Nearly 40 years after the death of Cypress Sgt. Don Sowma, his family came face-to-face with his murderer.
It was September 2013 and convicted killer Bobby Joe Denney, 70, had applied for parole — again.
Every five years he applies, and every five years the Sowma family and members of the Cypress Police Department plead with authorities to keep him behind bars.
So far, they’ve been successful.
After Denney’s 2013 hearing, he was allowed to apply for parole after three years, but the Sowma family could stand before him even sooner.
Denney, who is being held at Chino Hills’ California Institute for Men, has applied for an early hearing just one year after being denied.
Sowma’s family, the Cypress Police Department and city officials are urging the California Board of Parole to reject Denney’s request.
“This causes unnecessary upheaval and trauma for the Sowma family,” Cypress Police Chief Jackie Gomez-Whiteley said. “And when three California police officers have recently been shot and killed in the line of duty, the mere consideration of this hearing sends the wrong message to criminals that murdering a police officer is permissible.”
Gomez-Whiteley, Cypress Mayor Leroy Mills and several of Sowma’s family members have sent letters to the parole board.
They expect to hear in about a month whether Denney will be granted an early hearing.
“There are consequences to our actions within our society,” Mills said. “He needs to suffer those consequences.
“The victims aren’t getting any relief because (Sowma) is still gone.”
Calculating and cold-blooded.
That’s how family members describe the man who murdered Sowma — the only Cypress officer to be killed in the line of duty in the department’s history.
Sowma led a team of officers responding to a silent burglary alarm at the Pomeroy Art Gallery on Nov. 19, 1976.
The sergeant entered the darkened gallery. Denney shot him in the chest at close range, killing him.
Sowma was 44.
Sowma had four children — three boys and a girl ranging from ages 12 to 21. His first grandchild was on the way.
Sowma’s widow, Colleen, never remarried. She died in March this year after battling cancer.
Denney, a former police officer from Oklahoma, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1977 for the crime, and sentenced to life in prison.
Killing a police officer is a crime punishable by death, but that year the government temporarily prohibited capital punishment.
So the Sowma family, friends and the Cypress Police Department make it their mission to urge every parole board that could set Denney free to convince board members he instead should spend his remaining days in a cell.
And staying on top of that task isn’t easy, said Lyrea Sowma, the sergeant’s daughter-in-law.
“I have to be very proactive to make sure it doesn’t slip by,” she said.
Lyrea Sowma took on the responsibility of monitoring Denney after Sowma’s daughter, Donna, died 13 years ago.
“I vowed to my sister-in-law, Don’s only daughter, that I would take care of it,” Lyrea Sowma said. “It’s very important to me.
“I could not live with myself if I didn’t do everything I possibly could to keep him in prison.”
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE
Lyrea Sowma said the family has participated in five parole hearings in Sacramento — most of those over conference calls.
For many years, Denney served time in Oklahoma, a request filed by his parents so they could visit him in prison.
The Sowma family didn’t approve of the move.
While Denney’s family could visit him behind glass, the Sowmas were left to visit the sergeant in a cemetery.
Before each hearing, Lyrea Sowma would circulate a petition to get supporters for their cause.
Denney eventually transferred to a facility in Wasco, Calif., and in 2008, the family prepared for the first time they would see the sergeant’s killer.
But Denney was a no-show.
“He found out we were all there, and he refused to go to the hearing,” Lyrea Sowma said.
It wasn’t until September 2013 that the Sowma family shared a room with the convicted murderer.
A very small room.
“I could’ve literally reached out and touched him when I was speaking,” Lyrea Sowma said.
The sergeant’s daughter-in-law, sons and several members of the Cypress Police Department asked the parole board to keep Denney inside.
During the hearing, Denney diverted his stare from the family he robbed of a husband, father and grandfather.
“He was told not to look at us,” Lyrea Sowma said. “And he tried really hard not to.”
As the parole board recounted the details of Nov. 19, 1976, members of the Sowma family wept.
“It was what you expected and nothing you expected all at once,” she said. “I can’t even explain it.”
She said Denney expressed tepid remorse for his crime, making the process even more difficult.
“He’s apologetic, but in the same breath he blames someone else,” she said. “He never takes full responsibility for what he’s done.”
CONTINUING THE MISSION
After the last emotionally charged hearing, Lyrea Sowma said she thought it would be another three years before having to organize a campaign to keep Denney in jail.
Then a letter arrived on Oct. 11 — her birthday.
“I couldn’t help but think this was finally over,” she said. “I was thinking he finally passed away.”
Instead, the letter said Denney is asking once again to be released.
“This was a surprise. I was thinking, ‘Really? We have to do this again? It’s only been a year’,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very disheartening.”
So the Sowma family will again plead their case to the parole board to try and prevent Denney from getting a hearing.
They will remind the state board that although nearly four decades have passed, it doesn’t get easier.
Deep scars remain for the family that still misses the man they called their everything.
“I was raised to forgive, and yet I don’t know that I actually have,” Lyrea Sowma said.