BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A woman who spent the past 19 years in prison for the murder of a local property manager has filed an appeal to vacate her conviction under a new law that went into effect this year. Susan Clevenger was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, after a kidnapping for ransom plot resulted in the death of Clevenger's boss, Brad St. Clair.
Now with Senate Bill 1437, which changed the felony murder rule, Clevenger has filed another appeal saying that she no longer falls under the requirements to be convicted of murder because she was not the actual killer, nor did she intend for St. Clair to die.
A Tripped Alarm
On August 7, 2000, Brad St. Clair was finishing up work at his Southwest Bakersfield business offices, St. Clair Investments. His wife said he called her just after 5 p.m. to confirm dinner plans. They were supposed to have friends over that evening, but Brad never came home.
"When his mother had called and said the alarm company had called that the alarm had had been activated, even then I really didn't initially think of anything wrong," said Elisa St. Clair-Danforth, St. Clair's wife. "But seeing his car still parked there, the only car left in the parking lot, that made me nervous."
Brad's secretary, Susan Clevenger, returned to work that evening with her boyfriend, Keith Bryan Shell. The two plotted to kidnap St. Clair and hold him for ransom. During the crime, a struggle ensued and an alarm was tripped.
When police arrived, they found St. Clair bound by duct tape and covered in scrapes and bruises. Police reports show he had several small cuts along the back of his head and had been strangled with his own necktie.
The investigating led police to Clevenger and Shell.
"It was such a betrayal for all of us," explained St. Clair-Danforth. "I think it's the ultimate betrayal you can give someone. She worked for us for about a year and a half and it was just unbelievable."
According to court filings Clevenger's brother, Robert, went to police with suspicions of the couple's involvement in the murder. Robert told Bakersfield Detective Steve Ramsey that Clevenger had approached him about taking part in the kidnapping scheme.
Fingerprints left in the office and on the duct tape used to bind St. Clair was positively matched to Shell.
Clevenger and Shell were both convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. They were both sentenced to three counts of life without parole.
"It was obviously a big relief to me to know that justice was served on both ends but you know, deep inside it didn't bring me any happiness or joy. It was relief but my husband is never coming back, I am without a husband and a father for my three children," said Elisia St. Clair-Danforth.
On September 30, 2018 former Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1437, a measure that changed the felony murder rule. Under the previous legislation, a defendant could be found guilty of murder in cases where they weren't the actual killer but a participant in a felony crime.
The author of the law, Senator Nancy Skinner (D) from Berkeley, said that this law is designed to protect particular individuals.
"What I bring before you today is the ability to refine our murder statute so it can appropriately fit the crime that is committed," said Skinner.
SB 1437 changed the rule to say a defendant can only be convicted of murder if they:
- are the actual killer
- shared the intent with the actual killer
- the murder victim was a police officer
- they were a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life
However, in February, an Orange County judge declared SB 1437 unconstitutional. Since then several District Attorney's offices throughout the state have contested the new law, including right here in Kern County.
"Every petition that gets filed our office assigns and addresses, but because of the retro-activity of the bill, it takes it back you know 10, 20, 30, 40 years," said Deputy District Attorney Gina Pearl.
It is currently being reviewed by the higher courts.
After almost two decades in jail and exhausting all other appeals, Susan Clevenger had another means to call her conviction into question with the passing of SB 1437. In her appeal, Clevenger argued that she falls under the new felony murder rule since Shell was the one who strangled St. Clair.
Deputy District Attorney Pearl has been assigned to Clevenger's case since 2015. She said Clevenger does not fall under SB 1437 because she was a major participant in the case.
"She was both a major participant in the crime and acted in both reckless endangerment and reckless indifference to the crime," said Pearl.
On January 23, 2020 Clevenger's appeal will return to a Kern County courtroom. The District Attorney's Office expects a final decision on the legality of SB 1437 from the higher courts by then. If the law is deemed unconstitutional and repealed, Celvenger's appeal will end there.
If the law stands and If Clevenger's hearings continue, a judge would have to decide whether or not to vacate her murder conviction.
"This is potentially the first step to addressing all of her other convictions," said Deputy District Attorney Pearl.
Brad St. Clair's family has been very active in attending Clevenger's appeals. They hope the judge will respect the decision made by the jury back in 2001.
"Twelve jurors made their decision 19 years ago and we respect that and we would like that to be respected by the judge and by the legislature," said Gordon Schmidt, Brad St. Clair's uncle. "The right thing isn't always the sake of what the person in custody needs but what the victims need."
“It can be jarring emotionally because my mind, my thoughts brings me back to the day of and all these 19 years," said St. Clair-Danforth. "All the succession of things that have happened in our lives so yes it brings back those feelings again.”
A Continued Cold Case
The truth behind what happened in the St. Clair Investment offices back in 2000 is still somewhat of a mystery. Brad St. Clair's family and the Bakersfield Police Department believe there may have been a third suspect involved in the crime.
"It's difficult because you wonder are they out there hurting people? What are they doing to cover their crime?" said Gordon Schmidt.
According to court filings, a blood sample collected at the scene of the murder was not connected to either Clevenger, Shell or St. Clair. At least two of Clevenger's siblings have said that she approached them beforehand discussing the kidnapping.
Last year the Kern County Secret Witness program issued a $20,000 reward for information surrounding the case. Anyone with information is encouraged to call 661-322-4040, or the Bakersfield Police Department at 661-327-7111.