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Steven Crittenden Pleads Guilty In 1987 Chico Killings, Provides Letter Recounting Crime

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Sarah Bohannon and Kacey Sycamore.
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Chico Enterprise-Record news clipping

Steven Crittenden, the man charged in the high-profile 1987 killings of a Chico couple, has pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, among other charges.

Crittenden has also provided a written admission of guilt detailing his role in the slayings of Dr. William Chiapella and his wife Katherine Chiapella in their Chico home.

Crittenden, 53, entered the pleas Friday in Placer County Superior Court, where the case has resided because of extensive media attention in Butte County.

It's the second time the formerly condemned man has been convicted in the deaths of the Chiapellas. Crittenden’s 1989 murder convictions and death sentence were overturned in 2013 because a U.S. District Court judge found the trial prosecutor dismissed a prospective juror because of her race.

Friday's hearing and plea agreement were the culmination of negotiations between Crittenden’s attorneys and the Butte County District Attorney’s Office. Crittenden will avoid the death penalty.

Judge Jeffrey Penney sentenced Crittenden to 63 years to life in state prison. Lawyers say he will first become eligible for a parole hearing in 2035.

Family Speaks

Six members of the Chiapella family addressed the court Friday. They described William and Katherine Chiapella as loving partners, the salt of the earth and good neighbors and community leaders.

William Chiapella, they said, had a warm smile and was devoted to medicine. He was a physician in World War II, treated monks at the monastery in Vina and worked abroad to help the sick and less fortunate in his later years. President of the Chico Rotary Club, he was recognized as the Gen. Douglas MacArthur Scholarship Committee’s Most World-Minded Citizen.

Katherine Chiapella was described as caring, kind and the backbone of the family. Called self-sacrificing, she took her kids to their sports practices and lessons, cultivated their interests regardless if they were her own, as well as volunteered in the community.

Geoffrey Chiapella, a grandchild of the Chiapellas, said he was in kindergarten at Neal Dow Elementary School just a block away from where his grandparents lived when their bodies were found.

“With my little hands clinging to the diagonal metal of the fence, I was a young kid, but I knew something was wrong at my grandparents’ house,” Chiapella said.

He said the crime has had a lasting effect on the psyche of the surviving Chiapella family members. And still – decades later – developments in the case mean the family can’t escape keeping Crittenden in mind.

Will Chiapella, another grandchild, said the slayings have shaped their lives, adding that it’s taken years to get out of the shadow of the crime.

He likened Crittenden to a sewer running below his family’s feet, saying Crittenden has been foul, noxious and always there.

“I don’t want to think about, hear or speak the name Steven Crittenden again,” he said.

Beth Reil, daughter of William and Katherine Chiapella said her mother and father were wonderful parents.

“What he stole from us is irreplaceable,” Reil said.

Turning to Crittenden, Reil said she had “not one drop of empathy” for him. “I believe you are a psychopathic killer,” she said. “I have no compassion for you.”

Crittenden bludgeoned and tortured her elderly parents, Reil said, “and then you went to dinner and a movie with your girlfriend.”

Describing Crittenden as a “soulless character” who maintained innocence until it was beneficial to him to confess, Reil said Crittenden has shown no remorse for the killings, not even in his letter. Reil ended her statement by saying she hopes Crittenden is never let out of custody, calling him a danger to society.

“Lastly, Steven Crittenden,” Reil said, “I will see you in 2035 as I plead to the parole board to never release you.”

Joseph Chiapella was the last family member to address the court. He discovered the bodies of his parents 34 years ago. Walking into the doorway of their home, he said, mail was strewn on the floor.

He found his father first, he said, who was stabbed and bloodied. He called the police, then his wife. Turning to his left, he then saw his mother with a knife lodged in her chest.

“They are both dead,” he cried over the phone.

The memories have haunted him, Chiapella said. Occasionally, glimpses of his mother lying lifeless on the floor will rise to the surface.

It’s “the horror that keeps on horrifying,” he said.

Chiapella said he made his father proud the day he told him he wanted to be a doctor. But his choice of occupation has taken a toll on him.

He prioritized his profession, he said, and instead of buying a place closer to his work in Chico, he bought one out of town.

If he’d made different decisions, he said he could have spent more time with his parents -- and it weighs on him that he also could have done the yard work that Crittenden was hired to perform.

“Had I chosen closer, I could have mowed the lawn,” Chiapella said.

Had he worked less, he could have raked the leaves.

“I could have mowed the lawn,” Chiapella repeated.

Rising from the prosecution’s table, he touched a displayed photograph of his mother and then took his seat in the gallery, where he was embraced by family.

History Of The Case

The proceedings in Roseville marked the close of an extraordinary chapter in the criminal case against Crittenden, who was 19 years old at the time of the killings and a student at California State University, Chico.

Crittenden has remained incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison since 1989, when he was originally tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the killings of the Chiapellas.

Those convictions were later overturned in 2013, when U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller found the original prosecutor in the case, Gerald Flanagan, improperly excused the only prospective Black juror during jury selection at Crittenden’s trial.

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Andre Byik
Steven Crittenden, right, is pictured with his attorneys Jeffrey Thoma, center, and Robert Marshall.

The judge found the decision was motivated in substantial part by race. Crittenden is Black.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ruling in 2015.

The rulings set in motion a yearslong retrial process that included a “reverse change of venue” motion filed by the District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey had sought to hold Crittenden’s new trial in Butte County instead of Placer County, arguing in part that enough time had passed for Crittenden to receive a fair trial locally.

But Edward Bronson, a trial venue expert and professor emeritus at Chico State, testified in 2018 that his survey of Butte County residents found many were still familiar with the decades-old case.

Bronson, who also had worked on Crittenden’s original trial in the '80s, further found that media coverage regarding Crittenden’s retrial could be prejudicial to the defendant’s presumption of innocence.

Bronson specifically noted a Chico Enterprise-Record article published in August 2018. According to the article, Crittenden’s brother, Bryant Jones, revealed Crittenden had confided in him about killing the Chiapellas before Crittenden had been arrested as a suspect in the case.

That alleged confession was never presented to a jury. After his arrest, Crittenden allegedly told police he was out of town at the time of the Chiapella killings.

But in a letter addressed to the Chiapella family and dated April 13, 2021, Crittenden provided an admission of guilt in the slayings.

“I violently murdered your parents, for no other reason than me trying not to be caught,” the letter, signed by Crittenden, reads.

Crittenden’s letter lays out in gruesome detail how he robbed and fatally beat and stabbed the Chiapellas, who hired Crittenden to perform yard work.

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Andre Byik
Photographs of Katherine Chiapella and Dr. William Chiapella were displayed Friday in Placer County Superior Court in Roseville.

“Before I left, I attempted to cover my tracks by writing ‘Just the Beginning’ in lipstick on the bedroom mirror,” Crittenden wrote. “After leaving the home the same way I came, I went straight to the bank to cash the check. The clerk was skeptical but cashed the check anyway. I used the money to pay bills and rent.”

He also wrote that he confessed to his brother about the killings.

“[B]ack home with family, what I had done was eating me up inside,” Crittenden wrote. “I had to talk to someone, so I asked my brother Bryant to walk with me to the gym. … As we walked to the gym I confided in him everything I had done and swore him to secrecy. He pleaded with me to tell my parents but I didn’t. I couldn’t.”

Crittenden on Friday pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder; use of a deadly weapon; and first-degree robbery. He also pleaded guilty to escape and kidnapping charges stemming from his 1987 escape from the Butte County jail as he awaited trial.

Lawyers say Crittenden agreed to waive all credit for time spent in custody up to 2015.

This story will be updated.