Originally published Aug. 20, 1992
Robert Lezella Courtney planned his death like he plotted the murder of his accuser — in a calculating, blood-crazed fashion.
Courtney’s horrific, two-day crime spree came to a fiery halt Wednesday morning when a dozen officers killed him with a barrage of bullets on an isolated strip of Highway 58, one mile west of General Beale Road.
In the end, Courtney — protected by a bullet-proof vest — was firing a derringer handgun in a standoff with officers on a dirt median after a 30-mile car chase.
At 9:15 a.m., he was dead.
It occurred 27 hours after Courtney, 48, sneaked into the home of his primary prey, Cynthia A. Volpe, 38, a Kern County health inspector who enraged Courtney, a low-rent landlord, a year ago by citing him for sewage problems at his South Union Avenue apartment complex.
Courtney peppered her house, at 10612 Palm Ave., with 25 rounds from automatic weapons, killing Volpe, her husband, Kenneth Lewis Volpe, 39, and her mother, Betty Reed, 64, visiting from Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mrs. Volpe was killed while on the telephone pleading to a 911 dispatcher for help. She tried to dodge bullets by crawling under her bed. It was a “point-blank assassination,” authorities said.
“Anyone who sneaks into someone’s home with them there in the predawn morning and does an attack like this is not a desperado as much as they are a coward,” said Sgt. Glenn Johnson of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. “I just think he had a lot of pent-up anger. He was very methodical. He had a plan, and he set out to complete it.”
Wednesday’s melee left sheriff’s Deputy John Nobles grazed by a bullet that sailed through the windshield of his patrol car during the chase that began in downtown Lamont. He received three stitches to his forehead at Kern Medical Center.
“It does look like the suspect was prepared for a shootout with anybody who accosted him,” Johnson said. “He had magazines and newspapers stacked in the passenger’s portion of the vehicle, the backseat of the vehicle and in the trunk of the vehicle. He created a “bunker-like atmosphere in case of a shootout,” stockpiling several hundred rounds of ammunition, a MAC-10 — an Uzi-like semiautomatic weapon — a .25 automatic, and a .38 derringer. The weapons were consistent in caliber with the rounds found at the Volpe house, but a ballistics test is pending.
Courtney was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and had other body armor, including a military combat helmet, in the trunk of his car.
“He was certainly out to do violence,” said Capt. Richard Breedveld of the Bakersfield office of the California Highway Patrol. “He was an antisocial, aggressive personality that for one reason or another had snapped.”
The killer’s actions confused authorities who thought he might flee the area after Tuesday’s triple-murder, the first in Kern County since 1978 when David Murtishaw killed three people in the Mojave Desert.
It was unknown where Courtney stayed overnight. At 8:42 a.m., a convenience store operator recognized the wanted killer filling up his faded green Lincoln Continental with seven gallons of gasoline. The sheriff’s department was alerted by 911.
“Officer responded, got into a shootout on Main Street in Lamont and then a car chase ensued,” Johnson said.
The chase went northbound on Weedpatch Highway to Highway 58, then east on 58 to just east of the exit for Caliente. Courtney fired several gunshots at officers through his broken-out rear window.
Twelve officers from the Sheriff’s Department and CHP returned fire, reeling off more than 100 rounds during the 30-minute pursuit. Courtney was driving at speeds of about 75 mph in and around moderate morning traffic.
At one point, Courtney shot a tire on a tractor-trailer rig in an apparent attempt to cause an accident-roadblock to elude the 20 patrol cars in pursuit.
Authorities stationed snipers at Broome Road overcrossing, but Courtney made a U-turn before teaching their gunsites. He turned on a highway median near Keene and headed west on the highway with two flat tires, scraping the underbelly of his car on the road.
“He was firing several rounds at the officers as he was passing them,” Johnson said. “He continued to drive three or four more miles on the rim that was blown out.”
Courtney’s car skidded to a stop in a dirt median west of General Beale Road. “He got out of his vehicle, again starts shooting at the officers that were approaching from behind,” Johnson said. “Several gunshots were again exchanged where Mr. Robert Courtney was shot.”
The car caught fire, causing Courtney’s ammunition to go off. Courtney apparently was going for something in the trunk before he was killed,” Johnson said.
Afterward, officers dragged Courtney to the side of the road so his body would not be charred by car flames.
Courtney, who owned property valued at more than $1 million, was on trial in Superior Court for allegedly beating Cynthia Volpe “to a pulp,” on June 28, 1991. A jury of 10 women and two men were deliberating allegations of assault, battery and battery with great bodily injury when Tuesday’s bloody melee began.
Judge John Kelly declared a mistrial Wednesday, the morning Courtney murdered the Volpes — and the day the jury was to return its verdict.
Authorities believe Courtney was motivated by revenge and had a single-minded purpose to execute Volpe for testifying at his criminal trial and for naming him in $3 million civil suits stemming from the beating.
Courtney was free on $7,500 bail and had not spent a day in jail since he was arrested June 28, 1991, for beating Volpe.
Investigators later determined that Courtney had shot himself during the dramatic gun battle with police on Highway 58.
The Californian later learned that Courtney, as a 13-year-old living in Alaska, had murdered his mother, a sister and a brother.
Courtney left behind an estate said to be worth $3.5 million. After the Volpe murders, attorneys for the children quickly sued Courtney’s estate for wrongful death. They also sued Kern County, alleging authorities knew Courtney was dangerous and didn’t do enough to protect the Volpes.
Courtney’s estate was extremely complex with more than 20 pieces of mostly “slum” properties in Los Angeles and Kern counties and a jumble of personal property. Courtney also didn’t file income tax returns for several years and there were several claims against the estate from a variety of people and companies.
After all was said and done, the estate was valued at about $1 million, according to the Public Administrator’s office, which took control of the estate because Courtney died without a will or heirs.