Son Fights Killer’s Release at a Time When More Lifers are Getting Parole

Jul 11, 2013

Jason Chelius looks through a folder of letters and pictures he plans to bring to the parole hearing.
Jason, age 7, sit on the lap of his father Ronald Chelius.
Credit courtesy: Jason Chelius

Many don’t have vivid memories of when they were just seven-years-old, but Jason Chelius does.   That’s how old he was when his father was murdered back in 1979. “I remember sitting in the bathtub, and I mean still to this day, I can hear the rap on the door.  So I hear the knock on the door, and the blood curdling screams of my mother, just echo through your body,” said Chelius.  

Jason’s father, Ronald Chelius worked for the Nevada Division of Investigations .  He was murdered while undercover buying LSD from a couple of teenage drug dealers in Sacramento.  When Agent Chelius identified himself, 19-year-old Jeffry Cook shot him. Cook avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to first degree murder.  He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. 

Sitting at the dining room table of their Pacific Grove home, Jason and his wife Melissa look through a folder they plan to bring to Cook’s parole hearing next Thursday.  It includes letters from family members and photos of Jason, his parents, brother and sister.  The Cheliuses have been to other parole hearings for Cook.  Each time, the months leading up to it are an emotional rollercoaster.  Jason struggles with what he can say to make a difference because while he feels it’s important to speak, it’s also a double edged sword.  “We’ve noticed that every single time I go, and I speak on my behalf for the parole board hearing, he comes back every year hitting on everything I said. So it’s like I’m feeding him every time I show up to better his chances of getting out,” said Chelius.

The process of getting out begins with the inmate being granted parole.  And in recent years that number has gone up. “Even though there are more life inmates receiving parole now than there were before, and that’s largely because of precedent set by case law, it’s still a relatively rare occurrence,” said Bill Sessa, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman.  In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that parole decisions should be made on whether the inmate now poses a danger to  the public if released, and that the details of the crime itself are not reason enough to deny parole.  Before the ruling, about 2-3% of inmates who went before the parole board were given a parole date.  Last year, the number was 14%.  But Sessa points out those granted parole, don’t necessarily get out of prison.  “There are many checks and balances built into the system to ensure that public safety is protected before someone is released on parole, including the review by the Governor who can make a separate decision,” said Sessa.

That’s what happened in the Ronald Chelius case. Last year, the board felt his killer Jeffry Cook had taken responsibility for the crime, rehabilitated in prison and was remorseful, so they granted him parole.  But Jason Chelius fought back.  He launched a letter writing campaign to Governor Brown with the help of the group Officer Down Memorial Page.  The non-profit has an ongoing national campaign called, No Parole for Cop Killers.  Angela McMinn, whose father was also killed in the line of duty, helps run the program.  Reached at her home in North Carolina, she says it’s not about anger or spite.  “It’s out of our heartfelt belief that that officer gave his life, and this man should not be able to walk free,” said McMinn.

Governor Brown overturned the board’s parole decision, noting he felt Cook hadn’t taken responsibility for the murder.  Now he’s up for parole again next week, and Jason Chelius will continue his fight. “They say time heals. I would disagree. I believe my feelings are much stronger today than they were then.  Number one that’s because I’ve raised children.  I’ve watched my kids grow up. What would their life have been without me?” said Chelius.  And while the parole board and even the Governor can no longer just look at the crime alone to keep his father’s killer behind bars, Jason hopes they see other reasons not to set him free.