Twenty years ago, a tragedy left a mother without her son, and today, she feels like she is living through that all over again as the killer is recommended for parole. 23ABC’s Mythili Gubbi spoke to Tammy Bell who shared her story about the continued fight for justice two decades later.
Tammy Bell’s son, Johnathen was just 20 months old when he was tortured and killed by Michael Panella. Two weeks ago, the Board of Parole Hearings recommended Panella for early release based on a California law passed in 2020 that makes people who have turned 50 and completed 20 years of their sentence eligible for elderly parole.
Man who killed 20-month-old gets early parole
“I just never thought I’d see this day," said Bell. "It just, it really disturbs me.”
When Panella was convicted of first-degree murder by torture in the 2000 killing of Johnathen, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
“I was told 20 years ago that he would never see parole. And here we are..”
But Panella qualified for elderly parole because he turned 50 and completed 20 years of his sentence, according to the recent California law.
23ABC spoke to Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer when the recommendation came out a couple of weeks ago and said she finds the parole board’s decision “outrageous.”
“Would choose to release a baby killer. Someone who was completely unrepentant during the trial. Who never really admitted guilt. Who said horrific things about the victim. Who tried to intimidate a witness during the trial. Who never really admitted guilt throughout the course of his stay in the department of corrections.”
According to documents from the DA’s office, at the time of his death, Johnathen had more than 40 bruises on his body and severe internal bleeding.
But Bell tries to keep the happy moments close to her heart.
“He was the happiest baby. He was the most beautiful baby with the bluest eyes and blondest hair. And his nickname was Binkie. He loved his binkie.”
Bell is doing everything she can to get justice for her son. She holds signs, hands out fliers and cards, and is asking people to sign petitions to help overturn the decision.
However, the only way Panella won’t be released is if Governor Gavin Newsom intervenes. But that isn’t stopping Bell from getting the word out as she never stops thinking about her son.
“I wish I had the chance to say 'I’m proud of you.' I was robbed of everything. He was 2”
Bell says she doesn’t feel safe if Panella is released and asked the DA’s office for protection.
Zimmer and Bell’s victim services advocate recommended calling law enforcement if something happens and that only a judge can put a restraining order in place.