top of page

In the Blood: Kalamazoo’s Sibling Serial Killers

On May 30th, 1964, thirty-year-old Gary Smock was in Battle Creek, Michigan, looking for a place to host a youth event for his church. It was getting late in the evening, so he filled his tank with gas and headed back towards his mother’s home, where he and his family were visiting. Gary never made it. His wife reported her husband missing. His body was found shortly after in the trunk of his own car. He had been shot to death. Gary left behind his widow Thelma, age twenty-nine, and daughters Cynthia, four years old, and Deana, 6 months old.

Gary Smock was a schoolteacher at Plymouth Junior High School and was actively involved in his church. He was known as a good man who loved his wife and children dearly. The only apparent motive for this brutal crime seemed to be robbery. When Gary was found, his shoes and watch were removed, and his belongings and empty wallet were strewn recklessly inside the vehicle. Witnesses stated that the abandoned car had been there about six hours, but the medical examiner estimated the time of death to be 12-20 hours before his body was found.

Just days after the murder of Gary Smock, an anonymous tip came in. The tipster said that a man had admitted to the murder and was at his home. Police arrived, finding nineteen-year-old Larry Ranes. Larry admitted to the murder and was arrested without offering any resistance. While on the way to the police station, Ranes then admitted to four more murders. Who was this young man and how had he become a serial killer at age nineteen?

Larry Lee Ranes was born March 22nd, 1945, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Unlike most families during this period of time, Larry’s mother worked outside the home while he was primarily cared for by his father. He, and his older brother, Danny Arthur Ranes, were close in age. Danny was born October 20th, 1943. Their father was not the best caretaker, and was downright mean when he drank, which was frequently. Their father would often encourage the brothers to be competitive and fight with each other. Sometimes, the boys would fight over just a few cents at the encouragement of their father. He also encouraged his very young sons to consume alcohol.

In 1954, the boys’ father grew tired of his life with his wife and children, so he took off with another woman. He moved to Florida with his new girlfriend and started working at a gas station. Although he had never been loving, the boys felt abandoned. At one point, they went to visit their father and he basically told them to leave. The abandonment by their father and troubled childhood led the boys to make bad choices from a very early age, negatively impacting their lives.

When Larry was thirteen years old, he began a relationship with a twenty-three-year-old neighbor who was a single mother. Larry started spending a large amount of time with his neighbor, eventually leading to a sexual relationship between the woman and boy. Despite this relationship, Larry met a girl in the early 1960’s that he also pursued a relationship with. Sibling rivalry reared its ugly head, as Danny became interested in Kathy as well. Kathy liked both brothers, spending time with each. Larry and Danny were constantly jealous of each other and the relationship the other had with Kathy.

Larry dropped out of school in the tenth grade and began partaking in criminal behavior. In 1962, he and a friend stole a car. He was quickly caught. The District Attorney offered Larry a deal: If he entered the United States Army, they would vacate the charges. Larry accepted the deal and announced that he would be enlisting. Kathy, who favored Larry to his brother Danny, was devastated. Once Larry was away at basic training, however, Kathy and Danny began a very serious relationship that resulted in Kathy becoming pregnant while still in high school. Against her parents’ wishes, she married Danny, and they would go on to have two children.

Larry’s alcohol abuse contributed to repeated misconduct while in the service. In 1963, Larry had been drinking heavily when he realized a bag of potato chips was missing. He attacked another service member. This incident led to Larry being discharged from the military, after which time he returned to Kalamazoo. Insanely jealous of his brother Danny and Kathy’s relationship, Larry returned to the older woman he had been seeing as a young teenager. He asked her to marry him, but she refused. This rejection led Danny to attempt suicide on December 23rd, 1963.

Larry attempted to suffocate himself by inhaling exhaust fumes, but a police officer found him and prevented the suicide attempt. Larry was transferred to Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. He remained there for ten days before being discharged back home. Within months, Larry would begin killing.

On April 6th, 1964, twenty-year-old Vernon LaBenne had been robbed and shot in the head in the gas station where he worked. Vernon was an active-duty Air Force member stationed at Fort Custer in Michigan. He was found, still alive, the day after the shooting, but died later in the hospital. He never regained consciousness, so police were never able to get a description of the attacker. It appeared the motive was robbery.

The day after schoolteacher Gary Smock failed to return to his family, fishermen in nearby Elkhart, Indiana, found the body of a gas station attendant, Charles Snyder. Charles had been shot in the head and the murder appeared to be motivated by robbery. During the time the case was being investigated, just miles from where police were searching for Gary Smock, police formed a roadblock, inspecting all coming and going vehicles for clues. During this roadblock, Larry Ranes drove through in Gary Smock’s vehicle. The connection was not made between the murder and missing man, so Larry was allowed to pass through. Gary’s body was in the trunk.

Upon this arrest, Larry explained to police that he felt helpless and lonely after his girlfriend refused his marriage proposals. After surviving his suicide attempt and being released from the hospital, Larry took off wandering aimlessly. Larry said that he ended up in Las Vegas, where he shot a man during a robbery. He then admitted to murdering another man the same way “somewhere in Florida”. He was hitchhiking when Gary Smock stopped to give him a ride. He instantly pulled a gun on the schoolteacher and father, forcing him into the trunk. As he drove around, Gary yelled and begged for his life. This annoyed Larry, so he pulled over and shot the man while he lay in the trunk of his own car.

The next day, he drove to Indiana where he robbed and murdered Charles Snyder. He admitted to killing Vernon LaBenne the month before. He drove through the roadblock that day with Gary’s body still in the trunk. He later abandoned the vehicle. While the motives seemed to be robbery, it is also thought that Larry killed these men symbolically out of anger towards his father, a gas station attendant, for the abandonment and abuse that scarred his life. Ballistics evidence linked the murders of Gary Smock and Charles Snyder.

When he was arrested, Larry was wearing Gary Smock’s watch and shoes. He also surrendered his handgun, which proved to be a match for the murder weapon.

Despite admitting to five murders, Larry Ranes was only charged with the murder of Gary Smock. Initially, he waived his rights to a lawyer. He was ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination, but before the examination was completed, he requested an attorney. This request was basically ignored. Ranes was found competent to stand trial. Before trial, he was provided a defense attorney who secured two doctors who testified that Larry was insane at the time of his crime but was not psychotic at this time. Despite this testimony, Larry was found guilty of the murder of Gary Smock and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in October of 1964. He later said that he would not have confessed if he knew he would be imprisoned, as he believed he would be sentenced to death.

While Larry began serving his sentence in the Michigan Department of Corrections, Danny Ranes built a life with his wife Kathy. It seemed he had become the winning sibling in the lifelong rivalry between himself and Larry. However, Kathy struggled to leave her feelings for Larry behind. She frequently wrote to Larry in prison, while her marriage to his brother Danny began to suffer.

In 1968, Danny Ranes was identified by an eighteen-year-old woman as her attacker. According to the woman, Danny took her at gunpoint and began driving her car. He brought her to the outskirts of town where he had planned to sexually assault her, but the woman managed to escape. Ranes abandoned the woman’s vehicle, but his car was found in the parking lot where he kidnapped the woman. She later identified him as her attacker. He was sentenced to four years for felonious assault.

In 1971, Larry Ranes successfully appealed his murder conviction based upon the officers violating his Miranda rights by ignoring his request for an attorney before the psychiatric examination. He planned to take the case back to trial, pleading insanity, but later pleaded guilty and received another life sentence. He was granted the opportunity to change his name, which he changed to Monk Steppenwolf. He never expressed remorse for his crimes.

During Danny’s imprisonment, Kathy divorced him. Danny was released from prison in 1972. He began working as a gas station attendant, just as his father had. He met fifteen-year-old Brent Koster. Brent was a troubled local youth who had been raised by a schizophrenic mother and alcoholic father. Danny befriended the boy, giving him a job and place to live. The two became partners in crime, literally.

On July 5th, 1972, Danny and Brent Koster raped and killed two women who stopped by the station Danny was working at along I-94. The victims were nineteen-year-olds Claudia Bidstrup and Linda Clark. After killing the young women, Brent and Danny wrapped their bodies in a blanket and placed them in the back of their car. They drove the bodies to a wooded area near Galesburg, Michigan where they dumped them. Their bodies were found two weeks later.

A month later, on August 5th, 1972, the two men were driving near Western Michigan University when they picked up eighteen-year-old hitchhiker Pamela Fearnow. They abducted Pamela and drove her to a wooded area near Comstock, Michigan. They repeatedly raped the young woman before suffocating her with a plastic bag.

Brent Koster followed Danny’s example but failed to follow all of his instructions. He talked about the murders to several street workers, one of which turned into a police informant. In September 1972, Koster was arrested and admitted to the murders. He also told authorities that Danny admitted to killing twenty-eight-year-old Patricia Howk on March 19th, 1972. The prosecution offered Brent Koster a deal in exchange for his testimony against Danny Ranes. Brent Koster was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Danny Ranes was charged with four counts of first-degree murder. When he went to trial, Brent Koster served as the prosecution’s star witness. With his testimony, Danny was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Pamela Fearnow and second-degree murder for the murder of Patricia Howk. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 1976, Danny’s ex-wife married Larry, now known as Monk Steppenwolf, despite him being in prison for life. The marriage did not last, however. The brothers, despite at one point being jailed in the same institution, had no contact with each other. In the late 1970’s, Larry was disciplined for conspiring to kill another inmate. He told reporters that corruption in the prison system was rampant, allowing him and others to have access to drugs while incarcerated.

After forty-eight years in prison, Brent Koster was released on parole at the age of sixty-four. Despite the pleas of the families of his victims, Brent was released from prison on January 21st, 2021. He was released, in part, because he successfully completed a sex offender rehabilitation program, earned a law degree, and maintained an “exemplary” prison record.

In January of 2022, Danny Ranes died in prison at the age of seventy-eight. Larry Ranes, now seventy-eight, remains imprisoned at the Saginaw Correctional Facility. He is not eligible for parole and will share the same fate as his brother- dying behind bars.

What is unique about the Ranes brothers is that not only are they two sibling serial killers, but they acted independently of each other. Larry killed men that reminded him of his absent and abusive father. Danny killed women in crimes that appeared to be sexually motivated. Some experts theorize that the sibling rivalry between the brothers motivated their crimes. Perhaps the notoriety Larry received after his murders caused Danny to be jealous. Particularly, Danny’s own wife remained obsessed with his brother after his murder conviction. Did Danny want the same attention?

Other theories include abuse as the primary contributing factor leading both brothers to commit their crimes. Perhaps there is a genetic component that predisposed the men to violent crime. Regardless of the cause or contributing factors, Larry and Danny Ranes were both monsters who killed without remorse. Danny already died in prison, and Larry is sure to experience the same fate.


1,080 views0 comments


bottom of page