Stephen Wells and Jerry Rios: Killed in Morro Bay in 2001

April 7, 2010 

Stephen Wells and his nephew, Jerry Rios, were killed at a Morro Bay campsite in a dispute over a parking space.

Stephen A. Deflaun, 42, of Blythe was arrested for the shooting, but never stood trial. In 2004, Atascadero State Hospital officials said he has such deep delusions that it's unlikely he'll ever be able to gain competency to go through his double-murder trial.

The Southern California family had been traveling up the coast July 8 to visit relatives.

Morro Bay was not on their itinerary; they had planned to drive to Santa Cruz, but weatherstripping around the windshield broke, and they lost a few hours when they stopped to fix it.

When they saw a sign for Morro Bay Strand State Beach, they decided to pull in. A park ranger told them to park where they could fit. Wells said they saw a brown van taking up two parking spaces, so two of the boys -- Jerry Rios, 11 of Gardena, and Brian Wells, 11 of San Pedro -- approached Deflaun inside the vehicle and asked him if he would move.

"He became belligerent," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Wells in 2001. "He said to leave him alone. Stephen got out and told him not to treat his kids like that."

After returning to the RV, Wells drove to a ranger station to report the incident. Stephen and the two boys got out of the RV, and that's when Deflaun allegedly approached them, shooting Rios and Wells. Brian Wells ran and hid behind a car before anything happened to him.

"I heard pop, pop, pop," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Wells, who watched from the window of the RV as her husband, Stephen, dropped. "I saw him fire one or two shots. I saw my husband laying on the ground."

Deflaun then walked up to the RV, opened the screen door and looked Betsy Wells directly in the eye.

"He yelled, 'Do you have a gun?' I said, 'Please leave us alone. I have two kids here.'"

Wells said Deflaun again demanded to know if she had a gun and then asked her 'Why did you have to mess with me?'"

Deflau apologized for the shootings to an emergency room nurse, authorities said. Betsy Wells doesn't believe it and doesn't really care. His was not a crime of passion, she said. It was premeditated.

Wells said Deflaun had to walk about two minutes to reach his victims. She knows because she retraced his steps.

"I think he's sorry because he's in trouble," she said. "I'll do everything in my power to see he gets the death penalty."

A union carpenter, Stephen Wells loved building things and working with his hands, say those who knew him.

"He was an outstanding craftsman," said Sister Sheila Lynch, executive director of the House of Hope in San Pedro, where Wells often donated his services. "I saw him do windows, put legs on a mahogany table. What really struck me was his attention to detail."

Betsy Wells said her husband was known for fixing swings for the neighborhood kids and stopping to help strangers on the street.

Friends said he was a quiet man, loyal to his family with a sly sense of humor.

"If he liked you, he would razz you," said Kathleen Taylor, a family friend. "He was such a good guy. He would give you the shirt off his back."

A week after the incident, Betsy Wells worried about how her three children -- Brian, 11; Justin, 9; and Tarah, 6 -- will cope with the loss of their dad.

"The saddest thing is they're going to grow up without a father," Wells said. "My 6-year-old knows daddy's dead and she starts to cry. My 9-year-old -- I don't know what to think. He's trying to take on the role of the man in the family." She knows it will be a long road for her and her children. And she's going to handle it the best she can with the help of her family and friends.

"Even seeing his body and seeing him get shot, it's so unreal to me," she said. "It's amazing. It was all over nothing."

Stephen DeFlaun is still at ASH. It's a case that has baffled prosecutors and doctors alike. Through treatment and medication, most ASH patients are able to gain competency for trial within three to six months. In his 30 years as a lawyer, Deputy District Attorney Ron Abrams says he has never seen a defendant take three years or more to become mentally capable to stand trial.

The defendant failed every competency hearing between 2001 and 2004, so Judge Michael Duffy ordered Deflaun to remain indefinitely at ASH or another mental health institution until he gains competency.

"It's doubtful he'll have a change in his paranoid delusional system," said Allan Roske, an ASH forensic psychologist who monitored Deflaun weekly. "In all likelihood, he'll be institutionalized the rest of his life."

Deflaun has paranoid schizophrenia and, in 2004, still believed conspirators could hear his thoughts as they plot to kill him, Roske said. But the defendant does not believe he has a mental illness.

Fewer than 1 percent of patients who enter ASH's court competency program take more than three years -- the time allowed under state law for a defendant to gain competency to stand trial, Roske said.

After that, the court can grant a conservatorship for dangerous defendants to stay at a state hospital or drop the charges if the time spent in an institution equals the maximum potential prison sentence.

The judge chose the former for Deflaun, who could be sentenced to 50 years to life in prison if convicted of the murder charges. Abrams said it was doubtful he'd pursue the death penalty given Deflaun's mental illness.

The prosecutor said he knows a trial probably won't occur, but he was pleased Deflaun will remain at a state hospital.

"If I know for sure that he will be locked up and people are protected, then that's not much different from a conviction," Abrams said.

The lack of a trial and a verdict doesn't sit well with the families of the victims.

Jerry's parents, brother and two sisters attended the 2004 hearing, as did Wells' sister, widow and two children.

"It's a semiclosure," said Jerry Rios Sr., the slain boy's father. "Jerry and Stephen will always remain dead. But the judge's decision to keep (Deflaun) in a hospital and not let him on the streets to hurt anyone else is a fair decision."

In 1978, in Massachusetts, Deflaun pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to assaulting his mother. Deflaun spent three years in a mental institution before he was released.

At the 2004 hearing, Rios told the judge that he was upset no government agency continued to monitor Deflaun, who aimlessly drifted around the country until he was arrested for the murders.

Judge Duffy gazed at the victims' families and became choked up.

"There are certainly flaws in the system," he said. "This case shows what happens."

In 2008, Betsy Wells said her son, Brian Wells, who was 11 at the time of the shooting of his stepfather and cousin, was 18 and getting ready to graduate from high school. His GPA was 4.0+ and he planned to go on to a four-year university, funds permitting.

The teenager was said to volunteer at the family's church, had worked at the local polling place, was on the robotics club at school and also served as a positive role model for his brother and sister. His goal was to become a mechanical engineer.

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