SAN FRANCISCO — Ronald Deere, a muscular man with dark hair and bizarre scars covering his body, stood in an Indio courtroom and defiantly demanded that the judge impose the most severe penalty--death.
"I committed a crime punishable by death. I should have been punished a long time ago," Deere said in 1986, having already admitted murdering a friend and his two young daughters, ages 7 and 2, in Blythe four years earlier.
Deere, 37, moved closer to fulfilling his apparent death wish last week when the California Supreme Court denied his lawyer's petition contending Deere is mentally incompetent and too unstable to direct that all appeals be dropped.
Lawyer Robert Bryan, long active in the movement to abolish the death penalty, insists Deere has multiple personalities, is retarded, and has "an overpowering desire to die." He produced psychologists who say Deere, who is part American Indian and calls himself Running Deer, finds suicide unacceptable, but thinks he would be dying like a warrior if he were executed.
Bryan has other appellate avenues. But the court's latest ruling increases the chance that Deere will be the first Californian executed since this state restored capital punishment in 1977. Robert Alton Harris, whose case has moved furthest through the courts, continues to fight his death sentence, as do most of the 304 inmates on San Quentin's Death Row.
Deere's rise to this macabre notoriety began on March 4, 1982, when he shot and killed Donald L. Davis and Davis' daughters, Michelle, 7, and Melissa, 2, in Davis' trailer in Blythe.
The crime stunned the small desert town. Some townsfolk armed themselves. Deere was the suspect from the start, having left fingerprints and footprints. The bodies were found by Davis' wife, Kathy, and her sister, Cindy Gleason. Gleason had jilted Deere, and he warned her he would kill her family in retaliation.
It was a variation on the jealousy motive, said Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Dollarhide, one of the investigators: "I'll teach you, don't break up with me."
Deere was waiting for Davis when he showed up at the trailer. Deere fired a fatal shot from a .22-caliber rifle into his right eye. Deere did not expect to find Davis' daughters at the home. The girls knew Deere well and would call him Uncle Ronnie. Dollarhide believes Deere killed them--with the same rifle--so there would be no witnesses.
Like the murders, much of what Deere did made no sense. There are, for example, the scars. There are scars on his arms, his chest, his legs, any place he could reach. He scarred himself by slashing his flesh with razor blades, knives, glass, anything sharp.
He would tell friends and family in Blythe, where he grew up, that he had been cut in knife fights. A few times, he claimed he cut himself because his other personality--the "bad Ronnie"--wanted to hurt him. Sometimes, he cut himself because of some ancient Indian ceremony with which only he was familiar, according to statements Bryan submitted to the high court.
Dollarhide believes he cut himself for the attention. He often cut himself when he was drunk. He had started drinking at age 10 or 12. He used a variety of drugs, even sniffed spray paint and gasoline fumes, and often was picked up by police for being intoxicated or fighting. Occasionally, he went to the emergency room to get himself stitched up.
Manuel Hemmitt, a friend, said in a statement to the court that he walked into his living room one day and found Deere bleeding.
"He cut himself across the stomach with a big old fishing knife," Hemmitt said in a handwritten statement submitted to the court to support the claim that Deere is crazy. "He tried to sew it up himself, with needle and thread, but he couldn't do it. That's when he made his girlfriend do it. She was so afraid he was gonna die."
In the weeks before the murders, he was drinking and cutting himself more. Finally, Gleason brought him to a Riverside social worker, Ginny Erickson. In a statement to the high court presented by Bryan, Erickson recalled asking about the cuts.
"If I don't cut on myself," Erickson recalled him saying, "then I'll hurt somebody else." She tried to persuade Deere to get psychiatric help, but he refused.
In the days before the murder, Erickson said, the urgency of calls from fearful friends increased, warning that Deere was about to snap. Erickson tried without success to get mental health workers to force Deere into therapy.
Deere's arrest came five days after the murders. A Border Patrol agent and Dollarhide tracked him to the desert by following his footprints. As they approached, guns drawn, a bevy of birds flew from the arrow weeds and river bottom brush. Deere looked up and said, "Don't shoot me, Dollarhide, don't shoot me." Deere had pictures of the children and notes he had written.