CALIFORNIA CITY: EPISODE 5The Tragedy That Occurred
Ken Donney is a hero to some, but most people would call him a villain.  California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout.

EPISODE 5 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City:

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

EMILY GUERIN: There’s no one in this story who was as proud, or as disgraced, as Ken Donney.

Ken helped thousands of people get their money back in California City, and then 18 years later, Ken murdered his wife.

It’s hard to hold both of these versions of him in my head. But both are true.

And that’s the reason I want to tell you about Ken’s crime: because he’s the most extreme example of something I’ve noticed about almost everyone I talked to for this story.

Heroes can be villians.

Victims can be perpetrators.

No one is all bad or all good.

I’m Emily Guerin, and you’re listening to California City, episode four.

A quick warning about this episode: it does contain graphic descriptions of violence.

BREAK

I had been putting off asking Ken Donney about the murder.

Instead, I’d asked him all about the fraudulent way that Nat Mendelsohn sold land in California City.

I’d asked him about the student program and the tool lots.

The salesmen’s lies and misrepresentations.

The Federal Trade Commission's punishment.

I’d had more than a dozen calls with him.

VOICE: YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM...

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Howdy!

KEN DONNEY: I’m back!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Emily, it’s Ken!

KEN DONNEY: Emily Emily from Ken Ken

KEN DONNEY: Encore!

EMILY GUERIN: But by the 21st minute of our seventh phone call, I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

EMILY GUERIN: I, I need to explain to the listeners the reason that you're in prison.

KEN DONNEY: Ah.

EMILY GUERIN: And so I wanted to know what you would like to say about that.

KEN DONNEY: Well, first of all, you're starting to fade away a little bit. So I don't know if you changed, uh. You’re on a cell phone, right?

EMILY GUERIN: He spent the next minute trying to hear me better. Although, he could’ve been deflecting.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Can you hear me now?

KEN DONNEY: Obviously, yeah, I hear you but barely.

KEN DONNEY: Interesting question. Again, I was advised by some lawyers not to even do this at all, this podcast interview at all, just for the simple reason that, um, ah high profile anything is is never a good thing for a prisoner.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worries about his safety in prison. This one time, another inmate bashed his face in with a mop handle. And he’d only been locked up for a year when someone slit his throat, and he needed emergency surgery. He believes he was attacked because he’s a former federal prosecutor.

KEN DONNEY: Um, so I'd like to say — really at this moment, my — I’d just like to say no comment.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Ken never did tell me exactly what happened. But I read all four of his parole hearing transcripts, plus a bunch of newspaper articles, which is how I know everything I’m about to tell you.

In the summer of 1995, when Ken was 49 years old, his wife, Nina, told him she wanted a divorce.

They both worked at Santa Clara University, in Silicon Valley. He’d taken a job at the law school, and she worked in fundraising. But Nina was unfulfilled. She had a PhD. She wanted to be an academic. She told Ken she wanted to move out of state to get a teaching job. And Ken thought she wanted to take the children with her.

And he couldn’t handle it. He stopped eating. He stopped sleeping. He refused to move out of the house. He tried to talk her out of it, but it wasn’t working.

What happened just after 2 a.m. on the morning of October 27th is...really gruesome.

Nina’s mother believes Nina was asleep in the study when Ken walked in and stabbed her 29 times with a chef’s knife.

Their son, Phil, told police he heard his mom screaming “I don’t want to die.” He says he heard his dad scream back, “You should have thought of that before.”

For years, Ken said he didn’t remember the details.

But at his first parole hearing, in 2008, he told the commissioners he and Nina were arguing when she came at him with the knife.

He said he grabbed the blade, and then blacked out.

Ken pled guilty to second degree murder. He said he didn’t want to put his kids through a trial.

A judge sentenced him to 16 years to life in prison. He’s been locked up for 24.

There’s a story Ken often told me about something the judge said during his sentencing. And I think it says a lot about Ken.

The judge said,

KEN DONNEY: "What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anybody." Quote unquote. He went on to, and there's a cautionary tale there.

EMILY GUERIN: What did he mean by that? “What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anyone”?

KEN DONNEY: In other words, um, he's seen it happen before. Maybe not in the exact same way, but in other words none of us — I mean that could be the title of a memoir for me. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to anybody. Meaning, that...

EMILY GUERIN: Can you… what's it?

KEN DONNEY: The tragedy that occurred. The reason I'm in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: But is it something that happened to you?

KEN DONNEY: But that's, those were his words. And, um.

EMILY GUERIN: No, and I, I, I understand, I understand that I guess my, I guess the way my initial reaction to that is...

KEN DONNEY: Yeah, please.

EMILY GUERIN: Sort of framing it, as well, framing it as it could happen to anyone or it happened. It sort of takes the agency out of it. It's like a thing that that happened...

KEN DONNEY: I know

EMILY GUERIN: And not a thing that…

KEN DONNEY: I know.

EMILY GUERIN: … you did.

KEN DONNEY: I know. I know. And I didn't say that. The judge did. So he must have had his reasons. The rhetoric that you just used with regard to agency, with regard to concepts of free will or the lack thereof, and so on? That's what you're talking about. Right?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, I mean, I guess less free will and more just... responsibility?

KEN DONNEY: Well, I pled guilty, I accept responsibility.

VOICE: THIS CALL AND YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER WILL BE MONITORED AND RECORDED.

KEN DONNEY: You can't really take more responsibilities then putting yourself in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: To Ken, the federal prosecutor, pleading guilty is the ultimate form of accepting responsibility. It is showing remorse.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Ken said at his third parole hearing. “It’s ineffable.”

And maybe that would be true, if Ken didn’t also imply, with his words, that Nina was partially to blame.

KEN DONNEY: I possibly could have won a manslaughter and been out in 11 years.

EMILY GUERIN: Hmm.

KEN DONNEY: Alright? I knew that. Um, and nevertheless, and you obviously don't know any of the circumstances of the prelude and so on and so forth of what happened. But you, you don't know the whole story, but bottom line is this: despite my having other choices available to me, I felt too much sorrow and remorse. I've taken another life.

EMILY GUERIN: I read through all four of the transcripts of Ken’s parole hearings. And I see it again and again — Ken referring to the murder as “the tragedy that occurred,” or “what happened,” or “a failure.”

A failure. Like stepping on the gas instead of a brake, and killing a pedestrian. It could happen to anyone.

The Parole Commissioners picked up on this, and they used it as justification for keeping Ken locked up.

“We fail at things all the time, sir,” one Commissioner said, “but the taking of a human life rises to a much higher degree than failure, and it’s noteworthy you chose that word. And ordinarily, we don’t nitpick words when it comes to our hearings, but it’s noteworthy that we’re not speaking to an unintelligent man... suggesting you don’t choose your words lightly.”

Sighs. I felt like if Ken wouldn’t say what he did, I had to.

EMILY GUERIN: And I've actually been thinking a lot about what the judge said. I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

KEN DONNEY: That's what a judge who had been a family law judge before became a criminal law said. So I'm not gonna disagree with him.

Ken gets three, 15-minute phone calls each time we talk. We had time for one more. So we hung up. I didn’t think he would call back, given what I’d just asked him. But then, 50 seconds later…

VOICE: THIS IS GLOBAL TEL LINK. YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM:

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

VOICE: AN INMATE AT THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH CARE FACILITY STOCKTON CALIFORNIA. TO ACCEPT THIS CALL SAY OR DIAL FIVE NOW. BEEP. BEEP.

VOICE: THANK YOU FOR USING GLOBAL TEL LINK.

KEN DONNEY: Hello. Are you there?

EMILY GUERIN: Hello, I'm here.

KEN DONNEY: Yeah. So, to finish my thoughts. In no way, Emily, I think you're, you might be misjudging what I'm telling you versus how I'm feeling. Alright?

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worried I didn’t understand how he felt about the tragedy that occurred.” He said he wasn’t the kind of person who showed emotion, especially in public.

KEN DONNEY: And I'm not, on a radio interview, in a room full of other inmates. And guards prancing around and noise… You can't possibly believe that my ability to emote in this interview with you is not somehow affected by the circumstances in which we're talking. So don't take what I'm saying in any way, Emily, as minimizing what I consider to be my offense.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: The first three times Ken was up for parole, they denied him.

But on May 8th, 2019, something changed.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Ken’s parole hearings have a certain... rhythm.

MUSIC

First, the commissioners have everyone in the room introduce themselves.

Front row, lawyers.

Back row, friends and family.

Ken’s son, Phil.

Nina’s sister, Abby.

Then, the commissioners go over paperwork. Ken’s behavior in prison, his anger management and victim’s awareness classes, the psychologist’s assessment that Ken is at low risk of reoffending if he gets out.

Then, they start re-hashing Ken’s marriage, and the events leaving up to the murder.

But in Ken’s fourth parole hearing, the way he talked about the crime, I don’t know, it just felt different.

Where as before, he might mention that Nina wasn’t taking her medication...

Or how he’d been in a near catatonic state on the night of the murder...

Or how he’d lost 30 pounds…

This time, he didn’t offer any excuses.

He said, quote, “I murdered Nina. I did it and I’m forever ashamed and there’s nothing I can do to remedy that.”

“I was in a rage about her not loving me anymore and wanting to leave.”

“I was controlling.”

“I was manipulative.”

“Angry.”

This time, he said he was the one who grabbed the knife out of a box while they were arguing. He’d been packing up the kitchen, preparing to move out.

I was really surprised. I mean, it was such a reversal from “the tragedy that occurred.” And at the end of the three hour and 40 minute hearing, the parole commissioners decided to grant him parole.

KEN DONNEY: I laid my head on my forearm on the table, and, and sobbed for a couple of minutes while the commissioner continued his decision.

EMILY GUERIN: I talked to Ken two days after his parole hearing.

KEN DONNEY: I'm on cloud nine. I'm in seventh heaven. I'm happy. I'm grateful. I'm relieved. And I have nothing but hope. Which, you know, prior to the hearing I didn't have.

EMILY GUERIN: But Ken wasn’t out yet. In California, the governor can deny the parole of anyone in prison on a life sentence.

So for three months, from May until August of 2019, Ken waited anxiously to see if Governor Gavin Newsom was going to let him out.

In July, I went to visit him in prison.

Officially, my visit was to fact-check. Unofficially, it was because I was curious. What did Ken look like? Would his voice sound different? Would he be more open with me in person?

As I drove up Highway 99 through the Central Valley, I thought about all the hours we’d spent on the phone.



EMILY GUERIN: How are you?

KEN DONNEY: Fair to middling. How's that?

EMILY GUERIN: Fair enough.

KEN DONNEY: laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: How's your, how's your morning so far?

KEN DONNEY: Oh, it's just been a thrill a minute. Wish you were here, as we say on the shores of Tahiti.

EMILY GUERIN: His favorite brand of prison coffee.

KEN DONNEY: Keefe, K-E-E-F-E, it's a freeze dried instant coffee.

EMILY GUERIN: His sexist compliments.

KEN DONNEY: And I hope you don't take this the wrong way: good girl.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs.

KEN DONNEY: Ah, it seems silly saying good lady or good woman or whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Good job works, too. Good job.

KEN DONNEY: Hah! There you go. Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: His own thoughts on death and God.

MUSIC CHANGES, SOUND OF PIANO BUILDS

KEN DONNEY: You know the prayer… Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, but if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Have you ever heard that prayer?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah,

KEN DONNEY: Okay. Well as a kid, and later I always thought that was a little morbid, about the, “if I die before I wake” business? I mean, I'm not the only one to think of that. It's been said many times by many different people.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

KEN DONNEY: So I decided to compose a counterpart to that prayer, as a, as a possible replacement, for kids especially. And it goes like this: Dear loving God with your sweet might, please stay with me throughout the night, help me sleep and dream away, till I wake up with you to pray. Amen! And that is entitled "Dream Away."

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, in July, I arrived.

I was wearing the outfit that I’d selected based on the prison guard’s recommendations.

No red, orange, blue or green, to avoid being confused for an inmate or guard.

No underwire bra.

No electronics, so I couldn’t record.

No cup of coffee for Ken, to save him from Keefe.

10 pieces of paper only.

Nine one-dollar bills, in a ziploc bag.

Inside, the visitor’s waiting room was filled with women, small children, and hard plastic chairs.

I checked in at the desk, where a guard cataloged my accessories: one hairband, two earrings, and a watch. I lifted my shirt and the cuffs of my pants, and walked through a metal detector. I stepped through a series of doors that closed behind me, before another one opened. I followed a long sidewalk to another building, and a guard buzzed me into the visiting room.

An old man with olive skin, bushy eyebrows and crazy, Beethoven hair was waving at me from a table.

Ken.

He was smaller than I imagined, and his voice was softer than it was on the phone.

I offered to buy coffee, so we walked over to the vending machine, which was behind a thick red line that only I could cross.

When Ken stepped on it, a guard barked at him to move back.

We sat down with styrofoam cups and a pack of powdered donuts. A prison guard handed me a freshly-sharpened pencil, and I pulled out my 10 sheets of paper with facts about Ken that needed checking.

Without the time restrictions of the prison phone calls, Ken went into professor mode, lecturing me on the fine details of his life.

It was… sighs. It was exhausting. And after three hours, I was completely drained.

At the end, Ken asked for a photo. He flagged down the inmate who carried around a point and shoot camera, and I handed over the tokens I’d purchased at the front desk. We stood with our shoulders nearly touching, in front of a large, abstract painting, and Ken told the guy, over and over, “count to three before you press the shutter,” as if he had never held a camera before.

The photo seemed like a perfect time to say goodbye. I folded my 10 sheets of paper, I returned my pencil, and told Ken I had a six hour drive ahead of me. But Ken didn’t get the hint. He asked about public radio. He asked if I’d ever considered becoming a lawyer. I was a sponge, and he was a strong pair of hands, wringing every last drop out of me.

In early August 2019, Ken got word. Parole denied.

In a letter explaining why, Governor Newsom said he was still troubled by Ken’s lack of insight into his crime. Until he can explain why he violently murdered his wife, he remains a danger to society.

Ken is appealing the decision.

Because Ken has been locked up since 1995, he had no idea what was happening in California City.

Ken had no idea that salesmen at Silver Saddle were selling a modern-day version of Nat Mendelsohn’s dream.

He had no idea that state investigators believe more than 2,000 people have spent nearly $60 million on that dream in the past eight years alone.

He didn’t know that the guy in charge of it all, the president of Silver Saddle, was someone he’d met years ago, during his negotiations with Great Western Cities.

MUSIC SWELLS

SINGER: Dear loving God… with your sweet might… please stay with me… throughout the night… help me to sleep… and dream away… till I wake up, with you to pray… Amen! Amen… Amen....

No one in California City is all bad or all good.

That’s next time on California City.

MUSIC FADES

More Episodes
From This Episode
The Santa Cruz County Sentinel, Oct. 28, 1995.Ken Donney, arrestedThe front page of The Santa Cruz Sentinel the day after Kenneth Donney was arrested for killing his wife, Nina Leibman. The couple was in the process of getting divorced. Ken, the former Federal Trade Commission attorney who prosecuted Great Western Cities, was now behind bars.
The Santa Cruz County Sentinel, July 18, 1996Ken Donney, sentencedOn July 18, 1996, The Santa Cruz County Sentinel reported Ken Donney was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. Earlier, he pled guilty to second degree murder.
Governor Newsom reverses Ken Donney’s paroleThe California Board of Parole Hearings granted Ken Donney parole on May 8, 2019. However, in California, the governor may overrule the parole of anyone in prison on a life sentence. And on August 16, 2019, that’s exactly what Governor Gavin Newsom did. Ken is appealing the decision.
Ken’s word choiceIn his parole hearings, and on the phone with Emily Guerin, Ken Donney frequently referred to the murder as “what happened,” a “failure,” or, in this transcript from his 2011, “this tragedy” that occurred.
People present at Ken’s 2019 parole hearingThe cover sheet for Ken Donney’s most recent parole hearing, where he was granted parole.
Emily GuerinKen Donney and Emily Guerin, at the California Health Care Facility, Stockton, July 21, 2019.Ken asked Emily to purchase two photo tokens, so they could each have a copy of this picture.
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