OROVILLE, Calif. - When Ryan Scott Blinston was arrested last year, authorities say he was trying to smash in a door with a hatchet to finish killing a man whose throat he had slashed.
That man would have become the fourth victim of Blinston, according to officials who call the Northern California tree trimmer a serial killer. Officials say before a SWAT team arrived to arrest him, he had left a bloody trail in an area where violence is usually about drugs, gangs and domestic disputes.
Blinston, 37, of the small city of Oroville in Butte County, was charged on Wednesday with murder, attempted murder and arson. The charges included special sentencing allegations that Blinston used a deadly weapon, attacked an elderly victim and committed multiple killings.
Blinston had been in jail since his arrest last year for another attack, to which he had pleaded not guilty.
Blinston didn’t enter a plea to the new charges during arraignment Thursday. He was ordered held without bail pending a May 19 court hearing. Some victims' relatives were in court for the hearing, Butte County District Attorney Michael L. Ramsey said.
Blinston could face life in prison without possibility of parole if convicted.
Blinston was working for a tree-trimming service in Butte and Tehama counties, north of Sacramento, last May and June when he returned to clients’ homes and slashed the residents' throats, according to prosecutors.
Loreen Severs, 88, of Los Molinos died and her husband, Homer Severs, 91, survived but died that December of an unrelated illness, authorities said.
Blinston broke in the door of their home to attack them, prosecutors said.
Blinston also is accused of killing Sandra George, 82, and Vicky Cline, 57, both of Oroville. He also is charged with torching Cline’s car.
Cline, a former waitress, had been living in her car outside a home in downtown Oroville where Blinston had friends and they apparently had talked, Ramsey said. She was last seen with him in June before she disappeared.
"Blood and DNA evidence on and in Blinston’s car was forensically matched back to Cline," whose body was discovered about two weeks later by a fisherman in the Feather River near Belden, according to a joint statement from the Butte County and Tehama County district attorney’s offices, which filed the charges in Butte County Superior Court.
Butte County, with a population of around 200,000 people, is home to leafy suburbs, foothill communities, and to Chico, which has a state college. But it's had its problems. Decades ago it was a hub for methamphetamine production, Ramsey said, and a 2018 wildfire killed more than 80 people and virtually wiped out the town of Paradise.
There are car thefts and property crimes, and perhaps a half-dozen killings a year, Ramsey said, but in 44 years on the job, he had never seen anything like the throat-slashings.
The motive for the attacks wasn’t yet clear. There wasn’t any immediate indication of attempted burglary or robbery, Ramsey said.
Blinston had a history of methamphetamine use, and had spent two terms in state prison for driving a stolen car, possessing stolen items and fleeing the California Highway Patrol. He'd been out of jail for several years.
"He wasn’t Public Enemy No. 1, in any sense," Ramsey said. "Nothing that would lead one to believe that we had a nascent serial killer in our midst."
It wasn't clear if there might be other victims.
"We hope to God there isn’t but we can’t be sure," Ramsey said.
Blinston was arrested last June by a Butte County sheriff's SWAT team that had tracked him to a motorhome in a heavily wooded mountain area called Brush Creek, where authorities planned to arrest him on suspicion of burning Cline’s car.
He also was a person of interest in George's slaying, Ramsey said.
Because Blinston had a history of fleeing police, the SWAT team approached quietly before dawn, using night-vision goggles.
"As the team approached the motorhome, they heard the muffled screams of a man inside and loud banging on the outside of the motorhome" as Blinston tried to break in with a hatchet, the district attorneys’ statement said.
Blinston ran into the woods and was captured after a struggle and the use of a stun gun, authorities said.
Blinston had gone to the area several days earlier to talk to the motorhome owner, who was a relative of his friends, Ramsey said. Blinston set up a camp with a tarpaulin a little way down a hill.
He wanted to convince the man to grow marijuana on the remote land, Ramsey said.
According to the man, "they drank beer and smoked and shot the breeze and seemed to be getting along fine," and Blinston would return to his camp at night, Ramsey said.
But on the night of June 13, Blinston asked if he could stay over because he was afraid of bears. The motorhome owner agreed, Ramsey said.
"He falls asleep. The next thing he knows is Blinston on top of him, slicing his throat with what he believed was a knife because he felt the warm blood start to gush out of his neck," Ramsey said.
The man was stabbed in the shoulder and wrist before managing to push Blinston out the door and lock it, Ramsey said.
He then used his blanket in an effort to stanch a 6-inch (152-millimeter) throat wound, the DA said.
But Blinston didn't give up. Ramsey said he used a rock to shatter windows, apparently in an attempt to get in and "finish the job" of killing the homeowner, who used an axe handle to knock away his attacker's hands from the window and the bottom of the door.
The man was yelling for help but "there really was no one around" and no cell phone service, Ramsey said.
But in a "mind-boggling" piece of luck, the SWAT team was there, Ramsey said. A medic with the team stuffed gauze into the wound to stop the bleeding. The man eventually was airlifted to a hospital.
"There’s no doubt in the world" that they saved his life, Ramsey said.