SEATTLE -- Violent rapists and murderers sentenced to life are being let out early in Washington state. It's happening more than you might think, thanks to a little-known law from the 1980s.
Anyone sentenced to life before the summer of ’84 has the right to be considered for parole. After that, laws changed and judges had to give life without parole, a set number of years behind bars, or the death penalty.
There are currently around 270 “lifers” who were sentenced prior to 1984 in the Department of Corrections. One of them, James Ruzicka, kidnapped and raped two teenage girls from West Seattle in 1974.
Kay Kinghammer's sister Nancy was one of those victims, just 16 when she was kidnapped two blocks from her home.
“Nancy decided she wanted to get out of the house and go to the store. She was walking past a vacant lot filled with garbage and blackberry vines and he came out of the lot and pulled her in there and killed her there. Then he left her there like a piece of garbage by the wayside,” said Kinghammer.
A year earlier, Ruzicka was convicted of raping two women at knifepoint. Because he was deemed a sexual psychopath by the court, he was sent to Western State Hospital instead of prison. Administrators there granted him a two-day furlough for good behavior, but he never went back. Three weeks later, he murdered Nancy Kinghammer and she wouldn't be his only victim.
Wayne Haddenham's 14-year-old sister Penny disappeared just days after Nancy was killed. Penny was out shopping when Ruzicka grabbed her off the street, raped and strangled her and then put her body on gruesome display near the West Seattle Bridge.
“A newspaper boy coming home from his paper route had walked upon her and discovered her hanging from a tree. It hurt just thinking that I wasn’t there to protect her. That’s what big brothers are for,” said Haddenham.
Other offenders among the 270 “lifers” include infamous serial killer Kenneth Bianchi, known as the “Hillside Strangler”, and Tony Ng, one of the participants in the 1983 Wah Mee massacre when 14 people were shot at a Chinatown gambling hall. Only one survived.
The surprising truth about these criminals is that they all have the right to be considered for parole.
“If I only looked on paper as one board member, I wouldn’t let any of them out either,” said Lynne DeLano, chairwoman of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board.
As its name suggests, the ISRB is made up of four political appointees who decide whether these serious criminals should be released on parole.
“We look at the age at the time they committed their offense, what age they are now and, probably more important, what kind of programs they’ve taken to change their attitude or behavior in their thinking,” said DeLano.
Under state law, the board must also determine that the offender is rehabilitated and a fit subject for release.
Nancy Hawley, with Victim Support Services, argues the intent of a life sentence is clear and this process is simply not fair.
“Victims and their family members tend to get this sense of security. Someone is in prison and we’re never going to have to deal with this again. Then this parole hearing begins and it’s just like it happened yesterday,” said Hawley.
Ruzicka was denied parole in 2008 and he’s not eligible for another hearing until 2027. Many other violent criminals are getting out. In fact, in the past year the review board released 14 of them.
Julia Ferrick, Michael Pimentel, Leo Miller and James Davis were all serving life for murder. Harold Flowers, Robert Raethke, Charles Cunningham, Allen Parks, Charles Dunnick, Paul Hanway and Robert Miller are rapists, some with multiple victims.
“There’s just this unfairness that these victims are never going to have their life the way they once knew it or get their loved ones back and this person is given another chance,” said Hawley.
Twenty-eight offenders are up for review before the end of the year, including 13 killers and 7 rapists.
One of them, Warren Forrest was a Clark County Parks Department employee. He was convicted of raping and strangling 19-year-old Krista Blake, then burying her in a shallow grave on park property. He is also suspected in six similar crimes near Vancouver, Wash., in the mid-1970s.
DeLano said the board is not pressured to release these offenders because of prison overcrowding.
The Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB or Board) members are appointed by the Washington State Governor. The Governor names one of the members as Chair. All members serve five year terms.
On Oct. 25, the ISRB approved the release of Ng, the man involved in the Wah Mee massacre. He will be released to ICE Custody on December 5th and could be deported to Hong Kong. It is not certain that China will accept him, so if he is not deported, he will go back into the custody of the Department of Corrections due to plan failure, and the ISRB will have a hearing to determine next steps. It could take up to 6 months for him to be deported.