Parole recommended for Kern child killer

Crime Watch

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A man convicted of murder in the brutal torture slaying of a toddler and who boasted he would get away with it has been recommended for parole after spending the past 20 years in prison.

The Board of Parole Hearings on Tuesday recommended parole for 50-year-old Michael Todd Panella, who beat his girlfriend’s 20-month-old son to death in 1999. Panella will be released unless the governor reverses the decision.

The slain child, Johnathan, suffered dozens of bruises to his hips, head, face and extremities, as well as “extreme trauma” to the small bowel, according to court filings. He died from multiple blunt impacts to his abdomen, which caused internal bleeding and dehydration.

A jury in October 2000 found Panella guilty of first-degree murder and assault of a child under 8 resulting in death. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Panella became eligible for elderly parole as a result of amendments passed by the state legislature in 2020 that reduced requirements for inmates who were at least 50 and had served 20 years of their sentence.

Previously, the law required inmates to be at least 60 and serve a minimum of 25 years of their sentence.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said state laws now allow parole of child murderers on the basis of “elderly parole” before they even qualify for the senior discount at McDonald’s or can draw Social Security.

“This was a heinous crime,” Zimmer told 17 News on Wednesday. “This was a torture murder. By a 29-year-old man, with a criminal record — he had a criminal record — who tortured this baby, this infant, over a week’s period of time. Beat him to death.

“Little Johnathan suffered at the hands of this man, and then during the trial he had no remorse, he said horrific things about the baby, he threatened a witness.”

Court filings say Johnathan’s mother, Tammy Bell, began noticing bruises on Jonathan about the time she started dating Panella. When she questioned Panella, he said Jonathan either fell or they were caused by Alex, Bell’s 5-year-old son.

On Nov. 27, 1999, Bell packed her belongings and planned to move out of Panella’s house the next day, filings say. She left Johnathan with Panella that afternoon and returned around 7 p.m. to find Johnathan in bed, apparently sleeping.

Bell left again and returned a few hours later. She got in bed with Johnathan about midnight and reached for him, the filings say. His body was cold and hard.

She screamed and called 911. Law enforcement arrived and Jonathan was pronounced dead at the scene.

“Tammy was crying uncontrollably and would not put Johnathan down,” according to the documents. “Panella showed little emotion.”

The fatal injuries were inflicted between one to three hours before Johnathan’s death, the reports say.

At trial, a jailhouse informant testified Panella said he was going to get away with murder “just like O.J. Simpson.”

Another informant testified hearing Panella say, “I killed the little bastard.”

Panella is currently housed at Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

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