Franc Cano, who with an accomplice abducted and killed several women in Anaheim and Santa Ana while on sex-offender probation, pleaded guilty to murder Thursday after prosecutors dropped their call for the death penalty.
Cano’s guilty pleas to four counts of rape and murder — which brings an automatic prison sentence of life without parole — eliminates the need for his long-delayed trial. It appears to close a case that had languished while victims’ families begged for action.
It has been nearly a decade since Cano, 36, embarked on a five-month series of murders with his companion, Steven Gordon. Their targets were women working in street prostitution in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
Their first victim, as far as police know, was Kianna Jackson, a Las Vegas woman who had just turned 20 when she disappeared from the streets of Santa Ana on Oct. 6, 2013. Her mother, Kathy Menzies, recalls that when she reported her missing, police showed little interest in searching for her, with the explanation that Jackson was a “circuit girl” with a record for prostitution.
Her body was never found. Nor was the body of a second woman, Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, who vanished 18 days later. Nor was the body of a third, Martha Anaya, 27, who disappeared 19 days after that.
On March 14, 2014, detectives were summoned to Republic Waste Services in Anaheim, where another young woman’s body had been found amid debris. She was identified as Jarrae Estepp, 21, of Ardmore, Okla., who had been staying at the Anaheim Lodge on Beach Boulevard.
Detectives linked the crimes to Cano using the GPS monitor he was wearing as a condition of his parole as a sex offender. His DNA was also found in Estepp’s body. The lead investigator in the case, Anaheim police Det. Julissa Trapp, was the subject of a 2019 Times series and podcast examining her role in the case.
His accomplice, Steven Gordon, went to trial in 2016 and insisted on representing himself, describing Cano as a predator with no conscience and referring to him alternately as “my friend” and “that little bastard.”
Gordon said he deserved the death penalty, and a jury agreed. Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick H. Donahue sent him to death row in San Quentin in February 2017.
Cano was expected to go on trial soon after Gordon. But delays multiplied as attorneys left the case and COVID-19 sharply curtailed court business. The case was also complicated by the Orange County district attorney’s original decision to seek the death penalty against Cano.
Cano’s attorney, Chuck Hasse, said he made a presentation to the D.A.’s office in October asking it to reconsider. Between the two killers, he argued, his client had been the follower, not the leader.
“From birth, he was a follower,” Hasse said, while Gordon was the “alpha dog.”
Donahue sentenced Cano to life without parole Thursday, 3,171 days after his arrest.