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Sam Strange denied parole

Liz Kellar
Staff writer

Sam Strange testified at his first parole hearing on Aug. 27, 2013.

In the hearing, which was conducted at Soledad State Prison, Strange discussed the murders of Crissy Campbell and Dawn Donaldson, in front of an audience that included Campbell’s family. Donaldson’s family was not notified and was not present.

Parole was denied; Strange’s next opportunity will come in three years.

Strange detailed a troubled childhood that included his parents’ marital problems and physical abuse, and his early use of drugs and alcohol.

At the time of the murders, Strange said he was living with his parents and working at a residential home.

When asked why the murders took place, Strange responded, “Because of the nature of my lifestyle, the people I associated with, my negative behaviors … Using drugs. Hanging around negative violent people. Being part of the methamphetamine subculture.”

Strange said early on that it was his fault Dawn and Crissy were murdered, but also laid the blame for their deaths on Allen Pettus and Dameon Graham.

According to Strange, the girls were hanging out at his house when the two men showed up around 11 p.m. He said the others were drinking and using drugs, but that he was sober.

Strange — who was 20 at the time — said that he took the 16-year-old Crissy to his basement bedroom and they had sex.

Then, Strange said, Graham knocked on the door and told him to come upstairs; Strange said he saw Pettus on the deck, with Dawn dead on the ground.

“They were both really wired on the crank,” Strange said, adding the two men threatened him. “Alan said that Crissy had to be killed.”

Strange said that he followed Graham, but did nothing to stop him as he hit Campbell with a sledgehammer.

“This is really hard for me to talk about in front of the families (sic),” he said. “I’m just extremely nervous.”

According to Strange, Campbell did not die immediately, so Pettus hit her in the face with an axe. He said that although he did not participate in the murders, he helped move the bodies into his truck, then drove them into the woods and left them there.

“At the time, I was just completely in shock and scared of what was going on,” he said. “I couldn’t — I couldn’t focus or grasp what was even happening and at the same time, I felt obligated to help my friends.”

During the murders, Strange said, he never thought of calling the police. Later, he said he did not call because he “was part of the crime — I was just as responsible.”

Strange told the board, “I’ve been trying since I first came to prison to change my life for the better … On the day I was arrested, I realized how bad I messed up my life and it’s been a long learning process for me.”

According to the hearing transcript, Strange’s father, Guy Strange, wrote a letter of support and said he would provide him with housing and transportation, as well as money to achieve his goals. Several other letters of support also were read, from family members and friends, as well as from his girlfriend.

Strange said that if he was to be released, he wanted to get put into a re-entry program and then find work.

“I’d love to get into some kind of woodworking industry, cabinet-making,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be in a strong 12-step support network to keep me on the right path … My biggest goals are just to be a positive influence on my community.”

California Deputy Attorney General Mark Johnson challenged Strange, saying, “the prisoner has stated these murders were committed by two other young men … and now we hear for the first time that he takes full responsibility for the murders and is remorseful … I’d like the board to ask him exactly what he is taking accountability for.”

“I put them in that situation, the vulnerable situation,” Strange responded. “I caused their murders by inviting them to my house … It’s my fault they died.”

Johnson also questioned his veracity in saying his trial was fair, given the fact that he spent nearly 10 years fighting to overturn his conviction.

“I really changed my perspective on it,” Strange said.

“He’s trying to talk his way out of this … It’s not my fault but I accept full responsibility for it. Well, you didn’t really seek self-help until two years ago,” Johnson told Strange. “You’ve been in prison for a long, long time …. You can’t be trusted and you’re not remorseful. You’re just sorry to be in prison and you should remain here.”

Strange’s attorney, Tracy Lum, noted remorse for two murders he didn’t commit seemed hard to believe.

But she said he had been “candid and forthright” during the hearing, and took full responsibility for his actions. Lum also noted it was his first violent act and he has shown the ability to remain non-violent and non-defiant.

“He no longer shifts blame,” she said. “He now has insight. He knows he’s responsible for the murders and why.”

In the end, the board told Strange they were recommending against parole, in part because he was still blaming others and because he was still behaving like a follower. They also castigated him for exhibiting only “superficial” empathy toward the families of his victims, and recommended more self-help programs.

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com.

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