Man Guilty in Wild 1983 Murder Wanted Judge to Toss Governor’s Parole Denial

Illustration by Richie Beckman

Ivan Von Staich, one of California’s most prolific and vexatious litigants, sat inside San Quentin State Prison last month, hoping he’d soon be freed following horrific offenses he committed on Dec. 8, 1983—when Ronald Reagan lived in the White House, radio audiences heard Paul McCartney’s new “Say Say Say” and Time magazine fretted about the then-Soviet Union abandoning arms-control talks.

Just 20 days before that crime spree, authorities moved the 27-year-old Staich from prison to a Long Beach halfway house for parole. The professional tree trimmer had served three years for conspiring with the Aryan Brotherhood to mail criminal threats in a Riverside County arson case. During that incarceration, he received letters and nude photographs from Cynthia Bess, a girlfriend who also made conjugal visits. But Bess’ interest waned and she eventually married another man, medical engineer Robert Topper.

With his newfound semi-freedom at the halfway house, Staich began his search to confront Mrs. Topper and her new beau. It took 67 telephone calls, but the parolee ultimately tracked the couple to a Santa Ana neighborhood. He drove there, parked down the street, put on gloves, entered the back yard, cut the phone line, kicked in the front door and, carrying a hammer, entered the home. A panicked Topper yelled, “Get out of here!”

Strike up the dueling banjos. Alert the Coen brothers. With Topper firing his handgun, an enraged Staich advanced down a hallway to a bedroom. Three bullets struck him, including one that severed a finger. The parolee somehow managed to reach Topper without dying; beat him with the hammer; wrestle away control of the gun; and fatally shoot the homeowner in the head, neck and back.

Meanwhile, Staich’s ex-girlfriend was pointing another handgun at him and pulling the trigger. He later recounted to a psychiatrist that he’d once again run toward gunfire, but this time realized she was firing loud blanks. Using the butt of the real gun, he beat the woman’s skull and caused permanent brain damage that required two lobotomies.

In May 1986, Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald sentenced Staich to a term of 30 years to life for second-degree murder, attempted murder and infliction of great bodily injury. Over the next quarter of a century, the inmate took classes on anger management, Bible studies and legal affairs. He got married and divorced. In 2000, he began calling himself a Christian, telling officials he wanted to live a “life pleasing to the Lord.” He also conceded that Topper had a right to defend his home from intrusion and his mindset about women had been wrong. Though a probation officer labeled him “vicious,” prison doctors gave him favorable psychological reports that declared him free from “antisocial thinking.” A parole board granted his request for release in September 2011.

But five months later, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. rejected the psychological findings and vetoed the parole. “I find that [he] has not shown genuine remorse,” the governor wrote after noting the inmate has “a long history” of threatening and violent behavior. “This lack of remorse is a further indication that Mr. Staich has not dealt with the issues that led to his violent behavior and would present an unreasonable risk to public safety if released at this time.”

Brown’s decision infuriated Staich, who launched what has turned out to be an all-out six-year courthouse war. He’s filed a whopping 32 lawsuits. He likes to type sentences in all caps. Many of his briefs challenge the integrity of the governor, who he says relied on an outdated psychological report and misinformation to reach his decision. The core of the inmate’s argument is that he’s so far “unjustly” served 35 years in custody and accumulated prison good-time credits worth 45 years.

“State officials used false evidence to resentence [me] to life in prison without the possibility of parole, illegally converting a one-count second-degree murder into a special circumstances life-without-parole verdict, which can only be ordered by a jury,” Staich wrote in one of his complaints. “[This situation is] forcing [me] to serve a disproportional sentence for second-degree murder when California has already released over 400 first-degree murderers on parole.”

In August, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gail J. Standish dismissed the inmate’s latest 25 claims, calling many of them frivolous and factually disingenuous. Standish also recommended that Staich be labeled a vexatious litigant and blocked from either appealing the case or filing new ones without undertaking a court screening process. “Both state and federal courts have rejected Petitioner’s myriad of direct and indirect attacks on the governor’s decision,” she observed. “His pattern and practice of continually re-raising claims adversely resolved against him has risen to a level of harassment.”

Los Angeles-based U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson last month accepted Standish’s recommendations and ended the 62-year-old killer’s dream of release, at least until another governor sees the case differently.

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