She received the maximum sentence allowed.

As sheriff’s officials continue to search for Ryann Bunnell
Crow, the decision to pursue a murder charge against her husband
takes local prosecutors down a perilous path traveled only twice
before by their office.
By Virginia Hennessey

As sheriff’s officials continue to search for Ryann Bunnell Crow, the decision to pursue a murder charge against her husband takes local prosecutors down a perilous path traveled only twice before by their office.

Experts say “no-body” murder cases are among the most difficult to prove. Before convincing a jury the defendant is guilty, prosecutors must prove the missing person is dead and died as a result of a crime.

If they fail on either count, the defendant walks free and they cannot return for a second try if a body is found.

Ryann Crow, 23, was last seen Jan. 30 driving near her in-laws’ Prunedale home. Her family reported her missing Feb. 2 after she missed two days of work and a family party. Her 2002 white Chevrolet Malibu was found Feb. 9 in a Foster City neighborhood.

A week later, the missing woman’s husband, 33-year-old Jesse John Crow, was arrested on suspicion of murdering her. He has pleaded not guilty, and a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold him for trial is to be scheduled this morning. He remains in Monterey County Jail in lieu of $3 million bail.

Officials at the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office said they could remember only two bodiless murder prosecutions in the past three decades. In one of those cases, the victim’s body was located before the preliminary hearing.

In 1979, then-prosecutor John Phillips, now a retired judge, filed a murder charge against Dale Gibson of Seaside, whose estranged wife was missing and presumed dead. Phillips recalled recently that the two were in the midst of a nasty divorce and child-custody battle. After a lengthy investigation, Gibson was arrested in Florida.

The day before the preliminary hearing, investigators found Mark Watson, an Army buddy of Gibson’s who confessed to shooting the woman at Gibson’s urging. He took authorities to Big Sur, where they found Darlene Gibson’s remains at the base of a cliff, her skull shattered by three shots.

Phillips said he garnered Watson’s testimony at the trial by promising he would support his release when he came up for parole. Gibson was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. In the intervening years, laws and attitudes changed, Phillips said, and he has regretfully never been able to win Watson’s release.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said he knows of only one no-body murder conviction won at trial in Monterey County.

In 1983, Gary Meyer, now a retired judge, charged Gary Hicks of Lockwood with killing Ron Simpson, a parolee whose body has never been found.

Meyer convinced the jury that blood evidence proved Hicks killed Simpson during a drug- and alcohol-influenced argument in his mobile home. Hicks was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains.

Salinas police have indicated they have blood evidence supporting their conclusion that Ryann Bunnell Crow is dead and that her husband killed her, which may be the reason prosecutors felt confident enough to file charges.

Lancaster defense attorney and author Michael Eberhardt said he was surprised prosecutors would file a bodiless murder case just two weeks after the alleged victim was reported missing. The opinion comes from personal experience.

Eberhardt gained national attention for his book “Body of Crime,” a novel based on his 1982 defense of Steven A. Jackson, a 27-year-old man charged with killing former love interest Julie Church, 23. The case is a perfect illustration of the risks prosecutors take in filing a no-body murder case.

Similar to Ryann Crow, Church was missing a relatively short period of time when Jackson was charged. The case went to trial in 1983.

Prosecutors argued the victim would have called someone if she was alive. Eberhardt told jurors there was no evidence she was dead, let alone that Jackson killed her. She may have just decided to take off, he said.

The jury acquitted Jackson and he remains a free man. In 1992, Church’s remains were found buried about 150 yards from the Antelope Valley house where Jackson was living when she disappeared.

In a 1995 article in the American Bar Association Journal, Eberhardt told investigative journalist Steve Weinberg that missing-and-presumed-dead cases are the ultimate challenge for a defense attorney.

“They’re extremely rare, and the DA’s office doesn’t file such a case unless the circumstantial evidence against the defendant is overwhelming,” he said.

“The biggest problem the prosection has is the jury has to be convinced there is no other possibility,” Eberhardt said. “If I was the defense attorney, I’d rush into trial as quickly as possible.”

Past convictions

Convictions in such cases are not unheard of. The nation’s first occurred in 1959 in the case of L. Ewing Scott, who was convicted on circumstantial evidence of killing his wife, Evelyn, in the Los Angeles area. Scott appealed on the grounds there was no corpus delicti, but the conviction was upheld. The victim’s body was never found.

In Oakland in 2008, Hans Reiser was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife, Nina Reiser, who was still missing during the trial. The computer entrepreneur was later allowed to plead to second-degree murder in exchange for leading authorities to his wife’s remains.

Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said there is “a substantial, tremendous amount of circumstantial evidence” against Jesse Crow. He said there is “persuasive” evidence of a motive, though no details have been released.

On Tuesday, Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Richards said his office continues to search for Ryann Bunnell Crow.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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