Robert Topper received an early Christmas present in 1983: a toolbox for the wrenches, screwdrivers and other instruments he used in his spare time tinkering around in his Santa Ana garage.
His pride and joy from his off-hours hobby was a Porsche he restored and would drive around, beaming. But Topper's full-time job was medical engineer, and his last project involved improving heart pacemakers.
Sadly, a monster took Robert's life shortly after this photo was taken.
Believe it or not, despite Ivan Von Staich executing Topper on Dec. 8, 1983, and nearly killing his ex-girlfriend Cynthia Topper, Robert's wife, as well as a lack of remorse for those crimes, a long and violent rap sheet, two attempted jail escapes, threats to kill a judge and repeatedly failing to follow rules in prison, the inmate has come very close to being paroled.
However, the same California Corrections and Rehabilitation parole board that previously recommended the 56-year-old be released, last week denied Von Staich's parole for another five years, at which time he can apply yet again.
On parole for arson in Riverside County in mid-1983, Von Staich hit the jaw of Cynthia Topper, a waitress he'd started dating three years earlier, and threatened to kill her. Pleading for her life, Topper told Von Staich she loved him to stop the abuse. But then she informed Von Staich's halfway house about the attack, 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 her future husband and started calling and harassing him. Due to the threats and harassment, Von Staich's parole was revoked.
He was released on Nov. 17, 1983, with orders to stay away from the couple, who were married by then. Around 1 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1983, the then-27-year-old arrived at the Toppers' Santa Ana home, cut the outside telephone wires 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 beating 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, killing him.
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. Having suffered several skull fractures, the former college student was forced to undergo two separate lobotomies that involved removing large portions of her brain. She was left afterward with the mental capacity of a 5th grader.
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 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. Von Staich has previously escaped lockup in Riverside County.
His partner was quickly recaptured, but it took authorities a month to catch Robert Topper's killer. The trail ended in Massachusetts, and after extradition Von Staich was sentenced on May 23, 1986, in Santa Ana 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.
Besides threatening the life of Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald from behind bars, Von Staich filed reams and reams of legal documents, complaints and lawsuits.
Despite an aggressive argument against Von Staich's parole from an Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) that cited his gruesome crimes, lack of remorse and mayhem in and other of the joint, the state parole board last year found he had been a good prisoner in recent years, would pose no threat to the public if released and should have already been paroled. The OCDA appealed that decision to Governor Jerry Brown, who reversed the parole board.
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Von Staich was ordered to remain behind bars pending a new parole hearing, which was originally scheduled for last September. The hearing was delayed at his request, and a new one was set for the following November at Von Staich's current place of residence, the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. The parole board would then postpone "until an undetermined time" a new hearing for Von Staich.
That set up last Friday's hearing, where Senior Deputy District Attorney Paul Chrisopoulos told the board the circumstances of the murder, Von Staich's violent history and his callous disregard for human life would pose a risk to society were he to be released.
In denying the murderer's parole through 2018, the board stated, "You severely lack credibility, you deny, minimize and blame others. You have little or no understanding as to why you did what you did. You have a long history of threatening violence on women and the Board finds you to be controlling and manipulative."