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Dennis Stanworth (Vallejo Police Department)

Despite being twice sentenced to death for the savage rape and murder of two Pinole girls, Dennis Stanworth was released from prison in 1990. Now, more than two decades later, police say he has killed again.

On Thursday, Stanworth, 70, was in custody in Solano County jail on suspicion of killing his 89-year-old mother, her body found at his Vallejo home. Investigators said Stanworth called police Wednesday and admitted to killing Nellie Turner Stanworth, although they did not say how she was killed. Stanworth refused a request for a jail interview by this newspaper.

That Stanworth was ever released from prison seems unthinkable today, in an era when life without the possibility of parole is a standard sentence in murder cases. How he managed to get released from prison despite his own vociferous pleas to be sent to the gas chamber and his prolific rap sheet is an illustration of California's roller coaster history of criminal sentencing and capital punishment. The state Supreme Court's 1972 decision ruling the death penalty unconstitutional commuted the death sentences of Stanworth and 106 other death row inmates, setting in motion the circumstances that allowed some to ultimately go free.

He was paroled and walked out of prison 18 years later and was monitored as a registered sex offender.

"Our registration detective talked to him every year, but no complaints regarding him had come in," Vallejo police Lt. Jim O'Connell said Thursday. "(He did not stand out) other than for the nature of the crimes for which he was convicted. Those are fairly egregious."

O'Connell would not speculate on a motive for the mother's slaying but said police "have a couple different ideas" and expect witness interviews to flesh out the details.

A neighbor of Stanworth's mother in an American Canyon mobile home park said Stanworth moved his mother out of the park 10 weeks ago to a Vallejo assisted-living facility, and returned six weeks ago and told the neighbor his mother had died.

The crimes

Stanworth began a savage East Bay serial kidnap and rape spree in 1965 that shocked the burgeoning suburbs. Newspapers dubbed the suspect the "linoleum knife rapist." In a span of nine months, the married father of two kidnapped and raped at knifepoint three young women in Berkeley, El Sobrante and Richmond.

Lt. Jim O’Connell talks to the media during a press conference about Dennis Stanworth,  who allegedly killed his mother.
Lt. Jim O'Connell talks to the media during a press conference about Dennis Stanworth, who allegedly killed his mother. ( Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Then, on Aug. 1, 1966, Stanworth's crimes took a deadly turn. He picked up hitchhikers Susan Muriel Box, 15, and Caree Lee Collison, 14, who were on their way to a baby-sitting job, along a Pinole highway. The fry cook and house painter drove to the shoreline in Pinole and at gunpoint, he forced the De Anza High sophomores to disrobe. Collison tried to escape, but Stanworth convinced her to return by threatening to kill her friend. Stanworth shot her in the head twice and then shot Box in the head and raped her. As he was leaving, he heard a girl moan and shot her once more.

The girls' bodies were discovered two days later.

The news stunned Pinole, then a small town of 10,000.

George Vincent, a lifelong resident who had attended De Anza High School with Stanworth, vividly recalls running into him and his family, including a baby son in a high chair, after the murders at Tommy's Coffee Cup, a popular breakfast spot.

"He was calm and composed, cool as a cucumber, when we talked about it. He just replied, 'It's an awful thing that someone could do something like that.' No squirming. No guilt reflexes, that's for sure. And his wife's sitting right there."

The day the bodies were found, Stanworth abducted an 18-year-old woman in Pacifica. After binding her hands and driving her to the beach at knifepoint, Stanworth choked her unconscious before raping her. She survived. Stanworth was arrested driving her car hours later.

First trial and appeal

After admitting his guilt and pleading guilty, Stanworth skipped a jury trial in Contra Costa Superior Court in 1966 and went right to a penalty phase.

"I couldn't live with it no more. ... I just had to tell somebody," Stanworth sobbed to his attorney while testifying. "I told them everything I done and wanted to get it all off my chest. I was always sorry after I got through and even apologized sometimes."

Stanworth gratefully shook his lawyer's hand, according to published reports, after the jury sentenced him to the gas chamber.

Stanworth's sentence, by law, was automatically appealed in 1969. Stanworth fought the appeal, tried to fire his attorney and protested to the attorney general, among other efforts to ensure he would still be put to death.

In a letter to the courts, Stanworth, then 27, wrote: "I cannot continue living with cloud over my head, please be merciful and give me an endless sleep as soon as you can ... all I want, is to die."

He failed. The California Supreme Court reversed his death sentence after finding 12 prospective jurors had been dismissed because they told prosecutors they opposed the death penalty.

Parole

In 1974, Stanworth was awarded a new trial and again sentenced to death, which was automatically modified to life with a possibility of parole because of the state Supreme Court ruling two years earlier. In 1979, Stanworth got yet another reprieve when he was deemed ready for parole because he had been participating in therapy and had been a model prisoner.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records show Stanworth was released from prison in 1990 and completed his parole three years later. Other than having to register as a sex offender, Stanworth had no other law enforcement oversight over the next 20 years.

Vallejo Times Herald staff writer Jessica A. York, and Bay Area News Group staff writers Tom Lochner and Malaika Fraley contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.