Way back in 1979, Ruben Gaitan was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison and his buddy Marcelino Ramos received the death penalty for shooting two workers execution-style in a Santa Ana Taco Bell's freezer room. One died.
Ramos, who told the pair "Say your prayers" before pulling the trigger, later convinced the California Supreme Court to overturn his death sentence. Twice. That so incensed Tony Rackauckas that Orange County's then-deputy district attorney helped launch the successful recall campaigns of Chief Justice Rose Bird and justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin.
Ramos was one of death row's longest-serving inmates when he was found dead in his San Quentin cell in January 2007. Prison officials say he died of natural causes. He was 49.
Yesterday, the Board of Parole Hearings of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations denied 54-year-old Gaitan's latest bid for parole. Currently held at the California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville, which is where the board also met, Gaitan is next eligible for a parole hearing in 2021.
Senior deputy district attorney Brian Fitzpatrick appeared at the hearing to oppose Gaitan's parole on grounds that he remains a serious threat to public safety. Fitzpatrick pointed to Gaitan's failure to rehabilitate, as evidenced by 47 prison rules violations (including making a sexual pass at a male prison guard; lack of participation in therapy and self-help; and continued claims minimizing his role in the crimes that put him away.
Those crimes were detailed in Sara Catania's 2002 OC Weekly story, "A Third Reprieve," which was about Ramos' unsuccessful third attempt to get his death sentence overturned.
The crime occurred just before 1 a.m. on June 3, 1979. High on amphetamines and alcohol, Ramos went with Ruben Gaitan to rob a Taco Bell where Ramos worked as a janitor. Following a plan mapped out earlier by Gaitan, Ramos went to the back to check the work schedule while Gaitan handed the cashier a food order. When Ramos re-emerged, he had a rifle under his jacket.
A co-worker, Kevin Pickrell, thought the weapon was a joke and began to laugh. Ramos appeared flustered at this response and first told Pickrell to put his hands up, then on his head, then on the counter. He then ordered Pickrell and another employee, Kathryn Parrott, 20, to move into a walk-in refrigerator. There, he had them kneel and, according to Pickrell, told them to "say your prayers" before shooting them each in the back of the head. Parrott died immediately; Pickrell survived.
Gaitan was originally convicted of murder and attempted murder. He's the one who walked into the Taco Bell first, to distract Ramos' two co-workers. Gaitan and Ramos fled the store with money. But in their attempts to get Ramos' death penalty overturned, his defense has countered their client was borderline retarded and his best friend was the militia-obsessed career criminal mastermind of the robbery plot.
"It is a classic case of a mentally deficient individual with no criminal history who, without the influence and domination of a more intelligent person, would not have participated in a crime," Margo Rocconi, the deputy federal public defender who represented Ramos, said in that 2002 piece. She was laying the tracks for a defense based on a Supreme Court ban on executing the mentally challenged.
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Countered Parrott's sister Melody Crooks in the same story, "He knew exactly what he was doing. A retarded person in my mind doesn't sit and plot a murder out. Their mind doesn't work that fast."
But Gaitan himself seemed to give the claim credence in a 1993 declaration about his relationship with Ramos that was included in Catania's story.
"Our relationship was like one you would see in a movie," Gaitan said. "I was the short guy who ran things; he was the brawny guy who implemented. . . . I just made suggestions or asked questions, and Marcelino went along. He wanted someone to give him meaning to his life. I was the only one consistently available for that job." Gaitan continued, "Marcelino is not a cold-blooded killer, nor did he plan to kill anyone. I bear more responsibility for what happened than came out at trial. If anyone belongs on death row, I do."
Ramos' was among 70 death penalty sentences overturned by the Bird court between 1978 and 1986. But it was also the Ramos case that lit a fire under Rackauckas, despite Paul Meyer being the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the original case. Orange County's future district attorney would found California for a Responsible Supreme Court in 1980 and Crime Victims for Court Reform in 1984, statewide groups that were hellbent on removing Bird. She, Reynoso and Grodin were removed by California voters in 1986.