District attorney opposes parole for Madeline murderer

Lassen County District Attorney Susan Rios attended a successful parole hearing for Joseph Perry Shelton, convicted of killing college student Kevin Thorpe and his girlfriend Laura Craig near Madeline in 1981.

Shelton was granted parole in December 2014, but California Governor Jerry Brown reversed that decision. He is currently being held at San Quentin State Prison.

After the parole board’s decision, Rios wrote a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom opposing his parole.


Here’s the text of her letter

Sir, I write to you as the current elected District Attorney for the County of Lassen, and (I) am asking for you to please exercise your discretion in reviewing and overturning the recent finding of eligibility for parole for inmate Joseph Perry Shelton, CDCR # C-40228.

In January 1981, inmate Shelton, along with two other men — Benjamin Silva (a known Hell’s Angel currently serving a life sentence for this crime as well, commuted from a death sentence), and Norman Thomas — were at a gas station in the area of Madeline in Lassen County. While at the store, they observed two young individuals, Laura Craig and Kevin Thorpe. Liking the looks of Ms. Craig, the three followed Laura and Kevin in inmate Shelton’s car. The three men placed a red light on the dashboard of the car and used it to pull over the car Laura and Kevin (were driving). Silva and Thomas got into Laura and Kevin’s car while inmate Shelton followed behind in his own vehicle, and they took Laura and Kevin to inmate Shelton’s cabin. Here, for the next three days, the three men took turns raping Laura. Kevin was tied to a tree outside in the middle of a Lassen County winter. Silva and inmate Shelton unchained Kevin and took him up a hill where they took turns emptying a 30-round cartridge of a machine gun into Kevin; Silva took the first 15 shots and inmate Shelton took the next 15. The next day Thomas was tasked with dismembering Kevin’s body.

After the men were done with Laura, they placed her in a vehicle, and with inmate Shelton driving, traveled down the road a bit, had her get out and Silva shot her on the side of the road. A few days later, inmate Shelton turned himself in to a police department in Placer County while wearing Kevin’s boots.

Laura and Kevin were young, on their way home to college in Oregon. Laura left behind two children who have had to cope with the brutal loss of their mother for nearly 40 years.

Inmate Shelton has come up for parole a number of times. A few years ago he was found eligible but the prior governor, Governor Brown, exercised his discretion — appropriately if I may add — and denied the parole. In fact, Governor Brown’s exact statement in his decision was, ‘The record indicates that Mr. Shelton was far from a passive participant in these crimes,’ despite inmate Shelton’s statements to the parole board that portray himself as merely an innocent bystander.

Sir, the parole hearing was a farce — and that is being kind. The answers were spoon-fed to inmate Shelton and were nearly verbatim the same answers he gave at the prior hearing. The form of the questions were leading as such they told inmate Shelton what to say to fit the narrative of an eligibility finding. They focused on his 67 — an age which Laura and Kevin will never attain. They focused on his lack of violent crimes prior to this offense — because the kidnapping, rape, murder, and dismemberment of two people is not violent enough. They focused on his sobriety since the 1980s — he’s been incarcerated; there is a presumption of sobriety! They also gave him kudos for ‘meditating.’ He stated he had made amends with the family — yet when asked specifically how he has made amends: he (said he) prays for them. Well then —why don’t we hand him the keys to the jail cell today!

Sir, we are not talking about a burglary or a car theft or a drug deal. We are talking about the type of crimes we should never have to talk about — the kind that should never happen to anybody; the kind that ripped a mother away from two young children who have had to live nearly 40 years without her: missing high school graduations, weddings, birthdays, holidays, grandchildren — the things an average person might take for granted.

Yet the Parole Board gives inmate Shelton an ‘atta boy!’ for meditating and wants to reward his behavior with a release. He is serving two life sentences, albeit concurrent, and he should have to serve every bit of it. Life needs to means life. And if it doesn’t what does the criminal justice system even mean? What deterrent is there for horrific crimes like this? If this isn’t the type of crime that deserves a life punishment (quite frankly a death sentence, different conversation for a different day) — what is?

This state gets very caught up in how to ‘help’ the defendants, the criminals — but what about the victims? Where is the justice for Laura and Kevin? For their families? How do we look at these people and say, “Hey, I know you lost a loved one, and that’s unfortunate, but Mr. Shelton meditates now and has prayed for you, so he gets to have his life back?” He gets to leave prison, meanwhile these families remain forever locked in an emotional one.

Please, sir, I implore you — do the right thing and make inmate Shelton continue to be accountable for his actions.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Susan M. Rios, Lassen County District Attorney”


Background of the case

Due to a change of venue in the original case, Shelton, faced a Mendocino County jury in November 1981 that convicted him of the first-degree murder of Thorpe, the second-degree murder of Craig, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of theft, possession of a machine gun, possession of a silencer and one special circumstance in the Thorpe murder, making him eligible for the death penalty.

In 1984, the Court of Appeal upheld Shelton’s murder conviction, but struck the special allegation that made him eligible for the death penalty. The court then re-sentenced him to 25-years to life for Thorpe’s murder.


Plea agreement called inexcusable misconduct

In 2016, the case came back to court because of an alleged secret and improper pretrial deal stuck between Shelton’s defense attorney and the Lassen County District Attorney before his trial more than 35 years ago.

According to an Aug. 7, 2015 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a deal between Susanville attorney Rex Gay, representing codefendant Norman Thomas and then Lassen County District Attorney Paul DePasquale was not revealed to Shelton’s defense attorney — and it should have been — a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brady vs. Maryland decision.

The court called Thomas the prosecution’s “star witness” and found “DePasquale’s misconduct inexcusable” because the secret deal “undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.”

According to the court record, “Thomas’ testimony was central to the prosecution’s case that Shelton premeditated and deliberated regarding Thorpe’s murder,” and “had the jury known of the prosecution’s serious doubts as to Thomas’ mental competence and of its successful efforts to prevent him from obtaining a competency test until after he testified, it would have reached a different result on that count.”

Gay and the DePasquale “reached a plea agreement in which Gay would refrain from having Thomas psychiatrically examined … Thomas would testify against Shelton and Silva and DePasquale would drop murder charges against Thomas,” the court reported. “The portion of the deal pertaining to Thomas’ mental competency was not disclosed to either Shelton or Silva. Indeed, Shelton first learned about it when he read this court’s 2005 decision granting habeas relief to Silva.”

According to the court record, DePasquale agreed with Gay that Thomas was unable to cooperate in his own defense or possibly was insane. Gay also obtained a protective order prohibiting the undersheriff from speaking with Thomas “based on the belief he was incapable of understanding (his) rights.” Prior to the crimes, Thomas had suffered a severe motorcycle accident resulting in an extended coma, and Gay “noted a certain slowness in his mannerisms and a defect in his speech patterns.” Gay told DePasquale that he had “immediate plans to have (Thomas) interviewed by two psychiatrists.”

DePasquale agreed with Gay that he would be unable to obtain a conviction in Shelton’s case or in the case of codefendant Silva without Thomas’ testimony.

Lassen County Superior Court Judge Mark Nareau, then a Susanville defense attorney who represented Shelton when the case came back to Lassen County for re-sentencing in 2016, said the sentencing hearing was necessary in the case to satisfy a legal requirement, but the most Shelton could receive is a 15-years-to-life sentence for second- degree murder. Visiting judge Stephen Bradbury advised the case actually should be heard in Mendocino County because even though the murders occurred in Lassen County, Shelton’s original trial was held in Mendocino County.

The case was moved, and Nareau later reported a Mendocino County judge sentenced Shelton to two 15-years-to-life concurrent terms.

Nareau once called the agreement between DePasquale and Gay “the worst example of prosecutorial misconduct I’ve seen in 35 years.”


Codefendant Benjamin Silva

Benjamin Wai Silva, 66, a fugitive Hell’s Angel at the time of the murders, pleaded nolo contendere in Lassen County Superior Court in 2007 thanks to a plea bargain struck between then Lassen County District Attorney Robert Burns and defense counsel Frank O’Conner.

Visiting judge John T. Ball handed down a 25-years-to-life sentence for Thorpe’s murder.