Twins divided: Intense California family feud stoked by unexpected reunion in the dark of night

  • Photograph by George SakkestadJimmie Mort of the Single A Indians little league team watches as balloons float high above Baggerly Field during Los Gatos Little League’s annual Opening Day Celebration on March 19, 2016.

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A sheriff’s deputy arrived at the Romoland mobile home after Ryan Morris had gone to bed.

A woman appeared. Morris’ identical twin brother would like to see him, the deputy told her.

Ryan Morris, 25, has the intellectual ability of a young child. He married Sean Spicer, a man of regular intelligence 18 years his senior, in a ceremony that Morris mistook for a baptism in 2014. Fearing that Morris was the victim of sexual abuse and undue influence, his identical twin brother and biological family launched a bitter fight to oust Spicer as Morris’ legal guardian.

On May 17, they succeeded. Riverside Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes ruled that Spicer exhibited “abusive behavior” toward the vulnerable Morris — threatening to send Morris back to his adoptive mother or to emergency mental health treatment when he misbehaved and threatening to take his wedding ring off and end the marriage.

The two were living in that Romoland mobile home with Spicer’s parents despite eruptions of violence between Morris and Spicer’s mother, and between Morris and Spicer himself.

“(I)t is clear that continuing to live in the Spicer home is detrimental to Ryan,” the judge wrote, removing Spicer as Morris’ legal guardian and ordering the Public Guardian’s Office to take over that duty. Morris must be moved “forthwith” to a safe, neutral home, and his biological family and his husband should visit in a “therapeutic setting.”

But five days after that order, nothing had changed. Morris was still living in the mobile home with Spicer and his parents. Morris’ biological family, from Orange County, worried for his safety. There had been violence in that house. They felt compelled to check.

Unexpected visit

The woman who came outside that night was Spicer’s mother. She had attempted suicide by slitting her wrists in front of Morris, the judge noted in her order. On this night — May 22 — she woke Morris up and told him he had a visitor.

His identical twin brother, Ronald Moore, was there to see him.

The twins were swept into state custody shortly after birth because their parents had mental health issues. Their grandmother sought custody of both boys, but got only Ronald Moore, the healthy twin. Morris’ disabilities were so profound that he was better off in specialized foster care, social workers said.

Soon his foster mother, Michelle Morris, got approval to adopt him and cut off communication with his biological family. Morris had been sexually abused while in his adoptive mother’s’ home, court testimony said.

Michelle Morris’ foster home shut down in April in the wake of a 16-year-old girl’s death. It was with Michelle Morris’ blessing — and the promise of a cellphone in exchange for nuptials —  that Morris married Spicer in 2014, according to court documents. It’s a marriage that the judge said Morris doesn’t have the capacity to truly understand.

On this May night, Morris said he didn’t want to see his twin brother, according to Spicer’s account, written to Morris’ attorneys and contained in documents the family obtained under the California Public Records Act.

Spicer’s mother told Morris to go outside and tell Ronald Moore that himself.

‘My brother died’

Morris tried to go back to bed, and Spicer’s parents had to coax him for several minutes before he finally went outside.

“Ryan stopped 5-6 feet from the gate,” Spicer wrote in a second-hand account to Morris’ county-appointed attorney. “He would not face Ronald or the other people at the gate. He brought his hands up by his mouth and was wringing them while talking to himself. Mom and Dad were unable to understand what he was saying.”

That’s not what the family saw. “What’s up, bro?” Moore said, looking straight at his twin, as seen in a video of the encounter. “It’s all good. You’re not in trouble. We wanted to come see you and make sure you’re ok.”

Moore told Morris that they’re brothers. Identical twins, in fact.

“I’m sorry, I’m not your brother,” Morris said.

Moore said they could be friends, but that, in fact, they had the same father and mother.

“I have a mother,” Morris said. “Her name is Michelle Morris.”

Spicer’s mother interjected. “She loves you too. She can’t see you. They made sure of that.”

An uncle who accompanied Moore cut in with, “She’ll be in jail soon anyway.”

“Ryan, in a stern voice, told Ronald to stop disrespecting his mother,” according to Spicer’s account.

Moore said he’d always be there if Morris needed anything, if he was unhappy with his situation, if he wanted to get away.

“Ryan said that his brother died,” Spicer wrote in his account. “Ryan appeared to have shut down. He went back inside.”

Spicer was working that night, but the next morning, Morris told him what happened. “He went on about how they upset him and told me that they said they were going to have his mom put in jail,” Spicer wrote.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that deputies from the Menifee station did a welfare check at the Spicer home at 8:49 p.m. May 22. They found no evidence of a crime taking place, and no more information was available, officials said.

“This kind of unannounced visit by the biological family is a clear violation of the Court’s order,” attorney Jack Osborn said in an email to county officials. “Our client remains married to his spouse and he insists that he remain with him.”

‘Impermissible’ interference

Morris did remain in the Spicer home for nearly a week after that welfare check — which the family calls a clear violation of the court order.

It was on May 28 — 11 days after the judge’s order —  that the Riverside County Public Guardian’s Office moved Morris to a new home in Moreno Valley. The delay came as Morris’ attorneys sought a freeze on the judge’s order while they took their objections to the state Court of Appeal.

The trial judge was wrong on several fronts, argued attorneys Mark J. Andrew Flory and Jack Osborn to the appellate court. She found that Spicer breached his duties as conservator regarding Morris’ marriage, and social and sexual contacts, but his attorneys argued that those powers never belonged to the conservator, but to Morris and Morris alone.

Also, they argued, Morris’ ability to understand marriage should not have been considered, and the judge erred by allowing evidence about Morris’ intellectual capacity to be introduced. Adults under conservatorship have a right to be married and enjoy the benefits of marriage, they said, and that right is protected by the state and U.S. constitutions. The judge’s ruling “impermissibly interfered” with Morris’ rights, they argued.

While Morris’ new home in Moreno Valley is nice and the staff is wonderful with him, his attorneys said, Morris “has been completely isolated from his family and his spouse, despite repeated requests.”

Morris has been having trouble adjusting to the change, violently acting out, longing to see others, reported the Inland Regional Center, which provides services to the disabled.

The judge ordered that visits with the biological family and Spicer occur in a therapeutic setting. Visits had been scheduled for June, then canceled, as officials try to find a therapist and work out insurance kinks. Two months after her order, there still have been no visits.

‘Reprehensible’ to send him back

Morris’ biological family was aghast, saying that the attorneys who should be protecting Morris were, instead, fighting to keep him in an abusive situation.

“Morris testified that he does not want to live where Spicer has him living, wants to visit with (identical twin) Moore and Spicer is prohibiting that, does not want Spicer to be his conservator and does not want to be married to Spicer,” the family’s attorney, Charles Krolikowski, wrote in opposition to the appeals court.

“With all of these facts, coming directly from the mouth of Morris, both Spicer and Morris’ attorneys still want to send Morris back to Spicer and his abusive and violent household. This is reprehensible.”

Morris’ capacity to understand marriage was, indeed, one reason the biological family challenged Spicer’s conservatorship to begin with — and thus was properly before the court, they argued. Furthermore, the judge didn’t terminate the marriage — she simply removed Spicer as conservator “for cause due to many instances of abusive behavior towards Morris and keeping him captive in a violent household,” the family’s filing said.

By placing Morris in a neutral and therapeutic environment, the trial court is simply protecting Morris from any further harm and abuse at the hands of Spicer, it argued.

“The fact that Morris is extremely vulnerable makes it even more reprehensible when Spicer threatens to end their marriage, send Morris to ETS if he does not follow Spicer’s rules, or send Morris back to (adoptive mother) Michelle’s house, where Spicer knew he had been sexually abused,” attorney Krolikowski wrote. “What kind of person, let alone a spouse and conservator, would do and say such things to a young disabled man that has the mental capacity of a young child in the range of 5 to 7 years old?”

Ruling stay denied

In a one-sentence order on Wednesday, July 17, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal denied Morris’ request to freeze the lower court ruling while the appeal is pending. Morris will remain in his new home, at least for now.

The biological family is gratified, but wants to know why the county has failed to follow up on “explicit forms of dependent adult abuse” for so many years. Krolikowski, the family’s attorney, is “shocked that Ryan’s court-appointed lawyers, paid for by the taxpayers, continue to have their heads buried in the sand and neglect to put forth Ryan’s best interests in a complete betrayal of his trust,” he said.

On Friday, July 19, both sides gathered in Judge Sykes’ courtroom to argue more over Morris’ future — each side insisting on what’s best for Ryan, and each side offering very different visions of what that means.