Larry Lee and Danny Ranes are a pair of blood-related serial killers currently incarcerated in the Upper Peninsula.
The only family known thus far in the U.S. that produced two serial killers at separate times in unrelated incidents was the Ranes family in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Only one book has been devoted to the case, and newspapers like the Kalamazoo Gazettecovered the incidents, but few collections of serial murder even mention them. Michael Newton is the exception. He notes that others have listed them as the Searl brothers, "Ralph" and "Tommy," accepting the names that Conrad Hilberry assigned to them to protect identities (as per his agreement with Larry), when he wrote the book, Luke Karamazov.
Dr. Hilberry, who lives in the town where both brothers were tried, says that he took on the project after a colleague offhandedly remarked that someone ought to write about the murders while all the principal people were still around, because this case was likely going to be unique in the annals of crime. He was right, and thanks to Hilberry, not only the case but also a sense of the times was preserved. In a later section, we interview Hilberry about his experience of speaking with both brothers.
It should be noted that not everyone agrees that the older brother, Danny, is guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted and is currently serving life in prison. He claims to be innocent, so readers may follow the case and make their own decisions.
In any event, we'll take the brothers one at a time.
Larry Ranes is first. His full story came out after the discovery of a murdered man in Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 30, 1964.
At around 5:00 P.M. on that Saturday afternoon, a patrol officer made a routine inspection of what appeared to be an abandoned Chevrolet. He saw bloodstains on the bumper and personal papers scattered in the front seat, so he had the car towed to a nearby police post. Mrs. Gary Smock was in the police station making a missing persons report at the same time that the officer called in the discovery and she said it sound like her husband's car. He had been missing since the night before.
At the post, the car's trunk was popped, and inside was the body of a white male lying on his face in a pool of fresh blood. From items in the car, he was identified as the missing Gary Smock, a thirty-year-old junior high school teacher from Plymouth, Michigan. He'd been shot in the head, just below the ear, and the autopsy indicated that the bullet had come from a .22 caliber weapon. A cord was wrapped around one wrist as if he'd been tied and his shoes were missing. Later it was determined that his watch was gone as well. The pathologist estimated that Smock had died within five minutes of the shooting, some time between 6 A.M. Saturday morning and 2 P.M. that afternoon.
The police did a door-to-door canvas of hotels and motels in the immediate area to attempt to reconstruct the last day of Smock's life. They learned that on Friday he had been on his way to the home of his in-laws in Allegan, leaving from an appointment in Battle Creek with the Chamber of Commerce. He had been there looking for accommodations for a future Church of God youth convention and had a Chamber of Commerce map of local facilities in his car. He had mentioned to officials in Battle Creek that he had to be at a family dinner.
Yet Smock's wife, Thelma, heard from him around 6:00 Friday evening. He told her he would not make it home for dinner but would arrive shortly. There is no other witness report until later that night when his car was reportedly seen at a Kalamazoo service station around 11:00 P.M., and the attendant recalled seeing two people in his car. (This report would turn out to be in error.) A palm print and fingerprint were lifted from the car and were later determined to belong to someone other than the victim or members of Smock's family, so police were hopeful that it would match a perpetrator. Another bullet was recovered from the floor of the car's trunk, and while Smock's billfold was empty, a check had been written on Friday evening to "Cash" for $11.
Early that Saturday morning, around sixty miles away in Elkhart, Indiana, service station attendant Charles Snyder had been shot twice in the head, also with a .22. Given the half tank of gas in Smock's car, police estimated that it had gone at least 100 miles after being filled at 11:00 (assuming that was correct). Agencies from both states were coordinating efforts to learn if the same gun had fired the recovered bullets from both scenes. The Indiana killer had gotten away with $100.
In less than a week, thanks to a tip from a local resident, they had nabbed the perpetrator.
Nineteen-year-old Larry Lee Ranes, prone to impulsive violence, had been hitchhiking across the country over the past three months. On Thursday, June 4, he went to the home of an acquaintance, Arthur Booth, and confessed that he had killed some people. He was going to see a priest and then commit suicide. Near midnight, Booth managed to alert the police.
Ranes was arrested at Booth's home wearing Smock's stolen watch and shoes. While he had only fifteen cents on him, he readily admitted to the killing of both men and surrendered his .22 caliber handgun. Police sent it for testing.
Ranes said that Smock had offered him a ride and he had forced the man to drive onto a country road and robbed him of $3. Then he ordered Smock into the trunk of the car and instructed him to be quiet. When the man started thumping to make himself heard, Ranes stopped on a lonely road outside Kalamazoo, tied him up and shot him in the head. He shot twice but the first one missed. Then he shut the body into the trunk. That was between 8 and 9 P.M. Hungry, he got a hamburger and then drove to Indiana, waited into the early morning hours to kill a gas station attendant there for money, and returned to Kalamazoo. The dead man was found by a group of fishermen who stopped for gas, so the police were alerted immediately. They called for roadblocks.
Ranes said that he had been waved through one of these roadblocks, with Smock still in the trunk. He just acted at ease and they told him to move on. He returned to the point at which he had met Smock and abandoned the car, hitchhiking from there into Kalamazoo. He realized there was blood on the bumper but did not want to stick around any longer to clean it up. He simply didn't care, he said.
After extensive interrogation, Ranes was bound over to Circuit Court. He said he did not want a layer, so psychiatric examinations were scheduled. Then he changed his mind and asked for a public defender. Eugene Field was appointed, but the examination went ahead before Field arrived.
Even before Ranes was caught, investigators had speculated over whether Smock's killer had also shot and killed a service station attendant on April 6 in Battle Creek. Vernon LeBenne, 28
, was shot with a .22 and was working at an I-94 Interchange near where Smock had been driving. Ranes readily confessed to that crime as well. Then he added two more in two other states. One man had picked him up near Death Valley on May 23 and kept talking about the fact that he had no money, so Ranes shot him (his body remained missing for over two years). The other was another gas station attendant in Kentucky.
While Ranes had no criminal record, throughout his adolescence he had been a known troublemaker. He had grown up in Woodward, Michigan in an abusive and unstable home, and was a year younger than his brother, Danny. They were close, but they also competed aggressively, both loving and hating each other. In a prison interview with Hilberry, Larry said, "I used to hit Danny with boards, throw knives at him, shoot him with bows and arrows, and shit like that."
Once he was of age to leave home, Larry had tried the military but ended up in the stockade for the latter part of his stint before he was discharged. He had also developed an obsession with a married woman, both before and after his military experience. Then, feeling that his life might not last very long (indeed, he had suicidal thoughts and one attempt), he started to wander, taking three months to hitchhike across into Ohio, Kentucky, and over to Nevada. He later claimed that had someone noticed what his suicide attempt was about, he might have been treated and thus prevented from committing the murders. In other words, he blamed others for his own acts, although he once admitted to Hilberry his moral shortcomings: "There has to be some part of me left out."
Ranes was charged in only the Smock murder, with other charges in reserve pending the results of the trial. Mounted posses from the sheriff's department combed the area west of Kalamazoo where Ranes had indicated he had killed Smock, looking for physical evidence of the shooting. Ranes had indicated that as he was robbing Smock, he had tossed a flashlight from the car. They did not find it.
At the end of September, the trial began in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court. Assistant Prosecutor Donald Burge had prepared a set of twenty color slides depicting the body of Gary Smock. Eugene Field objected to their graphic nature, stating they would inflame the jury. The judge admitted twelve of the slides.
The courtroom battle centered largely around the question of Ranes' sanity. Through Field, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and several psychologists testified that he had committed murder during periods of temporary insanity that had occurred thanks to his rage against a father who had beat him mercilessly. In fact, Ranes' father had once been a gas station attendant, which supported this defense, as did the fact that his victims had resembled his father.
Hilberry read the trial transcripts and was able to summarize Ranes' approach to life. During prison interviews, Hilberry perceived that Ranes needed to manipulate and control, and his pre-prison violence had been impulsive and lacking in direction or support. "There was never a plan," Ranes admitted about his murders. "It was a natural thing. It always seemed to me like I was an actor in a play..." He even expressed a somewhat technical interest in what happened to his victims when shot: the blood flew farther than he expected on one case, and another young man "bounced a couple of feet in the air." He had no remorse for what he had done.
Ranes was convicted of Smock's murder and given a life sentence. He appealed it, based on the fact that the prosecutor's psychiatrists had started to examine him before he was properly represented by counsel, and he won a new trial in 1971, but when it became clear to him that his insanity plea was not very strong, he pled guilty and received a new life sentence. The concession he received was to be allowed to change his name, and he chose "Monk Steppenwolf," based on a novel by German author Herman Hesse that had impressed him.
Published in 1927, Steppenwolf provided a literary way for Hesse to explore the gap between physical and mental reality. He described his main character's struggle with bridging that gap with emotion, sensual experience, and spiritual transcendence. Yet Steppenwolf was autobiographical as well, following on the heels of several crises that had occurred in Hesse's life. His first and second marriages had both collapsed, after which he began to frequent the bars of Zurich. He became a suicidal alcoholic and finally retreated to his home in Switzerland to become a monkish recluse.
The novel follows Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual in despair, views himself as a "wolf of the Steppes," estranged from a world that he cannot understand. All seems futile to him, and depressing. In this world he finds no source of joy, though the "human" part of him is still attracted to the comforts of socializing. Feeling disoriented by this inner tension, he contemplates suicide.
Just before he manages it, he meets a hedonistic girl who charms him to the point where he agrees to obey her every command. She tells him that he will one day agree to kill her. He freely indulges in a sensual lifestyle and begins to enjoy his newfound freedom. Even so, he acknowledges that he is losing touch with the spiritual. During immersion into a "Magic Theater" that distorts everything, he finds the girl and kills her, as he believes she wants him to do. He's then chastised inside this hallucinatory world for excessively serious behavior.
In essence, this novel explores the idea that an individual is comprised of a multitude of selves and, via a transmigration of souls, can pass into several forms. All of life is a compromise of some type and there are several chances to keep trying to get it right. Laughter is the key to opening the doors.
A rock band also called Steppenwolf formed during the late 1960s when existential ideas were in vogue with hit songs such as "Born to be Wild " and "Magic Carpet Ride." That band's founder, John Kay, had been born in Germany and he named his band after Hesse's novel. The music challenged cultural values and expressed the spiritual restlessness of the era. Harry Haller, in fact, had an affinity with music, and he even meets his idol, Mozart, in the Magic Theater. Music offers humankind the transcendent world of the spiritual. The novel, as well as the group, intended to mirror people back to themselves so they can see and move into other possibilities.
Within his limited realm of incarceration, Ranes apparently found a new way to be himself. Via Hess's idea, one could even be absolved of murder.
By this time, it was his older brothers' turn. Danny Ranes was said to be equally angry from the abuse received at the hands of their father. In their home in Kalamazoo, they were the middle two children of four; the oldest and youngest were girls. Their father was an alcoholic who got mean when he drank and would hit whoever was close by. Each of the kids took a share of the abuse before the man finally walked out, but by that time the damage was done. He had modeled the use of violence to get through life, and the boys took out their frustrations on each other.
Danny Ranes went to prison for assault and was paroled early in 1972 when he was 28. Within a month, he committed another crime. Most of the details came from Brent Koster, 15 at the time, who said that shortly after he'd met Ranes in June, Ranes had described the incident to him in detail, even showing him where it had occurred at the east side of a store. In March, Patricia Howk, 29, left home with her seventeen-month-old son, Cory, to do some shopping. Ranes accosted and stabbed her to death, leaving her son to wander aimlessly until an elderly woman found him the next day and called the police. The boy had blood on him, so they searched for his mother and found Howk's body behind the Independent Elevator Company building. Her husband had reported her missing. Her billfold was missing, so robbery seemed a possible motive.
Koster said that Danny bragged about having committed that crime. He'd seen the woman go into a Topp's department store and had parked his blue Corvair van next to her car to wait. An hour went by and she came out and put her son into the passenger seat. As she came around to the driver's side, where the van was, Danny got out, walked up to her and pulled a knife. She panicked and fell into the car, but he pulled her out and forced her to get into his van, where he bound and raped her. He left her bound with her hands in front of her as he forced her into the front. He tried to strangle her but she fought him, scratching his face. They struggled so hard that they fell out of the van to the ground.
Ranes stabbed her in the back but he said that "it didn't seem to have much effect," so he gave the knife a twist to wreak more damage. "That did it," he claimed. Somehow the child had gotten out of the car and was standing near the van, crying. Danny figured that the boy wouldn't recall anything because he was too young, so he left him alone. Finally Howk stopped struggling and expired.
Koster said that Danny had bragged how well the method had worked and suggested that they do a similar deed together: they could grab a girl, rape her, take her money and valuables, and then kill her. Koster's six-foot-six frame, which had earned him the nickname, "Stretch," may have been influential, since he looked as if he could subdue anyone. Koster agreed to try it, so they put together a kit with knives, trash bags and ropes, and went cruising. (However, in one trial, Koster admitted that Ranes told him about this incident in July after they had committed two murders.) He said that they had once parked in front of a movie theater for four hours looking for an opportunity, and often went looking for female hitchhikers. They passed the time with talk about sex and killing women, although Koster said that Ranes initiated most of it.
As they roamed around, the police were still trying to solve Howk's murder.
On May 2, the triple homicide of a family in a nearby town, Cassopolis, had the police speculating over whether the killings were related to the Howk incident. Timothy Roderick and his wife, nine months pregnant, were bound and slashed through the throats as their two children, ages 2 and 3, had watched. Dr. William Glaser performed the autopsies and said there were some similarities between the two crimes. However, a man who had been living with the family had disappeared, so he was the immediate suspect. He was arrested in Florida and quickly tied to the triple murder, and it appeared there was no link to Howk.
On July 17, motorcycle riders in the woods near Galesburg, Michigan came across an abandoned blue Opel Kadette with the decomposed bodies of two young women in the back seat. The car's registration was traced to a Chicago-area man, who had reported his daughter missing. She had gone with her roommate to see her brother in Ann Arbor, but had never arrived. Fingerprints helped to identify Linda Clark and Claudia Bidstrup, both 19. One was the daughter of a Chicago police detective. An autopsy was unable to find the cause of death, but ropes around their necks indicated that they had been strangled. The girls had been murdered more than a week before they were found, so the chances of pinning down leads were grim. The gas tank was full, so it was surmised that they had encountered their killer not far from there. The police began to check the immediate area. What they did not know and would learn only seven weeks later was that the girls had been the victims of Ranes and Koster.
On July 5, Danny was at work at the Sprinkle Road service station when Linda Clark and Claudia Bidstrup pulled in around 1:30 A.M. to get gas. Koster filled the tank while Ranes popped the hood, both of them preparing for what they were going to do. Ranes dismantled a wire to the spark plugs, making the car sound as if it had a problem. He then had the girls drive the car into the bay so he could have a closer look. When they did so, the two men pulled knives. Ranes told them not to scream and they wouldn't be harmed. He then instructed them to get into the back seat and he drove the car to the back of the station, where the lights were off.
Koster and Ranes tied them up. One of them kept watch on girls while the other attended to customers. Koster saw Ranes assaulting Linda, and said later that Ranes had told him that he'd also had sex with Claudia. Koster than had sex with Linda in the van. Ranes put Claudia back into the car and Koster killed her there, because Ranes had told him it was time for him to "taste the medicine." He attempted without success to strangle her with a rope, so as she struggled to live, Ranes assisted and together they killed her.
They then turned their attentions to Linda, and Koster managed to strangle her on his own. They put both women into the back seat of the Opel, covered them with a blanket, and Koster drove the car himself to a wooded area near Galesburg. He poured gasoline over it and lit a cigarette. This he placed on the floor of the car and left before he knew if it had ignited the accelerant. He hitchhiked back. Ranes then showed him money, two rings, a pair of earrings, and some photographs that he had taken from the victims.
When the car was found, the girls' purses were empty of money. The police and press considered that this incident could be related to the Howk murder. All of the victims had been similarly tied, but the girls from Chicago were too recomposed to determine if they had been raped or how they had been killed. Their deaths brought to twelve the number of murders in Kalamazoo County over the past eight months, considered significantly high. Eight remained unsolved, but there was another to come.
Ranes and Koster repeated their act on August 5, kidnapping eighteen-year-old Pamela Fearnow. As they were riding around, they saw her hitchhiking on the Western Michigan University campus, a common practice for college students in those days. They picked her up and used a knife to take her against her will to a wooded area. Koster tied her up in the back of the van, covered her with a sleeping bag, and then lay next to her as Danny drove. Over a period of six hours, both of them raped her and when they were finished, they tied her up and took her to another wooded area near a lake. Koster claimed that while they drank beer, she had a glass of wine, and by the end of the day had finished the bottle. When they went to a third area, Fearnow started to scream and struggle against her bonds, so Ranes slugged her hard in the stomach. That failed to subdue her, so Koster placed a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her.
Ranes left the van, and when Fearnow fell quiet, Koster followed him. Then Ranes looked inside the van. The woman was dead so they placed her a ways away from the van onto the ground. Ranes said that he'd seen a police cruiser, so Koster ran away. Apparently the police stopped to check Ranes' ID and let him go. He encountered this same patrol officer four times before he returned to the trailer where, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette, he and Koster resided together. Koster called him later to get a ride home. (Koster was a runaway, so it wasn't clear where he lived during this time.)
They went back the next day to move the body to a more secluded area, at which time Koster found two ropes around the victim's neck. He recalled placing only one there and believed that Danny had added the second one.
Not long afterward, their relationship ended, and by Labor Day weekend, on September 4, he and Danny were arrested for the double homicide that had occurred in July. Upon investigating service stations close to where the car had been found, they noted Danny's record: in 1967, he was convicted in another state of pointing a gun at a couple and the following year he had served time for a felony in connection with the abduction of a 17-year-old student. Investigators learned that Koster often hung out at the service station with Ranes, so they brought both in for questioning. The police did not yet know about Fearnow.
Ranes had not chosen his cohort carefully. Koster was assigned an attorney, James Hills, who told him that if he offered details truthfully he would be allowed to plead to second-degree murder to one of the homicides, which came with a lesser sentence, and the other charge would be dropped. Koster said he was bothered by what they had done. However, it took until October 18 before he showed them Fearnow's body, not yet found. The police knew that she was missing because her friends had reported that they had not heard from her since August 5 after she went out on an errand.
Her remains at this point were in skeletal condition, but her jawbone assisted in making an identification. The location proved to be at Morrow Lake, less than a mile from where the other two girls had been dumped. Koster named Danny Ranes as the instigator. He said that shortly after this murder in August, he had broken off with Ranes because Ranes wanted him to steal a car and go to Florida. Koster was afraid that Ranes had in mind to kill him, too. He also told detectives about Ranes' confession to him of the murder of Patricia Howk. Ranes was charged that day with this fourth murder.
Since Koster was only 15, Hills, wanted to keep him in juvenile court, but Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Donald Burge petitioned the Probate Court to waive him into adult court, given the brutal nature of his crimes. His request was approved, in part because Koster had a previous criminal record of burglary and car theft, including a felony. Hills appealed this decision while Koster was taken to jail to be held without bond. At the time, the Michigan Supreme Court was reviewing its policies about juvenile waivers, specifically with regard to their Constitutionality, because the current law offered no guidelines for who could be waived into adult court and who could not, so there was a chance that Koster's case could be salvaged. Even so, the concept under consideration was that the juvenile system could not hold an offender beyond the age of 19, and some crimes could not be reasonably treated if the offender was destined to be in the system only two or three years. Thus, it was not the principle behind the waiver that was the problem but only its lack of formal standards.