Crime - Sacto 911

Perpetrator in grisly Lassen County double murder may be released this week

Joseph P. Shelton
Joseph P. Shelton California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

A man convicted in the double-murder of two college students in Lassen County 35 years ago could be released from prison this week.

Joseph P. Shelton, 63, has spent 35 years behind bars. A parole board recommended in 2014 that he be freed on grounds that he had been a model prisoner and a positive influence on other inmates.

Gov. Jerry Brown reversed that decision, but Shelton – who became a Buddhist monk in prison – filed an appeal in Mendocino Superior Court, where his 1981 jury trial was held. The court overturned Brown’s reversal in January.

A Mendocino judge scheduled to hear the case Thursday could rule that Shelton should be released, said Mark Nareau, his court-appointed attorney.

In a separate court action, Shelton is arguing that his conviction should be overturned because of the disclosure of a secret deal reached by a former Lassen County district attorney and the attorney for one of Shelton’s co-defendants back in 1981.

Currently housed at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Shelton was one of three men convicted in the brutal killing of Kevin Thorpe, 21, and his girlfriend, Laura Craig, 20.

The couple were on their way back to college in Oregon on Jan. 11, 1981. Shelton and his two co-defendants saw them changing a tire in Madeline, in northern Lassen County, and followed them north on Highway 395. They stopped them by putting a red light on their car, pretending to be police.

Benjamin Wai Silva, Norman Thomas and Shelton forced them to drive to Shelton’s property in a remote rural area near Madeline, about 60 miles north of Susanville.

Thorpe was chained to a tree while Craig was taken into the cabin and repeatedly sexually assaulted. The next day Thorpe was shot multiple times with an automatic weapon and died. His body was dismembered with an ax and stuffed into trash bags, which Thomas buried in shallow graves.

Craig was shot twice and killed several days later. Her body was dumped at the bottom of a hill in Shasta County.

Shelton was convicted of the first-degree murder of Thorpe and the second-degree murder of Craig. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Shelton learned from documents in a prison law library that, in 2005, Silva’s 1982 death penalty conviction had been overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that his defense was flawed by an undisclosed agreement between prosecutors and Thomas.

Before the 1981 trial, Lassen County District Attorney Paul DePasquale had serious doubts about the mental competence of Thomas, who had recently sustained a head injury in a motorcycle accident. He agreed to a request by Rex Gay, Thomas’ attorney, to avoid having Thomas examined by a psychiatrist. That allowed Thomas to testify against Silva and Shelton in exchange for having murder charges against him dropped. He served seven years in prison.

Attorneys for Shelton and Silva were not told of the deal between DePasquale and Gay involving Thomas’ mental health, according to court records. “Had the jury known … it would have reached a different result,” the records state.

After his conviction was overturned, Silva returned to Lassen County in 2007 for a second trial, pleading no contest to murdering Thorpe. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Shelton filed an appeal of his murder convictions based on the same secret deal. In August 2015, the 9th Circuit court ruled that his first-degree murder conviction was improper.

The ruling stated that Shelton should either be retried on the first-degree murder of Thorpe or resentenced for second-degree murder, Nareau said.

The case is pending in Lassen Superior Court.