SOUTH BEND — “Was it mental illness, or greed?” One man asked another as they passed each other in Pacific County Superior Court on Monday morning.
The man who had just watched Katherine Joann Chace plead guilty to the murder of her grandmother, Paula Rice, answered without missing a beat.
“It was greed.”
The victim’s son, Ben Hamby, also spoke of the avarice that cost him his mother, and nearly took his brother’s life, too.
“I’m completely incapable of making you see the brilliant light that was stolen from us by the defendant’s misplaced greed,” an emotional Hamby said, during the sentencing phase of the Dec. 11 hearing. “My mother didn’t care about money. She just wanted to make beautiful things.”
Fifty years in prison
In a somber courtroom, Chace, 24, of Willow, Alaska, pleaded to first-degree murder and first degree attempted murder for shooting Rice, 64, at her Ocean Park home on Nov. 12, 2016. She was sentenced to spend a total of 620 months — more than 50 years — in prison.
Her accomplice and boyfriend, Paul Rankin, of Wasilla, Alaska, was subsequently sentenced to about 15 years in prison. Rankin, 27, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in September. Prosecutor Mark McClain agreed to recommend a relatively short sentence for Rankin, in exchange for his testimony against Chace.
After the hearing, McClain said he initially considered pursuing the death penalty for Chace, but decided a very long sentence was more appropriate. He spent months working with defense attorneys, a Pacific County Sheriff’s Office detective and Rice’s family to craft the plea deals. Ultimately, the wishes of Rice’s family members “were really the drivers for this,” McClain said.
A fresh start
Paula Rice was a free-spirited artist, whose downfall began with an act of kindness. For most of her life, Chace did not really know Rice, who is her paternal grandmother, or her father Michael Cooper, who lived with Rice. Then the two women connected through Facebook, according to recently released documents from the murder investigation. Eventually, they began talking on the phone.
Chace confided in Rice, saying Rankin abused her. Alaska court records show that about five years ago, she filed a restraining order against him, but dropped it within a couple of weeks. Chace wanted to leave Rankin, she told Rice, but they had three young children. Her attempts to break free of him always failed.
Rice invited Chace and her kids to move in. In March 2016, she and the kids left Alaska for Ocean Park.
In close quarters
Rice lived off of a family trust fund that provided about $8,000 per month. This money also provided for Cooper, who has a medical condition that makes it difficult for him to work. When Chace and her children arrived, the money provided for them, too.
“The defendant had free room and board, and transportation, and insurance, and her children lacked for nothing,” Hamby said.
But all her life, Chace had ricocheted between joy and sadness. She had always been impulsive, she told state psychologists; she had always been plagued by a terror that the people she loved would abandon her.
It wasn’t enough.
Despite Rice’s generosity, Chace was soon restless, lonely and tired of being “cooped up” with her kids. As summer came on, her resentment sprang into full bloom.
Fantasies and plans
Unbeknownst to Rice and Cooper, she reconciled with Rankin, who stayed in Ilwaco during a secret April 2016 visit. After he went back to Alaska, she aired her frustrations in derisive text messages. In late August, she complained that she couldn’t see a chiropractor because Rice was temporarily low on funds.
“$8,500 a month, and they’re out of money,” she wrote.
Chace and Rankin began fantasizing about killing Rice and Cooper in late spring. In their florid imaginings, the murders would clear the path to Rice’s trust, even though Chace was not in the will. They’d take her inheritance, cash and credit cards, buy an RV, and set out for Texas. Around the time of the August text, they began planning the murders in earnest.
“I might be able to fashion a silencer. I have to look into it, tho,” Rankin wrote that same evening. They planned for Rankin to fly to Washington to help execute “The Plan.” They wondered if the neighbors might be a problem. They debated about what to do with their dog.
“Leave her in the house and let [a friend] take her to the pound?” Chace suggested.
In October, they researched trust funds, commiserated about the expense of making a silencer, and urged each other to take care of last minute details.
“Go through your half of the plan. Make sure you have everything figured out,” Rankin wrote. “Everything you can think of anyways, LOL.”
“Okie dokie,” she replied.
Chace picked Rankin up in Seattle on Nov. 2. He was not welcome in the Rice household, so he hiked into the woods in Loomis Lake State Park and made a tent out of a blue plastic tarp and a stick.
There was much work to be done. She sneaked Rankin into Rice’s home “several times to learn the layout,” Detective Ryan Tully wrote in his report. They debated drugging Cooper with Valium or some other sedative, and researched Rice’s finances.
One day, they went to the Warrenton Home Depot. A security camera recorded them as they purchased the PVC pipe, steel wool and other ingredients for a homemade silencer. They kept the receipt.
Originally, Rankin was to pull the trigger. As the designated night drew near, texts show that the couple seemed more concerned about whether their two year-old daughter had pooped out a quarter that she’d swallowed than they did about the prospect of murdering two family members.
“But then [Rankin] decided he couldn’t do it himself. He told her she had to be the one to do it,” Tully wrote. “He told her to take as much money and bank cards from Rice as she could get. They would then drive the Jeep to Texas.”
Rankin stopped answering his phone. Later, he would claim it had been badly water-damaged.
On the night of Nov. 11, Chace went outside to whistle and flash lights at Rankin to signal that it was time to kill her family. He wasn’t there. She begged him to come through, via text.
“Basically doing this with or without you, but definitely thought you’d be here for me…” she wrote at 2:54 a.m. on Nov. 12. She stood in the doorway of her grandmother’s bedroom and shot her twice.
“She looked away as she fired,” Tully wrote. “Chace said she ‘freaked out’ and went downstairs to her room. She then couldn’t go back up to kill Cooper.”
Cooper, who had been prescribed a powerful sleep medication, did not hear the silenced gun go off.
‘When I need you most in the world’
“Get your ass here now,” Chace texted to Rankin at 4:47 a.m. She continued begging and threatening, but Rankin did not respond. She decided it was time to create an alibi for herself.
“He’s gonna kill me Paul, help,” she wrote at 5:12 a.m. She kept up the distress texts for about an hour, with no replies from Rankin.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“If you’re really gonna ignore me when I need you most in the world, that’s f----d.”
Finally, she wrote, “I’m gonna die. I hope he leaves the kids.” Wearing a pink bathrobe, she loaded the half-dressed kids into the Jeep and drove to the state park. She called 911, saying they had narrowly escaped from an armed assailant who kidnapped them from Rice’s home. She said she’d heard gunshots when he went into the house.
No trail, plenty of clues
It didn’t add up. A tracking dog could find no scent where the kidnapper had supposedly fled into the woods, and deputies Travis Ostgaard and Rick Goodwin noticed the driver’s seat in the Jeep was adjusted for a rather petite driver.
Chace was taken in for questioning. In her purse, they found an envelope with $1,500 in cash, and two memos she’d written to herself. One contained information about Rice’s bank accounts. The other read, “Everyone goes to sleep. He comes in, comes to the room for awhile until it’s verified everyone is back asleep. Then go up & business is taken care of. Then order needed materials for overnight/two day shipping. Get metal trash cans, combine, wait. Check all available funds. Make budget and transfer as much as possible. Start planning.”
By late evening, Chace was under arrest, Rankin had been picked up for questioning, and the three children had been turned over to Child Protective Services. As she was being booked into jail, Chace decided to recant her kidnapping story and confess.
Later, investigators would find another startling clue.
“Chace also had a web history on Amazon looking for lye, which is a product that can be used to quickly turn a body into liquid,” Tully wrote. The fact that she looked at pages for multiple sellers suggests that she was looking for a bargain.
‘Horrible, horrible, horrible’
Chace looked tired and drawn. Her voice was small and thin as she answered Judge Doug Goelz’s routine questions with rapid “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.”
Aside from a few attorneys and sheriff’s office employees, Rice’s son, Ben Hamby, was one of just a few people who came to the sentencing. Chace stared at her hands as he compared her “foolishness and selfish greed” with his mother’s generosity.
Rice “was kind and complicated and a great believer in the kindness of others, and showing gratitude. She would want me to thank the police, the prosecutor, and the investigators for their hard work,” Hamby said. “She should be remembered as a woman with a loving heart and generous nature.”
Chace’s attorney, Erik Kupka, offered assurances that Chace made her decision to plead “with a clear mind.” Chace said only, “I just wanted to apologize for my actions and for all of the people whom I’ve affected through this.” She began crying.
A long silence fell over the courtroom as Goelz composed his thoughts.
“What a horrible, horrible, horrible crime,” he said. “… I’ve known of more gruesome crimes. But I don’t believe I’ve been involved in a more horrible crime. The facts of the case as I understood it are just so appalling.”
Goelz agreed to the sentence proposed in the plea agreement. The woman who found her grandmother’s hospitality lacking sat in a shaft of sunlight as she signed the paperwork for 50 years of prison.
A ‘glimmer of humanity’
Rankin’s defense attorney, David Arcuri, praised the investigative team for their “smart” decision to secure Rankin’s conviction before going after Chace. By doing so, he said, they ensured Chace would have had little chance of winning if it had gone to trial.
“Whatever glimmer of a hope she had was snuffed out when Paul decided to tell the truth,” Arcuri said. He urged Goelz to give Rankin the shortest allowable sentence for his crime. Goelz honored his request, emphasizing that Rice’s family and the prosecutor had agreed to the plan.
“I can only hope that it was some glimmer of humanity that kept him from the actions that took our mother from us,” Hamby said when he spoke again. “But that glimmer must be small indeed. He never once contacted the police, or warned anyone of the plans to commit this heinous crime.”
Rankin’s scruffy hair and goatee had gotten longer in jail; his frame smaller.
“I want to say I’m sorry for what happened,” Rankin said. “I love Katherine, I always will, but we should never have planned what we did.” He thanked his attorney.
“I have no excuses for what I did,” he said.