Franc Cano was on parole for a sex crime when he and another man kidnapped and killed several women in Anaheim and Santa Ana. On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to murder after prosecutors dropped their call for the death penalty.
Cano’s guilty pleas to four counts of rape and murder mean that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. This means that his long-delayed trial is no longer needed. It seems to end a case that had been going on for a long time while the families of the victims begged for action.
Melody Anaya, the daughter of the victim Martha Anaya, told the judge Thursday as Cano sat a few feet away in court, “He took everything away from us.” “I wasn’t there when he killed her, but every day I think about it.”
In late 2013, Anaya was 12 years old when her mother vanished from a Santa Ana street. She said that she still writes to her mother, even though she doesn’t read them. Melody Anaya said, “I wish the pain would stop.” “… It keeps me up at night and eats me alive every day.”
Nearly ten years have passed since Cano, who is now 36, and his friend Steven Gordon started a five-month string of murders. Both men were sex offenders who were homeless and wore ankle monitors. They lived in cars in an industrial part of Anaheim. They went after women in Orange County who worked as prostitutes on the street.
So far as police know, their first victim was Kianna Jackson, a 20-year-old woman from Las Vegas who went missing from the streets of Santa Ana on October 6, 2013. Her mother, Kathy Menzies, remembers that when she reported her missing, the police didn’t seem too interested in looking for her. They told her that Jackson was a “circuit girl” who had a history of prostitution, so they didn’t care much about finding her.
No one ever found her body. Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, went missing 18 days later, and her body was never found. Neither was Anaya, 27, who went missing 19 days after Vargas.
On March 14, 2014, detectives were called to Anaheim’s Republic Waste Services, where the body of another young woman was found in a pile of trash. She was named Jarrae Estepp, and she was 21 years old and from Ardmore, Oklahoma. She was staying at the Anaheim Lodge on Beach Boulevard.
With the help of a GPS monitor that the courts had made Cano wear, detectives were able to link the crimes to him. Cano was on state parole because he molested a family member. He was also on federal probation because he cut off his ankle monitor and ran across state lines. The Anaheim police detective in charge of the case, Julissa Trapp, was the focus of a 2019 Times series and podcast that looked at her role in the case.
Cano’s DNA was also found in Estepp’s body, and his cellphone texts showed that he and Gordon had talked about kidnapping and killing women in a very vague way. Cano wrote to Gordon the night Estepp went missing, saying, “You’re going to get your hands dirty… Throw her out.”
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After raping and killing the women, usually by strangling them, the men would put their bodies in a trash can behind the auto body shop where Gordon worked.
At the hearing on Thursday, the victims’ families talked about their sadness and anger, while Cano sat in green scrubs next to his lawyer a few feet away. Some members of his family said they could forgive him, but others said they couldn’t.
They talked about how happy they were that the court case seemed to be over. Kianna Jackson’s grandmother, Dianne Menzies, told the judge that there was no such thing as closure.
“What is ending? Menzies said, “I wish someone would explain that to me.” “There was no body to bring home and bury properly… It has left a hole in our hearts and an empty spot in our family that will never be filled.”
Priscilla Vargas said that victim Josephine Monique Vargas, who was her daughter, was her first child. She told Cano, “I will never, ever forgive you until the day I die.” “Her daughter still asks me, ‘Where is my mommy?'”
When it was his turn to talk to the court, Cano said that he was “deeply and sincerely sorry.”
“These four women were precious and deeply loved,” the murderer said. “Please let love heal our hurt and broken hearts.”
Gordon, who helped Cano, went to trial in 2016 and insisted on being his own lawyer. Gordon said he was involved in the murders, but he tried to put the blame on the police. His reasoning was that parole and probation officers should have been more careful while he and Cano looked for victims while wearing ankle monitors.
At the trial, Gordon yelled and yelled, calling Cano both “my friend” and “that little bastard.” He said that Cano was a predator with no conscience.
Gordon asked for the death penalty, and a jury gave it to him. In February 2017, Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick H. Donahue sent him to San Quentin’s death row.
Cano was supposed to go to court soon after that. But the delays got worse as lawyers quit the case, and the COVID-19 pandemic cut court business in half. The case was also made harder by the fact that the former Orange County district attorney wanted to put Cano to death.
Cano’s lawyer, Chuck Hasse, said that he asked officials to change their minds in a presentation to the DA’s office in October. Todd Spitzer was the new DA, and he seemed open to the idea that Cano was the member of the killing team with the least amount of guilt.
Hasse said that his client, one of the two killers, was the weaker of the two. Hasse said, “He was a follower from birth,” while Gordon was the “alpha dog” and a “master of manipulation” who had a “Svengali-like effect on the other.”
Hasse said that Cano, who is just over 5 feet tall, grew up in a dangerous part of Compton as a “sick” child with asthma and eczema. Hasse said, “He was born into a poor, working-class Latino family in a neighborhood full of gangs.” “He helped his mother and lived at home.”
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After serving time for molesting his niece and moving to Orange County, Cano met Gordon outside a probation office while they were both charging their ankle monitors.
The lawyer for the defense said that Gordon, who was 17 years older, bigger, and had a long criminal history, pretended to be Cano’s guardian on the street by saying, “I’m the only one in your life. I’m the only one who looks out for you and stays by your side through everything.”
In the end, Gordon and Cano fell in love. They cut off their ankle monitors and ran away together twice, but were caught and put in jail for a short time before going back to Anaheim.
Hasse said, “Imagine if your first boyfriend was Steven Gordon. There’s no model for that.” “This is his first date, end of the story.”
The DA told Cano’s lawyers at the beginning of this month that it would no longer seek the death penalty. The news came quickly that Cano would plead guilty.
Jodi Pier-Estepp, the mother of the victim Jarrae Estepp, said she wanted Cano to get the death penalty at first, but now she thinks that giving him life in prison without the chance of parole is a better way to end the case. Even if a jury thought Cano deserved to die, it looked less and less likely that he would ever be put to death.
Since 2006, California hasn’t put anyone to death, and Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered that San Quentin’s death row be torn down and all condemned prisoners sent to other places.
Pier-Estepp said, “They aren’t killing anyone.”
Pier-Estepp said she talked to Spitzer on the phone right before Thanksgiving and told him how frustrated she was that the case hadn’t been settled yet. Pier-Estepp said, “I kind of threw a fit.” “I told him that if he didn’t decide, I would protest in front of his office and home.”
Kathy Menzies, Jackson’s mom, said that she had been dreading Cano’s trial for years. She was afraid of having to hear about another trial’s gory details. She said it was good to hear Cano’s plea.
She said, “It’s like this heavy weight is gone.”
After Cano’s plea on Thursday, Donahue gave him a life sentence without the chance of parole, 3,171 days after he was arrested.
At a news conference afterward, Spitzer said that all of the mothers of the people who were killed agreed with his decision to stop the executions. He stood in front of posters of the four women Cano was found guilty of killing.
Sable Pickett, a 19-year-old from Compton who went missing in February 2014, had a face that was missing. When he admitted to killing Jackson, Anaya, Vargas, and Estepp, Gordon also said that he and Cano had taken and killed a fifth woman, who became known as Jane Doe No. 5.
Police finally figured out that her name was Pickett. No one ever found her body. Gordon and Cano were not charged with killing her because they gave information about what happened in exchange for immunity. Like the other women who have gone missing, police say she is probably buried in a Brea dump.