.
Robert, armed with a gun, fired at Von Staich, hitting him and severing one of his fingers. But Von Staich managed to get the gun away from Robert before repeatedly bludgeoning him with the hammer. While Robert was lying face down on the ground, Von Staich fired the gun five times at close range, hitting Mr. Topper in the head, chest and neck.
Von Staich then ran to the kitchen looking for Cynthia. He pistol whipped her and shot her in the uterus before running to a neighboring house to seek help for his wounds. She spent months in a coma before coming out it.
Awaiting sentencing after acting as his own lawyer and being convicted by a jury of killing Robert and trying to kill Cynthia, Von Staich and another convicted murderer, Robert J. Clark, then 23, of Palm Springs, escaped from Orange County Jail on Jan. 26, 1986, by shimmying down from a rooftop recreational area to freedom via electrical cords and makeshift ropes.
Clark was captured a week later and ultimately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It took authorities a month to catch Von Staich, a trail that ended in Massachusetts. He was sentenced on May 23, 1986, in Orange County to 30 years to life in state prison on one felony count each of second degree murder, attempted murder, and sentencing enhancements for the use of a deadly weapon and inflicting great bodily injury.
Von Staich had cut his teeth as a jailhouse lawyer in the 1970s. Behind bars in Riverside County for arson, the Lake Elsinore man had posed as another inmate who was being released. He was later re-captured, charged with the additional escape counts and convicted. But he later appealed the decision in People v. Von Staich, demanding a full review of his entire case based on the escape counts.
That prompted an incredulous U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to write in January 1980, "Unless we are to advocate a change of the law by which a person who reasonably believes in his innocence has the right to peacefully escape, there are no arguable issues in this case. The escape charge was proven beyond a reasonable doubt--and without any error in the record. Defendant's defense is an unacceptable defense and this whole thing has been a complete waste of the time of this court with no appreciable benefit to the defendant or to the administration of justice."
Such an admonishment did not deter Von Staich from challenging in court his felony charges related to the escape from Orange County Jail. He claimed in court in early 1989 that Sheriff's Deputy Frank Nin handcuffed himself inside a restroom in the rooftop jail recreation area to help Von Staich and Clark escape--in exchange for a promised $10,000.
But that's no defense, this is: that Von Staich was trying to escape the beatings inflicted by his deputy jailers, producing photos of his face haven been bashed in October 1985. Deputy Distict Attorney William Overtoom conceded in closing arguments that Von Staich took a beating by deputies, but the prosecutor noted the inmate had plenty of opportunities to inform authorities before his escape. Overtoom called much of Von Staich's escape tale "a wagon full of baloney."
But the jury bought it, and the escape charges were dropped. Perhaps that's what emboldened Von Staich to file reams and reams of lawsuits, motions and appeals that have tied up the state and federal courts for years. Nearly all have been related to the murder conviction, with the large majority filed in the federals appeals courts in Santa Ana (Fourth Circuit) and San Francisco (Ninth Circuit).
Turned down once on a motion to the Fourth Circuit for a new murder trial, Von Staich on Feb. 6, 1989, filed a second claiming Cynthia Topper was then saying she may have partly been responsible for Von Staich killing Robert Topper in self-defense. That motion was ultimately knocked down after prosecutors argued she may have been coerced in her frail state of mind.
In Ivan Von Staich v. Robert G. Borg, Ninth Circuit justices disagreed in February 1993 with Von Staich's contention that he was deprived a fair trial because the trial judge allowed evidence to be admitted of his prior incarceration in federal prison.
In Ivan Von Staich v. California Department of Corrections (CDC), Ninth Circuit justices in April 2007 agreed with the California Supreme Court that the CDC had not violated Von Staich's due process rights by failing to set a maximum term for his second degree murder conviction.
Ninth Circuit justices in November 2007 found Ivan Von Staich v. Ben Curry, warden moot because Von Staich was seeking a parole hearing he'd already received. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Von Staich's appeal of the Ninth Circuit ruling in Octobr 2010.
In another Ivan Von Staich v. CDC, Ninth Circuit justices in October 2010 found a federal court had not abused its discretion by rejecting Von Staich's arguments concerning the validity and repudiation of the settlement agreement, concluding that Von Staich had not demonstrated any "extraordinary circumstances" warranting relief from judgment.
In Ivan Von Staich v. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ninth Circuit justices in October 2010 rejected Von Staich's attempt to have grooming violations removed from his prison file, alleging the citations violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. As the justices noted, the grooming violations had already been removed from his central file.
He's even sued the parole board. In Ivan Von Staich v. California Board of Prison Hearings, et al, he claimed his equal protection rights with respect to his suitability to parole were being violated, demanding that a parole hearing be held sooner rather than later. A federal court dismissed the complaint in February 2007.
These were just the cases I looked up before my fingers got tired of typing. (For more, click here.) He's filed many, many more legal funny papers. In some decisions, you can read how annoyed justices are with his filings, in others his claims are written off as not being worthy of publication.
On Wednesday, Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ray Armstrong tried to argue before the parole board that Von Staich's criminal history and lack of rehabilitation make him unworthy of parole. "Given that the murder took place after Staich was released from state prison and ordered to stay away from the victim, it shows that the inmate poses a danger to the community if released on parole," reads an OCDA statement.
"Since his incarceration, Staich has accumulated 11 prison rules violations including four violations of grooming standards, refusing a direct order, destroying state property, unauthorized phone calls, and disobeying orders. The inmate poses a violent threat because he was also disciplined for being in possession of dangerous property, mailing threatening and intimidating correspondence and stalking. Adding to his lack of rehabilitation, Staich has failed to seek self-help or self-improvement."
But the parole board cited Von Staich's recent good behavior and disagreed with the OCDA that he'd pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released.
Perhaps parole board members are just tired of Von Staich suing them.
To give an idea of how the violent actions of a criminal can even imperil future generations, just follow the sad life of Cynthia Topper after Von Staich was put away. Friends and family say she was never the same after suffering numerous skull fractures and severe swelling of the brain at the killer's hands. Indeed, Topper said so herself in a 1999 interview in the visitors room at Riverside's Robert Presley Detention Center.
That's where she was being held in lieu of $250,000 bail on charges of torture, child endangerment and false imprisonment. Deputies had found Topper's 6-year-old daughter chained to a bedpost in a feces- and trash-strewn back room of her house. The girl was wearing a diaper and weighed only 30 pounds.
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Von Staich's attack had caused Topper to have portions of her left frontal, right frontal and right temporal brain removed while she laid on an operating table. Her doctor at UC Irvine Medical Center testified during Von Staich's murder trial that Topper suffered amnesia, severe memory loss and trouble with basic communications due to her brain injuries. She had to re-learn math and how to read.
She did not realize she was with child until late 1992, when she was seven months pregnant. She was married to her second husband after Robert Topper's death at the time. Because her condition made raising a child difficult, Cynthia Topper moved in with her father in 1993, a year after her mother died of cancer.
Cynthia explained in the jailhouse interview that her distraught dad never threw anything away, which explained the trash. He was jailed along with his daughter for their mistreatment of the 6-year-old. In March 2000, Cynthia pleaded guilty to child endangerment and was sentenced to six years in state prison in a deal with prosecutors that included credit for time served in jail.
Perhaps the parole board concluded Von Staich would pose no threat to society if he's released because he's been such a menace to it while inside.