|Ronald Moore & Ryan Morris|
In her arms were gifts for her grandson, Ryan Morris. He was turning 21 and Mukai Mazzei brought a new winter jacket and several slick new shirts. As she walked the drive that day, in 2015, Mukai Mazzei hadn’t been allowed to see Ryan for nearly 13 years, but she still knew which sizes he wore: After all, she had raised Ryan’s identical twin brother, Ronald, since he was a baby.
Mukai Mazzei had fought bitterly for the right to raise Ryan as well, but the state separated the identical twins and allowed Morris, a foster care provider and former social worker, to adopt Ryan.
Through years of court battles, Morris painted Mukai Mazzei as a bit off, saying she refused to acknowledge her grandson’s disabilities, wanted to take him off his medications, didn’t watch him properly.
All untrue, said Mukai Mazzei. She still can’t fathom how the state could take Ryan away, how Morris could refuse to let Ryan’s biological family see him, talk to him or even give him a birthday present for 13 years.
Mukai Mazzei had never been this close to Morris’ Murrieta house, a sprawling 7,000-square foot building on more than 4 hilly acres. It’s Morris’ home and her business, where she operates a state-licensed foster care facility for disabled children. She is licensed to care for five foster children, and she is legally the parent of five adopted disabled children of her own.
Morris’ husband, Larry Kerin, came to the door, Mukai Mazzei said.
She demanded to see Ryan.
Kerin told her to leave, or he’d call the police, she said.
Words were exchanged, but it ended the way her efforts to connect with Ryan usually did: Mukai Mazzei left in tears, still clutching the gifts she hoped to give her grandson.
Through her attorney, Morris declined to comment for this story, citing “multiple and complex” privacy concerns and pending litigation. In court documents and past interviews with the Register, Morris said she eliminated visits with Ryan’s biological relatives because the encounters left him agitated and prone to dangerous seizures.
After Mukai Mazzei’s abortive visit to Morris’ home, the biological family began researching Ryan’s status now that he was a legal adult. They learned California law provides court-appointed conservatorships, or legal guardianships, to protect disabled adults. Those guardianships are reviewed every two years by a judge.
Michelle Morris and her brother Gregory were appointed Ryan’s conservators when he turned 18.
Morris later asked the court to remove her brother and replace him with a long-time caregiver in her home, Susan Bird-Santo. Ryan’s biological family decided to challenge Ryan’s conservatorship in court in 2015. When they approached Gregory Morris, hoping to secure a statement for their case, they learned Ryan was married and living with his husband, Sean Spicer, in a double-wide mobile home in Romoland, in Riverside County between Perris and Menifee.
News of the marriage stunned Ryan’s biological relatives. Court-ordered assessments of Ryan described him as having the intellectual capacity of a kindergartener and the verbal abilities of a 4-year-old. He was unable to think abstractly, manage money or give informed medical consent. He struggled to keep track of the day, date, season or year, and understand where he was, or why he was there. He was also “substantially unable” to resist fraud or undue influence, the assessments said
And yet he was legally married.
Ryan’s biological relatives reached out to Spicer and welcomed him to the family. Spicer received them warmly, and said he was open to having them in Ryan’s life.
But that decision belonged to Ryan’s conservators, Michelle Morris and Bird-Santo.
Spicer’s own relationship with Morris was complicated. She was both his employer and, legally, his mother-in-law.
Spicer met Ryan years earlier, through Morris’ brother Gregory, and they started dating after Ryan’s 18th birthday, according to court documents. At times, Morris forbade them from seeing one another. But she also hired Spicer in the summer of 2014 to help care for the disabled residents in her home, Spicer said in a deposition for the conservator battle. She approved of their union, and hosted their wedding in her yard, Spicer said.
But just months into the marriage, Morris accused Spicer of being emotionally unstable, Spicer said in the deposition. Tensions increased when Ronald Moore, Ryan’s identical twin, filed a legal petition in March 2015 seeking to oust Morris and Bird-Santo as Ryan’s legal guardians, and appoint Spicer instead. Morris objected, arguing that conservatorship was not the proper role for a spouse, Spicer said in the deposition.
Ryan confronted Morris, saying he wanted Spicer to be his conservator, according to Spicer.
In July 2015, Ryan for the first time attended a court hearing on his conservatorship at the Temecula courthouse. Ryan’s biological family descended en masse: They hadn’t seen Ryan, now 21, since he was 8.
In court, the judge asked Ryan what he wanted. Ryan said he wanted Spicer as his conservator, and to visit his twin brother. Ryan could visit with whomever he wished, the judge said.
Afterward, his biological relatives poured into the courtyard, weeping, laughing and swarming around Ryan. “I was waiting for this day for so long, bello,” Maukai Mazzei said, stroking Ryan’s cheek. “We didn’t even see a picture of you.”
Morris and Bird-Santo resigned as conservators in the fall of 2015 and were replaced by Spicer. Ryan’s biological relatives felt he was finally free, and they were eager to rekindle a relationship with him.
Initially, Spicer wanted Ryan’s biological family to be part of their lives. They “all seem like kind, loving people that care about Ryan and myself,” Spicer wrote in an email that became an exhibit at his deposition. “They are supportive of our marriage and are happy that he has found someone to spend forever with.”
The family visited Ryan and Spicer in Romoland. Ryan and Spicer made overnight trips to visit the family in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. They traded frequent phone calls. Ryan took to chanting his brother’s name over and over, according to the deposition.
Ryan’s relatives soon grew concerned. Ryan struggled with basic self-care tasks, such as buttoning his shirt and brushing his teeth. He had bouts of violence and didn’t seem to grasp social boundaries, sometimes touching people inappropriately, according to court paperwork. Ryan said he had been sexually abused as a child, Spicer said at his deposition, allegedly involving a man working the night shift in Morris’ home. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigated the allegations, but no arrests were made.
The biological family wanted to do more for Ryan, including paying for specialized therapy and training. They worried about Spicer’s emphasis on gaining Ryan’s compliance by withholding electronics or visits with his relatives when he acted out. They argued that Ryan is allowed to see who he wants, without needing permission from Spicer or Spicer’s parents, who lived together in the Romoland mobile home.
Spicer countered that Ryan’s biological relatives had become domineering and difficult.
A NEW SPLIT
“Sean is breaking down here,” Spicer’s mother, Theresa Spicer, said in recorded voice messages left for Ryan’s aunt in December 2015, entered as exhibits at Spicer’s deposition. “He feels you’re giving him absolutely no control over Ryan’s life…. If Sean divorces Ryan, he’s taking him back to Michelle. And if he does that, you’re never going to see him again, you know that.”
Ryan was treated well, she said. When he misbehaved, he was simply grounded for a couple days, “like you would with a normal kid.”
Visits and communication essentially ceased. Last March, Ryan’s brother, Ronald, filed a new court petition, this time seeking to remove Spicer as conservator.
Ryan did not have the capacity to enter into a marriage, the petition argues, “as demonstrated by their wedding video, which clearly shows that Ryan was coaxed into marrying the Conservator and did not understand what was happening at the wedding ceremony, thinking instead that it was a baptism.”
Based on this “obvious lack of informed consent,” as well as the fact that Spicer was nearly two decades older, the petition says, Ryan’s family “has grave concerns that the Conservator may be sexually abusing and controlling him.”
“Do you believe this is a matter of mutual understanding, adult love?” Spicer was asked at his deposition.
“Yes,” Spicer said.
“Although his cognition is significantly less than a 22-year-old, you don’t see it as a matter of sexual opportunism?”
“No,” Spicer said. “Ryan is the one that initiates sexual contact. Ryan knows what he wants in that regard.”
Ryan’s court-appointed attorney said that Ryan objects to his family members being appointed as his conservators, and is angry and resentful over the litigation. He believes his family’s efforts “are designed to break up his marriage…against his express wishes, and serves as heavy-handed harassment against his life partner,” Ryan’s attorney said in court papers.
Spicer did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, and Ryan’s attorney declined to make him available for comment.
Spicer entered a new line of work in 2016: long-distance trucking. He was on the road for weeks at a stretch – about 25 days of every 30 – and Ryan went with him, according to the deposition.
His biological family worried Ryan was no longer receiving regular education or therapy services, instead spending long days and nights inside a big rig cab. Was that what he wanted?
Spicer argued Ryan was better off, getting to see America, rather than attending repetitive and dull work programs for the disabled.
But the conflict took its toll: Fearing big legal bills, Spicer resigned as Ryan’s conservator in August, then rescinded that resignation days later, according to court documents.
The arguments have piled up for months in the conservatorship battle in Riverside County probate court. A judge ordered the Riverside Public Guardian’s office – the county agency charged with handling the affairs of people who can’t care for themselves – to evaluate Ryan’s situation and report back on whether the state should take over as his conservator.
Investigator Barbara J. Burkhart visited with Ryan and Spicer at the Romoland mobile home. A lock and chain secured the front gate, and she was greeted by several barking dogs. “Initial impression of the property was that it was cluttered with junk and neglected,” Burkhart wrote in a report reviewed by the Register. “The home had minor housekeeping concerns, but overall unremarkable.”
Ryan was alert to his name and partial birthdate, Burkhart wrote, but had difficulty holding his head upright, recalling his address, knowing the date. He rocked back and forth and had “severe difficulty” answering complex questions requiring critical thinking, the report said. He said he liked where he lived, and did not like court hearings. Sean Spicer’s parents, Theresa and Frank Spicer, appeared to have genuine concern for Ryan, “but their knowledge of the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities appears limited. Mrs. Spicer also stated that since Ryan hit her, she no longer will do things for him.”
The Spicers said that Ryan’s aunt, Monica Mukai, wanted to gain conservatorship because she doesn’t feel Ryan is gay, wants to break up the marriage and take Ryan off his medications.
Burkhart asked who was involved in the marriage decision. Spicer said marriage was Ryan’s idea, and was approved by his mother Morris, and by Ryan’s therapist.
Burkhart tried three times to schedule a follow-up visit with Ryan to ask more questions. Her calls were not returned, the report says.
Then Burkhart visited with the relatives seeking to become Ryan’s conservators: twin Ronald and his two aunts. They met at aunt Monica Mukai’s cottage on San Juan Capistrano’s historic Los Rios Street. “The tree-lined street is filled with boutique shops and restaurants,” Burkhart wrote. “The area was bustling with community activities and tourists. The home was clean, nicely decorated with antiques and furnishings.”
The family expressed concern for Ryan’s overall health and welfare, but “at no time whatsoever did they express a desire to break up the marriage of Ryan and Sean Spicer, nor did they desire to discontinue Ryan’s medications.”
The family felt that Spicer, at first, appeared to have Ryan’s best interest at heart, but their concerns over Spicer’s mental stability grew. They felt Spicer became upset when he saw Ryan enjoying his family so much, Burkhart wrote. Ronald said he desperately wants to spend time with Ryan, and feels he can provide him with opportunities and the quality of life he deserves, her report says.
Then the family played the two-minute clip of Ryan and Spicer’s wedding video. “(I)t was evident that Ryan Morris had no comprehension of the marriage ceremony and what he was really getting himself into,” Burkhart wrote.
Ryan lacks the ability to manage his person and estate or resist fraud and undue influence, and “it was a concern that Ryan Morris contracted into a marriage of which he did not have the capacity, nor awareness of his contract,” Burkhart wrote. Ryan spent weeks at a time on a long-distance truck driver schedule, was not enrolled in school, provided “optimum healthcare services,” or activities compelling him to academic growth, she added.
“His family members are requesting an opportunity to provide the stability and resources which they feel Ryan needs and deserves. Family members Ronald Moore, Monica Mukai and Olivia Mukai-Lechner appear to be a genuinely viable alternative” to naming the Riverside County Public Guardian as Ryan’s conservator, Burkhart concluded.
This week, the tangled, emotional odyssey over what’s best for Ryan, and who should be trusted to ensure his welfare, reaches key legal juncture.
After a year of preliminary proceedings, a trial on the biological family’s petition to have blood relatives named as Ryan’s conservators is scheduled to begin Thursday, March 16. A newly assigned judge, Thomas Cahraman, will hear evidence in Department 8 of Riverside Superior Court and decide whether to preserve the status quo of Ryan’s guardianship or change it – for at least the next two years, until the next court review.
The family will ask the judge to appoint the Public Guardian as Ryan’s conservator while the case is heard. They want an outside set of eyes looking at Ryan’s welfare, they said.
Regardless of the outcome, Ryan’s grandmother, Mukai Mazzei, said she’ll never stop trying to bring Ryan back into her family.
“We have lost too much time.”
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Part 3: Twins, divided: Brothers will see each other in court