In case there was any question in Ronnie Vang’s mind, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White reminded the convicted killer Friday why he was about to join the other 745 inmates who have been sentenced to San Quentin’s death row as of April 2.
“All murders are intrinsically horrible,” the judge told Vang, “but some murders are more horrific than other murders, and I think – having seen a lot of murder cases – that the difference has to do with the amount of time that goes into the moments preceding the murder.
“Lots of murders are of the moment. They are sudden. They are spontaneous. They are ill-chosen acts. But they are not largely thought out.”
It was the deliberations Vang went through in carrying out the murder of Keith Anthony Fessler during a June 2009 residential burglary that qualified the defendant to be only the fifth to be sentenced to death in Sacramento in the past decade.
There was “a series of moments, a countless series of moments” where Vang had to stop and think about what he was doing, White said. At each juncture, Vang went forward, to where he executed – with two gunshots to the back the head – “a totally innocent victim, and somebody who was esteemed and highly regarded by apparently everybody who knew him, and (who) presented no threat of harm to you whatsoever,” the judge said from the bench.
Vang was convicted Dec. 4 in the shooting death of Fessler, 44. The following month, a jury found the murder merited the death penalty because it was committed to eliminate a witness and took place during the course of a burglary.
Out of prison only four days from a previous burglary conviction, Vang, 32, and his cousin, Joson Vang, 27, broke into Fessler’s home in the 7400 block of Carella Drive in the Meadowview area on the day of the killing. Fessler woke up during the daytime burglary. When Fessler confronted the burglars, Ronnie Vang and his cousin tied him up and threw him across a bed. A witness testified that Ronnie Vang told him Fessler told the intruders to take his stuff and pleaded for his life. Ronnie Vang then shot Fessler twice in the back of the head, the jury found.
“You make a whole series of choices,” White told Vang, who sat impassively and declined to make a statement at the sentencing hearing. “You choose, instead of leaving, to stay. You choose, instead of letting him leave, unmolested by you and your co-defendant, you decide to hobble and hogtie him.”
White said it’s plain that Vang, who was not wearing a mask and who didn’t want to go back to prison, did not want to leave anybody around who could identify him.
“And you decide to kill Keith Fessler,” White said. “Those were tortuous moments for Keith Fessler, and you had infinite opportunities to change your mind. He wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t presenting any threat to you. But you decided instead to put two bullets into him.”
Born in Alabama, Fessler grew up in Sheboygan, Wis., before moving west and settling in Sacramento about 10 years before his death. He worked nights fixing MRI machines and other types of medical equipment at Kaiser Permanente. His real passion, however, was music, and he wrote and recorded his own songs and played several high-quality guitars. He also enjoyed windsurfing.
After killing Fessler, Vang and his cousin stole the guitars and his surfboards. They then set fire to Fessler’s house and left in the victim’s car, which they also burned. They were arrested after Ronnie Vang tried to sell the guitars at a pawn shop. A video surveillance camera in the store recorded him as he walked in, strumming the guitar “like he was on a Sunday drive,” Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown said in her opening statement at trial.
A separate jury convicted the cousin on the same seven counts that were sustained against Ronnie Vang – murder, burglary, robbery, arson (two counts), attempted burglary, car theft. White sentenced Joson Vang to life in prison without parole in January.
Fessler’s parents, Eldred Anthony Fessler and Dianne Fessler, attended every day of trial, along with their son, Craig, all of whom live in Florida. Another son, Eric Fessler, attended the beginning and the end of the trial. Members of the family made statements at Joson Vang’s sentencing, which occurred just before the jury returned the death penalty verdict on Ronnie Vang. They declined to return to Sacramento for Ronnie Vang’s sentencing.
In a written statement to the court, Dianne Fessler recalled the pain of being told about her son’s murder and the difficulty of going to a city they did not know to make funeral arrangements. Then there was the insurance agent who “began calling us over and over and insisting we go to Keith’s house, the crime scene” and how they had to call a police detective to tell the agent to “quit hounding us.”
Dianne Fessler said that in the year after her son’s death, she and her husband had to deal with as many as 80 emails and a similar number of phone calls in handling the details of their son’s death.
“Each call requires repeating the death of our son,” she wrote. “Each call reopened the wound in your heart.”
Keith’s death “left a big empty hole in me/us,” she wrote.
“He was such a good son, brother, uncle, a huge part of our lives,” Dianne Fessler said. “He never missed calling on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or on our birthdays. He was so good to all of us, never raised his voice in anger, and was so helpful. We will never see him, hear his voice, talk with him, hear his laugh or be with him again.”