A state hearing panel this week recommended parole for a 46-year-old man who garnered international headlines in 1994 for the gruesome, execution-style slaying of a German tourist and the wounding of her husband while they were sightseeing near Idyllwild.
During a three-hour hearing Wednesday, Dec. 14, Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner Michele Minor and Deputy Commissioner Neil Chambers determined that Thongxay Nilakout, who fatality shot and robbed 64-year-old Gisela Pfleger, is suitable for release, said the woman’s daughter, Birte Pfleger of Rancho Palos Verdes.
The victim’s husband, Klaus Pfleger, who was 62 at the time, also was gunned down but survived.
Dana Simas, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections, confirmed the parole hearing panel’s recommendation.
However, recommendations do not result in the automatic release of an inmate, she said. Those recommendations are followed by a review period of up to 120 days by the full Board of Parole Hearings. Gov. Gavin Newsom then has 30 days to review the board’s recommendation and determine if the inmate will receive or be denied parole.
Birte Pfleger, 54, along with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, plan to request that Newsom deny Nilakout’s parole. “The State of California and a judge said he needs to be put away for life,” she said. “You can’t tell me he has really changed. Someone like that doesn’t change. Premeditated murder is beyond rehabilitation.”
Nilakout, 17 years old at the time of the crime, was originally sentenced in 1996 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Justices ruled children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes, noting that their lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility can lead to recklessness, impulsiveness and risk-taking.
About 2,000 juvenile inmates nationwide serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences, including Nilakout, were impacted by the decision. Nilakout was denied parole in 2019.
Nilakout’s accomplice, Khamchan Bret Ketsouvannasane, who was 19 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and remains incarcerated. A third defendant, getaway driver Xou Yang, also then 19 and described by authorities as the “mastermind” of the robbery, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received 25 years to life in prison. He has since been paroled.
All three men had immigrated from Laos and were living in Banning when they hatched the robbery plot.
Birte Pfleger, a history professor at Cal State Los Angeles, has purposely avoided telling her now 90-year-old father, who lives in Germany, about Yang’s parole and Nilakout’s possible release because he still suffers physically and mentally from the shooting.
“The last little peace of mind that he had was when he found out that they (Yang and Nilakout) were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” she said.
Birte Pfleger said she was studying for her master’s degree in history at Cal State Long Beach, when her parents came from Germany to visit her on Friday, May 13, 1994. Over the weekend, she took them to the J. Paul Getty Museum and Universal CityWalk.
However, on Monday, May 16, the Los Angeles area was enshrouded in “June gloom,” a weather pattern that causes cloudy, overcast skies and cool temperatures. Birte Pfleger suggested that her parents drive to Idyllwild, where the skies would be clearer and the scenery picturesque.
The Pflegers were robbed and attacked while photographing flowers at a scenic overlook on Highway 243, about a half-mile from Lake Fulmor. A photograph taken by Klaus Pfleger just moments before the shooting shows his wife carrying a pair of binoculars.
Nilakout forced Gisela Pfleger to the ground and shot her twice in the back of the head while she struggled to keep her purse, which contained $295, her daughter said. Klaus Pfleger was shot in twice in the face and once in the torso.
Miraculously, he was able to drive to Lake Fulmor and, although unable to talk, managed to scribble a note stating that he was German and was able to direct authorities to the location of his dead wife, Birte Pfleger said. After undergoing surgery at Desert Regional Medical Center, he also provided a precise description of the attackers and their vehicle, she added.
Police received tips from Banning’s Hmong community that led them to the attackers several days after the shooting.
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