Governor, CDCR, court grant parole to infamous Lassen County murderer

Joseph Perry Shelton.

The stunning brutality and senselessness of the murders of college students Kevin Thorpe and Laura Craig near Madeline in January 1981 surely will live forever in infamy in Lassen County crime history. As inconceivable and inexplicable as it seems to their still-greivng family members, the governor and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Parole Hearings have agreed to parole one of the killers — Joseph Shelton — whom a Thorpe family member recently called “a monster.”

Despite the following horrific description of his crimes contained in correspondence from California Governor Gavin Newsom to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Parole Hearings, the governor asked for en banc (on the bench) review of Joseph Shelton’s possible parole.

“In 1981, Joseph Shelton and his two crime partners planned to kidnap and rape a woman,” the governor wrote. “The crime partners targeted a woman who was with her boyfriend and their dog. Posing as police officers, they conducted a traffic stop and, at gunpoint, forced the victims to drive to Mr. Shelton’s ranch. They fatally shot the couple’s dog and chained the boyfriend to a tree by his neck, leaving him there overnight while Mr. Shelton and his crime partners repeatedly raped the woman. The next morning, Mr. Shelton and his crime partner took turns shooting the man, killing him. One of the crime partners then dismembered and buried his body.

“Over the next four days, the crime partners repeatedly raped the woman before Mr. Shelton’s crime partner fatally shot her.”

The governor’s reasoning for approving the release of this killer?

According to the correspondence, “I acknowledge that Mr. Shelton has made efforts to improve himself in prison. He completed his GED and multiple vocations. I commend Mr. Shelton for taking these steps and encourage him to continue on this positive path. However, I find that this case warrants the consideration of the full Board of Parole Hearings to determine whether Mr. Shelton can be safely released at this time.

“In September 2019, the board found Mr. Shelton suitable for parole. In February 2020, I reversed the recommended grant based on Mr. Shelton’s persistent minimization of his role in the crimes and his susceptibility to negative external influences.

“During a new risk assessment in 2021, Mr. Shelton denied raping the victim. Mr. Shelton is now 71 years old and has diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and dementia and needs prompting and assistance for activities of daily living.

I ask the Board to determine how these factors bear on Mr. Shelton’s current risk level, and whether his proposed parole plans are sufficient to support his safe release.

“For these reasons, I refer the decision to parole Mr. Shelton back to the board for en banc consideration.”

According to information from CDCR, a Feb. 20 motion was heard in Mendocino Superior Court based upon the governor’s letter, and a decision was made to “Affirm the panel’s Sept. 12, 2023 decision to grant parole, as articulated in the panel’s proposed decision.”

Rios said it appears, according to the governor’s request and the court ruling, that Shelton will be released on parole. She said he will not be released in Lassen County.

Lassen News — May 20, 2020
Governor denies parole to Madeline double-murderer
Lassen County District Attorney Susan Rios reports California Governor Gavin Newsom reversed the California Parole Board’s decision to grant parole to Joseph Perry Shelton, (then) 68, convicted of the brutal killings college student Kevin Thorpe and his girlfriend Laura Craig near Madeline in 1981.

Thanks to the governor’s decision, Shelton will remain behind bars at San Quentin State Prison.

According to a statement from Rios, “Although I did not receive direct notification, it appears, according to the CDCR website, that the governor reversed the parole board’s decision to grant Joseph Shelton parole back in February. He is eligible for another hearing in March 2021, and we of course are still litigating his petition to have his murder conviction overturned due to a retroactive law change. We go back to court for that in June, but I suppose it’s some good news for now.”

In 2019, Rios wrote a passionate letter to the governor opposing Shelton’s parole. She told Lassen News she recently wrote another letter opposing Shelton’s release.

Here’s the text of Rios’ original letter from the Lassen County Times archives
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 No. 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.