Septembers are always hard for the Vanderschoot family.
It was September 2003 – Labor Day – when 17-year-old Justine Vanderschoot disappeared.
After weeks of searching, Vanderschoot’s body was found. Her boyfriend, Danny Bezemer, and his friend Brandon Fernandez were charged in her murder. Bezemer received a sentence of 25 years to life, while Fernandez received a lesser sentence of 15 years to life.
“She had dirt in her esophagus and lungs, so she was gasping for air when they buried her,” Lynette Vanderschoot, Justine’s mother, told ABC10.
Now – 14 years later – the Vanderschoots are facing another difficult September. On September 1, Fernandez will have his first parole hearing. He is currently being held at Avenal State Prison.
“He was supposed to get 15 years to life. This is 14 years. I don’t know why it’s earlier,” said Lynette Vanderschoot.
“Crazy that he even has a chance of coming out. It’s kind of scary,” she added. “I’m in fear for the community, our family, everyone’s daughters, [and] children. He shows no remorse still to this day in the preplanning of everything.”
As they did 14 years ago, the Vanderschoots are once again holding a candlelight vigil in their daughter’s honor. On Saturday at 8 p.m., next to the park-and-ride by the Clipper Gap exit off of Highway 80, the Vanderschoots say friends and family will gather to share memories, and pass along a petition to oppose Fernandez’s release.
They are also encouraging people to write letters to the court expressing concerns.
By Thursday evening, the Vanderschoots' online petition had received more than 18,500 signatures.
Lynette and Don Vanderschoot, and their daughter Christine Vanderschoot, say they are still trying to find the words to say at the hearing.
“I honestly feel like, what should I have to say? To me, it’s just common sense,” Christine Vanderschoot said. “They murdered my sister. If she’s not here, why should they ever have a chance to live back in the community?”
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 4,834 parole suitability hearings in 2016. Nearly 17 percent of inmates who had parole hearings were deemed suitable.
A spokesman for CDCR, however, says that suitability does not necessarily mean release. After an inmate is granted suitability, there is a 5-month review period; once the review is complete, the case goes to the governor for a final decision.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” said Don Vanderschoot. “I think he should stay behind bars.”