Sacramento Bee file

Keith Fessler, a music and windsurfing buff, was killed in 2009 during a home invasion. Two men were convicted of murder in the case.

Jury to consider death penalty for musician’s killer

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 - 10:51 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 - 7:30 am

Some of the jurors closed their eyes and swayed to the gentle rhythm of the guitar piece composed by the man who was shot and killed by the murderer sitting across from them.

The title of the song was “Spring by the Willows,” and the soft picking and the smooth chord structure laid over a measured syncopation stood in contrast to the manner in which Keith Fessler’s passion for this world was violently stilled by a burglar who didn’t want any witnesses who could send him back to prison.

On Tuesday , the song was entered as an exhibit in Sacramento Superior Court in the penalty phase of Ronnie Vang’s murder trial. Vang is the defendant the jurors convicted last month of special-circumstance murder in Fessler’s death. The conviction qualified Vang, 32, for the death penalty, and now the same jury is being asked to decide whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown introduced Fessler’s music to the jury as part of a package of victim impact evidence. A friend gave the voiceover to the soundtrack, telling the jury that the 44-year-old Fessler “wanted to shoot out good vibes to the world” through his music.

“He was really into composition,” Todd Horton testified. “He was just starting to get into trusting his voice in public.”

Fessler’s music, Horton said, “is the reason I was drawn to Keith. He was so gentle, a different kind of person.” Fessler was also “the happiest guy I ever met,” Horton said.

By day, Fessler worked as a technician for Kaiser Permanente, repairing high-tech medical equipment such as MRI machines. In his off-hours, he played guitar and wrote music and liked to windsurf on San Francisco Bay. He also was one of three sons in a tight-knit military family that moved around the country a bit while Fessler was growing up.

Authorities found Fessler’s body June 23, 2009, shot and killed execution style in a bedroom of his home in the 7400 block of Carella Drive, in the Meadowview area. According to evidence at trial, Vang and his cousin and co-defendant, Joson Vang, 27, were burglarizing his house when Fessler walked in on them.

They tied him up and laid him on a bed where Ronnie Vang shot him in the back of the head. Then they stole his guitars and windsurf boards and set his house on fire. Witnesses testified that Vang said he shot Fessler because he had just gotten out of prison and didn’t want to go back.

Joson Vang also was convicted in the case, but is not facing the death penalty. He is scheduled for sentencing Friday.

Fessler’s younger brother, Eric, testified Tuesday that the two of them had spoken just a few days before the murder. He said they were planning a vacation in Wisconsin, where Eric lives. Instead, Eric Fessler testified, he had to figure out a way to tell his boys, who were then 4 and 3, about what happened to their uncle. Four years later, Eric Fessler said, he still hasn’t told them the whole story.

In picture after picture displayed on the courtroom screen, Eric Fessler narrated photos where his smiling brother, with his hair cut into a mullet and wearing Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses, accompanied his nephews on boat rides in Florida and at poolside at the home of the boys’ grandparents.

“Family was his life,” Eric Fessler said. As for his Keith’s nephews, “He would do everything he could to be there for them, to be an influence. As much as he could, he would be around them.”

It was the jury’s finding that Ronnie Vang murdered a witness that made him a candidate to become the fifth murderer from Sacramento County sent to death row in the last 10 years. Vang had been released from Folsom State Prison only four days before the killing, according to the prosecutor. He had been imprisoned for a parole violation on an underlying conviction of second-degree burglary.

Brown, the deputy DA, said in court that Ronnie Vang was tested for drugs three days after he was paroled and one day before the murder of Keith Fessler. She said the test came back positive, but that the results weren’t returned to parole officials until after the killing.

Vang’s penalty-phase attorney, William White, called the head of the county’s jail’s psychiatric services to testify Tuesday that the defendant had been diagnosed as suffering from depression and methamphetamine abuse disorder.

Dr. Gregory Sokolov said he never treated Ronnie Vang, but interviewed him in August and had reviewed reports on him. Sokolov said Vang was born in Portland and raised in Sacramento. According to Sokolov’s testimony, Vang began to have problems when his parents split up when he was young, and that he began smoking marijuana at age 10, then methamphetamine when he was 12.

Sokolov described Vang as an everyday meth smoker until he was 16 and that he ran away from home and lived “almost a transient lifestyle” through his early teen years.

When he was still a juvenile, a judge declared Vang “out of control” and placed him in Pennsylvania’s Glenn Mills Schools program for juvenile delinquents. Authorities at the facility outside Philadelphia said Vang responded well to their program, according to a letter White read to the court.

Sokolov said Vang began using drugs again when he left the Glenn Mills Schools program and returned to Sacramento at age 19. Vang’s criminal record, presented to the court by the DA, showed that after his return he was convicted on five separate felonies, for car theft, twice for receiving stolen property, possession of drugs for sale and the second-degree burglary.

White is expected to conclude his case today. The attorneys will then argue Thursday before Judge Steve White sends the case to the jury.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

Read more articles by Andy Furillo

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