Cindy Pipho says she quit asking why a long time ago.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever know what really happened that night,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Lancaster.
Michael Dean Stephens was convicted in November 2010 of using a pocketknife to repeatedly stab Chad Weitz and fatally stab Cindy Pipho’s son, Josh Pipho, as well running Josh Pipho over with his car after a violent brawl Nov. 23, 2007.
Stephens, now 33, was convicted of murder and attempted murder for his actions that night outside a Stevenson Ranch apartment complex. He’s now slated for a parole suitability hearing April 25, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s website.
Cindy Pipho says she found out about the hearing because she randomly checks up on her son’s murderer and just happened to see his information on a CDCR web page. He was sentenced to 23 years, but due to the violent nature of his crimes, the mother was told by officials at the time they didn’t think he’d ever be paroled, she recalled in an interview last month.
She said she wasn’t notified of the hearing, and never heard anything from the Parole Hearing Unit, a division of the DA’s office that, in the past, would receive a notification from the CDCR and then assign a deputy district attorney who would review the offender’s file and notify family.
In response to a question about whether the DA’s office was planning to send someone to the hearing on behalf of the victims’ families, a spokesman for District Attorney George Gascón issued the following statement:
“When heinous crimes occur, victims and their families are changed forever. That is why the district attorney is so focused on ensuring that victims are provided trauma-informed services (this includes victim advocates at parole hearings).”
The office didn’t respond to a question about Cindy Pipho’s claims; however, Tiffiny Blacknell, Gascón’s director of communications, said anyone who calls the Parole Division of the DA’s Office seeking assistance will be referred to the CDCR’s Office of Victims and Survivor Rights.
A follow-up question about whether the DA’s office would be providing a victim advocate for Michael Dean Stephens’ hearing was not answered directly, but Blacknell also shared information about ways the office’s Bureau of Victim Services can help with a parole board hearing if the office is contacted after being unhappy with the services provided by the CDCR.
The DA’s original response to questions about parole hearing policies also indicated the Gascón did not think a prosecutor needs to attend any parole hearing.
“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” the statement continued. “The parole board, however, has all the pertinent facts and evaluations at their disposal, including how someone has conducted themselves over the last few decades in prison. The parole board’s sole purpose is to objectively determine whether someone is suitable for release. If someone is the same person who committed an atrocious crime, that person will correctly not be found suitable for release. However, if someone is no longer a threat to public safety after having served more than 50 years in prison, then the parole board may recommend release based on an objective determination.
“Our office policies take these principles into account and, as such, our prosecutors stay out of the parole board hearing process.”
In years past, the Parole Hearing Unit, a division of the DA’s office, would assign a deputy district attorney who would review the offender’s file and notify family, according to Jon Hatami, a deputy district attorney who’s running for DA due to his frustration with a number of Gascón’s policies.
Hatami said this week the elimination of this unit was one of Gascón’s early moves upon taking office in 2020.
“We don’t send deputy district attorneys to parole hearings anymore. We don’t notify victims or family members,” Hatami said. “One of the things I’m running on is, immediately, we’re going to restore the Parole Hearing Unit. We’re going to restore that unit Day 1.”
Stephens received 17 years in prison after a jury convicted him of a second-degree murder charge for Pipho’s stabbing, and another six-year sentence to be served consecutively for Weitz’s stabbing, which was part of a plea deal after the jury deadlocked 8-4 on an attempted-murder charge.
Stephens, who’s serving his sentence at Valley State Prison, a medium-security facility in Chowchilla, underwent a consultation May 4, 2021, and his first eligible date for parole was determined to be in November 2022, according to the CDCR website. Stephens’ April hearing is expected to look at a number of factors to determine his final parole eligibility, according to the state’s prison system:
“In making this determination,” the site states, “the hearing panel will consider all relevant, reliable information available to the panel, statements from the offender, victims, victims’ family, and statements from the district attorney’s office and the public.”
Now Cindy Pipho said she is taking it upon herself to try to reach out to those she knows who are still around and can speak to how the loss of her son has impacted them.
“I have been trying to get people to write letters,” Pipho said, sharing her own story about how the murder of her son tore her family apart. “Things like this destroy families. They literally did.”
Cindy Pipho described how dealing with her son’s murder and the toll the trial took on her, particularly after her yearslong search for justice ended with Stephens’ conviction.
“After the trial, I kind of felt lost,” she added. “You know, I kind of felt like I was ‘Josh’s mom’ for seven years. Everybody knew who I was. And now here I am, the trial’s done and what am I supposed to do with myself?”
She said she decided to channel the loss into pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice, which has motivated her to be an advocate for victims, because she’s learned about so many problems with the system.
“They did not notify me,” Pipho said, regarding the parole hearing. “I just had an inkling to check online for some weird reason. And when I went online, it had said something about … a conditional parole hearing.
“I think that the system sucks,” she added. “I think that they are not for the victims. Criminals have more rights than victims do.”
Victims who would like to request notice and an opportunity to attend this inmate’s parole suitability hearing or who would like to request notice of this inmate’s release must register with CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services at cdcr.ca.gov/victim-services. For additional information, visit CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services website or call toll-free 1-877-256-6877.