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Crittenden's confession 34 years after the murder of a prominent Chico doctor and his wife

The victims, Dr. William and Katherine Chiapella, were pillars of the Chico community and their killings would send out shockwaves.

Posted: Apr 21, 2021 8:41 PM
Updated: Apr 28, 2021 5:08 PM

CHICO, Calif. - The victims, Dr. William and Katherine Chiapella, were pillars of the Chico community and their killings would send out shockwaves.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey remembered the crime on January 13, 1987, by saying, "these were very savage, brutal killings of Dr. and Mrs. Chiapella."

This story begins with a good deed. Dr. William Chiapella, a Chico obstetrician, and his wife Katherine, placed a job order through Chico State University to hire a student to do yard work. The student they hired; Steven Crittenden. And that would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Police say Crittenden, a Chico State football player at the time, went to burglarize the couple's home on Downing Avenue in Chico, but the Chiapellas arrived home while he was inside.

Ramsey said, "according to him, he was going in for a burglary that went wrong."

The killings were grizzly. Dr. Chiapella was stabbed 13 times with butcher knives from the kitchen. His wife had been stabbed at least twice. Crittenden also beat them in the head with a fire extinguisher. Both Chiapellas received several injuries to their heads and faces. Both were found bound and gagged. Their bodies were found by their son, Dr. Joseph Chiapella on January 17, 1987, four days after the murder.

Retired Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney was one of the first officers to arrive on scene, "I was a 24-year old young police officer, working weekend day shift and this was just another call early in the morning. Dr. Joe Chiapella was outside and very distraught and it was within a very quick few moments that we discovered this tragedy and learned from Dr. Chiapella what he discovered."

Ramsey described the scene, "The situation Dr. Joe Chiapella, their son came into was horrific. When he came in and saw his father slaughtered on the bedroom floor, he called his wife and turned around and there was his mother slaughtered on the kitchen floor. One of the more brutal crimes we've ever come across."

The community was left in shock and police continued to gather evidence. Ramsey said, "Evidence at the scene had Mr. Crittenden'S footprint on a chair mat and we also had his fingerprint on a piece of paper."

Police followed that paper trail. A check for $3,000. signed by Katherine Chiapella and written out to Crittenden and recovered from Bank of America.

"The working theory from investigators and evidence was that Dr. Chiapella was tied up and subject to a torturous knife attack to force Mrs. Chiapella to write the check," Ramsey said.

Police zeroed in on Crittenden. The motive was money. Within days of the killings, Crittenden used money from the check to pay overdue rent and bills. Crittenden had an alibi for the check. He said Mrs. Chiapella had paid him the $3,000 for sexual favors, but that would later prove to be a lie.

RELATED: Steven Crittenden sentenced to 63 years to life for 1987 murder of Chico doctor, wife

Eight days after the murders, Crittenden was arrested at his apartment on West 9th Street, where police found more damning evidence. The Chiapellas were found bound and gagged with cloth from a pillowcase in a unique strawberry pattern, matching strawberry patterned sheets were found in the closet of his apartment. The pillow was case missing.

There was extensive media coverage on the murders and the trial was moved from Butte to Placer County.

On May 11, 1987, while awaiting trial, Crittenden escaped from the Butte County Jail, kidnapped an Oroville Man and forced the man to drive him to Sacramento. He was picked up in Sacramento and brought back to the Butte County Jail.

Crittenden was brought back, tried and convicted in 1989 of two counts of murder with special circumstances robbery and kidnapping. He was on death row at San Quentin when his conviction was overturned in 2015.

A new trial was in the works and over the next five years, Crittenden's defense team and Ramsey would agree to take the death penalty off the table to avoid another trial.

On Friday, April 16, in a Placer County courtroom Crittenden, now 53, agreed to write a full confession in the form of a 12-page letter to the Chiapella family.

Crittenden admitted to violently murdering the Chiapellas to avoid being caught in the burglary.

He admitted the $3,000 check signed by Mrs. Chiapella was not for sexual favors and he apologized for saying such terrible things about her that were not true.

He also stated he was sorry for the hurt, pain and suffering he caused, but those were empty words for the still-grieving family who sat just feet away.

Filling two rows in the Placer County Courtroom in Roseville, one by one, the family gave victim impact statements.

The Chiapella's son, Joseph Chiapella, who found their bodies, was tearful at times.

He described the image of finding their ravaged bodies, "when I walked to the bedroom and found my father gagged, I cried, because I knew he was gone. I turned and saw my mom. They were both dead. That image stayed with me, clear as the day it happened."

Geoffrey Chiapella, the Chiapella's grandson, said Crittenden's plea on Friday, "just kicked the proverbial can down the road."

Geoffrey was just 6-years old when his grandparents were murdered. He said Crittenden should never be released for the heinous crimes, but for now, it gives his dad, who found the bodies on that fateful day in 1987, an opportunity to know, at least in their lifetime, they will never see Crittenden free and can no longer be traumatized.

Their granddaughter, Danielle Lanoy, was born in June after their murders. She described the loss of never having a chance to meet her grandparents.

"I'm glad we got a confession, but Crittenden showed no remorse. The only reason he entered a plea and confessed was to save himself," De Lanoy said.

34 years after these brutal murders, Placer County Judge Jeffery Penney sentenced Crittenden to 63 years to life in prison.
Crittenden waived his right to ever appeal the sentence. Ramsey said the confession will be used if he ever tries to go back to court.

Crittenden is eligible for parole in 2035. For now, he has returned to San Quentin prison. The final chapter was now written, at least for now.

Action News Now Anchor Debbie Cobb covered this story since the bodies of Dr. William and Katherine Chiapella were discovered on January 17, 1987. She was assigned to cover the murder trial daily in Auburn, where the trial was moved because of extensive publicity. And was at the sentencing hearing on Friday, April 16, 2021, to hear his confession.

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