Defendant Admits Killings of 4 Women in Anaheim, Gets Life in Prison

SANTA ANA (CNS) – A 36-year-old sex offender pleaded guilty Thursday to the kidnapping, rape and killings of four Orange County women in Anaheim.

Franc Cano, who has been in custody since April 2014, was immediately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors were originally seeking the death penalty, but announced to Cano’s defense team last week that due to newly revealed mitigating factors, capital punishment was no longer being considered in the case.

That decision led to Thursday’s guilty plea from Cano. Once capital punishment was off the table, Cano wanted to plead guilty, according to his attorney, Chuck Hasse of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office.

“Without a doubt there was no quid pro quo,” Hasse said after the hearing.

Hasse said the fact that his client was remorseful was “part of my pitch” when asking prosecutors to reconsider the death penalty for the defendant.

In court, Cano apologized to the families of the victims.

“To the families here today … I am deeply remorseful for the wounds I have caused you,” Cano said. “These four women were … loved, and instead of helping I have destroyed lives. Instead of saving lives I was a coward. … Today, I, Franc Cano, take responsibility for my actions. … I really  hope today’s sentence brings justice and closure.”

Cano admitted to the 2013 killings of 34-year-old Josephine Vargas and 20-year-old Kianna Jackson, and the 2014 killings of 28-year-old Martha Anaya and 21-year-old Jarrae Nykkole Estepp. Authorities said the women were working as prostitutes.

Cano’s co-defendant, Steven Dean Gordon, 53, was convicted of the killings in 2016 and sentenced to death the following year. Gordon acted as his own attorney during his trial, and ultimately conceded that he deserved the death penalty for the killings.

Anaya’s mother, Herlinda Salcedo, speaking through a translator, said during the hearing,  “up till now I cannot talk to (her granddaughter) about her mother. … From my heart I want to say I forgive (her daughter’s killers), not for them, but for me. I want to be in peace.”

The victim’s daughter, Melody Anaya, said her mother was helping her with therapy right before she was killed.

“I didn’t have my dad around so she was all I had,” Melody Anaya said.

Her younger sister was too young to remember her mother, Melody Anaya said.

“She tells me all the time how she wishes she had a mom and I feel the same,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy. … I have so much anger in my heart. … Not a day goes by I don’t think about her.”

Sometimes she still sends her mother Facebook messages “even though I know she can’t read it.”

Jackson’s mother, Kathy Branson, said her daughter “missed out on her 21st birthday and her brother’s 21st birthday.”

The holiday season was “her favorite. She enjoyed being with her family and eating holiday treats,” Branson said, adding that now the holidays are plagued with sadness thinking about the victim.

Branson said she supported the plea deal to avoid a regurgitation of the “disgusting” facts of the case in a lengthy death penalty trial.

Jackson’s brother, Gurie Jackson, told Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue that he will miss the sibling rivalry.

“She’s  not going to be an aunt. … She’s not going to see me grow up,” he said. “That’s the hardest part about it.”

Jackson’s grandmother, Dianne Menzies, told Donahue there’s no way to achieve closure in the case.

“What is closure? I wish someone could explain that to me,” Menzies said. “We had no body to at least give a burial to. Nothing. It leaves a hole in our heart and a space that will always be empty.”

Vargas’ mother, Priscilla Vargas, said her daughter had a newborn daughter when she was killed.

“I will never forgive you ’til I die,” Vargas said. “She was my best friend. You don’t know what you took from me. … Her daughter asks me where’s mommy and all I can show her is a picture.”

The victim’s sister, Deseree Vargas, added, “I also lost my best friend.”

Yolanda Hull, Estepp’s aunt, said her niece had “the  most beautiful smile” and was often “cracking jokes, making everyone laugh.” She was killed on her brother’s birthday, Hull said.

Estepp’s mother, Jodi Estepp-Pier, said she is still seething with indignation.

“I have to ask forgiveness to the people I yell at because I’m so angry,” Estepp-Pier said. “I hate that I hate.”

Anaheim police identified a fifth victim — 19-year-old Sable Pickett of Compton — in 2017, but the pair were never charged with her killing.

Only Estepp’s body was ever found. That discovery led to clues tying Gordon and Cano to the other killings, with prosecutors relying on DNA and evidence of the pair’s movements from GPS-tracking devices they were wearing due to prior sex offenses.

Parole and probation officials drew criticism in the case because Gordon and Cano, who were both registered sex offenders, were socializing together, which is a violation of their terms of release. The defendants also cut off their GPS devices and left the state at one point.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said that because of the ongoing appeal of Gordon’s case he had to be “circumspect” about what led to his decision to drop the death penalty.

Hasse appeared before Spitzer and a committee of prosecutors in October to appeal to the office to reverse its recommendation for the ultimate punishment.

A large part of what motivated Spitzer to drop the death penalty was the input from the families of victims who felt life in prison was an acceptable option, the county’s top prosecutor said after the hearing.

Hasse said his client was born into a “close-knit working class” family in Compton that was Roman Catholic, and then Jehovah’s Witness before returning to Catholicism.

“He was born and raised to be a follower” of others, Hasse said.

Cano met Gordon while they were charging their GPS bracelets at a probation office. Gordon became a svengali-like figure manipulating Cano until they were in a romantic relationship, Hasse said.

Gordon, in contrast, had a “spoiled” upbringing and was the “alpha dog” in the relationship, Hasse said.

Hasse said he argued that the death penalty was more appropriate for “the leader” of the killings instead of the “follower.”

Gordon was a “master at gaslighting and manipulation,” Hasse said.

The defense attorney even pointed to arguments from former prosecutor Larry Yellin, who is now an Orange County Superior Court judge, in Gordon’s trial. He noted Yellin argued Cano was “taking orders” from Gordon.

Cano is “soft spoken” and “quiet,” and was a “sickly kid” who struggled with asthma and eczema while living with his family until he became a “star witness” in a murder trial in his “gang-infested neighborhood” of Compton, Hasse said. He moved in with his grandmother in Garden Grove and in 2007 he was convicted of molesting a niece, Hasse said. Gordon, in contrast, raped and sodomized a relative for several years and was convicted of kidnapping his wife and daughter but was acquitted of raping her, Hasse said.

Gordon came to Cano’s defense when he was being bullied by another probationer and then ultimately became his “protector” on the streets, Hasse said.

Gordon also befriended Cano’s parents, who encouraged Cano to “listen” to Gordon, Hasse said.

Hasse also noted how the two have diverged in the way they have approached their lives in custody. Gordon “made a spectacle of his trial,” even “lunging” at a woman juror at one point, while Cano has taken self-help classes in jail.

During Gordon’s trial, Yellin compared Gordon and Cano to the shark in “Jaws,” but in his closing argument, Yellin said that was an “insult to the sharks.”

“These guys not only did horrible things — killing, multiple sexual assaults — they also psychologically terrorized (the victims). They gave them hope, `If you just do this we’ll let you go,”‘ the prosecutor said.

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