book reviews, true crime

Repost: A review of The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge by Alan Prendergast

This is the last repost for today, I promise. I posted this on my old blog on September 30, 2015. I am reposting it as/is in 2020.

Back in 1985, a made for TV movie starring Justine Bateman was broadcast.  I didn’t see Right To Kill until sometime between 1989 and 1990, when I was a senior in high school taking a psychology class.  My teacher was big on showing us made for TV movies to teach us about psychological disorders.  Right To Kill was the dramatized story of Richard and Deborah Jahnke, two teenagers who were in trouble with the law for killing their abusive father, Richard Chester Jahnke.

Not long ago, I watched Right To Kill again on YouTube.  I decided I wanted to see if there were any books about the case.  As a matter of fact, there was.  In 1986, Alan Prendergast, who had covered the story for Rolling Stone, published The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge.  I got my hands on a used copy and just finished reading it this afternoon.

Right to Kill, a made for TV movie based on this book starring Justine Bateman.

Prendergast happened to base his title on one of my favorite poems, “A Poison Tree“, by William Blake.  I am not actually a big fan of poetry, but this was one I remembered from high school.  Since Richard John Jahnke and Deborah Ann Jahnke were Wyoming high school students when their crime was committed, it seems fitting that Prendergast would use “A Poison Tree” as inspiration for his book about their case.  It’s also just a very wise poem…  it says a lot in not many words.

In vivid, conversational prose, Prendergast spins the tragic tale of the Jahnke family, starting at the beginning when Richard C. Jahnke was an 18 year old private in the Army posted at Fort Brooke near San Juan, Puerto Rico.  He met 20 year old Maria de Lourdes Rodriguez on November 16, 1962.  They were on a bus.  Actually, Maria had gotten on the wrong bus; she was on her way to work at the phone company and was in a hurry.  She noticed the clean cut Yankee with huge blue eyes.  He noticed her.  The bus had engine trouble and soon everyone disembarked.

The clean cut Army private, a Chicago native who had just arrived in Puerto Rico, had been trying to do some sightseeing, but he got lost.  He needed help getting back to Fort Brooke.  Maria was the only one who would admit to speaking English.  She offered to help him find the right bus as she made her way to work.  Richard C. Jahnke said he would walk Maria to work under the guise of looking out for her safety, even though he was himself a stranger at that point.  Before long, they were dating.

Maria and Richard got along well, even though Richard seemed to be the jealous type.  He was good at telling stories and had a lot of spunk.  And Maria lived with her mother, who was abusive and didn’t seem to care much about her daughter.  She was ready to move on with her life.  The couple got engaged to be married.  Thirteen months later, on June 6, 1964, they exchanged vows at the Church of Santa Teresita in Santurce, Puerto Rico.  They told everyone they were going to Jamaica for their honeymoon, but they really rented a cheap beach house on the southern part of Puerto Rico.  The lie seemed harmless at the time.  Later, Maria would come to realize that it set a tone of secrecy and lies that would one day destroy the couple.

Maria quickly got pregnant and, on March 16, 1965, presented Richard with a baby girl they named Deborah Ann.  Six months later, Maria was pregnant again, and Richard, who had just signed re-enlistment papers, had a new assignment at Fort Ord in California.  On June 27, 1966, Richard John Jahnke was born there.  The family was complete, even though Maria had envisioned herself with three kids.  It soon became obvious that her husband was turning into a monster.  By the time the children were toddlers, he was screaming at them, hitting them, and calling them filthy names.  He hit his wife, too.

Richard C. Jahnke terrorized his family, though they would get brief respites as the Army sent him on unaccompanied tours to other posts.  After a stint in Germany, where he failed to perform all of his contractually obligated duties, Jahnke was forced to leave the Army.  He traded his Army uniform for a gun and a badge provided by the Internal Revenue Service.  The Jahnke family continued to move from station to station until they landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Valentine’s Day in 1981.  They spent six hard weeks sharing a motel room while the finishing touches were put on the home the Jahnkes purchased.  It was located on the outskirts of town, in an area where neighbors were scarce and kept to themselves.

Things got especially bad in Wyoming.  Jahnke continued to be abusive to his wife and kids, though his son Richard had grown enough to be able to offer some resistance to his blows.  One bright spot in the younger Richard’s life was discovering ROTC.  Not long after he joined the high school Army class, a new teacher fresh from the service took over the program.  Major Robert Vegvary had done three tours in Vietnam.  He had visited Cheyenne and liked it.  Central High School’s ROTC program was in a shambles and he was just the man to revive it.  He became somewhat close to Richard J. Jahnke and had visions of the young man making a career out of the military. 

ROTC allowed the younger Richard Jahnke to excel at something.  Aside from that, he and his father had their guns.  Richard C. Jahnke was a big lover of firearms, a hobby that would eventually be his undoing.  Convinced that the world was full of cheats, liars, murderers and rapists, the senior Jahnke was always packing heat, even at the dinner table.

Deborah Jahnke had grown into a dramatic, artistic sort of girl.  She had a problem with acne and was thought of as “weird” by a lot of her classmates.  But she studied art and had a favorite teacher, Eve Whitcomb, who encouraged her to be creative.  Although Richard and Deborah were nothing alike, they clung to each other as their father raged and their mother did what she could to appease him, to include siding against her children who were regularly abused and beaten by their father.  The kids had asked for help of adults in the school system, but their requests for asylum fell on deaf ears.  In fact, they were punished for seeking help.

Finally, on November 16, 1982, Richard and Deborah had had enough.  It was the twentieth anniversary of the day Richard C. Jahnke and Maria Jahnke had met.  They’d gone out to dinner to celebrate.  Meanwhile, Richard John Jahnke put the family pets in the basement and selected a weapon.  He planned to shoot his father… protect his sister, his mother, and himself from the foul tempered, violent, 38 year old brute, once and for all.  While Richard J. Jahnke did the killing, his sister went to jail for aiding and abetting his crime. 

Prendergast does a great job covering this story, including all the facts and details while still making the writing colorful enough to hold the reader’s attention.  This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I had trouble putting down and I managed to finish it within a couple of days, rather than the weeks other books have been taking me lately. 

In a way, this book is even a bit timely.  Early this morning, Kelly Gissendaner was executed.  Her children pleaded for her life.  Since they were also the children of the murder victim, Gissendaner’s husband, Doug, they were sort of in a similar position as Maria Jahnke was.  Her husband was murdered, but it was her children who committed the crime.  So not only did she lose her husband, she also had to come up with the money to pay for the lawyers who defended her husband’s killers.

As an Army wife and Air Force brat, I was interested in reading about the now defunct posts where the senior Jahnke had assignments.  As a true crime buff, I was fascinated by the story of how the court case unfolded and how local people in Cheyenne were gripped by this story.  The only thing I felt was missing were pictures.  I was curious to see what the Jahnke kids looked like in the 80s.  I understand now that they have long since moved on.   

Anyway, The Poison Tree is a solid read.  I recommend it to true crime buffs who don’t mind reading about a very old case.  The Jahnkes’ story shocked the people of Cheyenne, many of whom had a great deal of empathy for Richard and Deborah, who were clearly failed by the people who should have been able to help them escape the hell they were in before things got so violent and deadly.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of Andreea Raducan’s The Other Side of the Medal

I am in the middle of another book about gymnastics and former Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan is mentioned in the book I’m reading now. I am reposting this book review that was posted on my original blog on November 28, 2016. This review appears as is.

At the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Andreea Raducan put in a brilliant performance in gymnastics and won the all around gold medal.  She also won a silver medal on the vault and a team gold medal.  Unfortunately, Raducan was eventually disqualified and stripped of her gold all around medal because she tested positive for a banned substance.  Before the competition, Raducan had complained of a headache.  A team doctor gave her a cold pill which had pseudoephedrine, a banned substance, in it.  Before she knew it, Andreea Raducan was famous for more than just her gold winning performance in the gym.

I always enjoy a good life story.  Although I have never so much as successfully turned a cartwheel, I find women’s gymnastics fascinating.  I probably downloaded Andreea Raducan’s 2013 book, The Other Side of the Medal on a drunken buying spree.  I just finished reading Raducan’s book this morning and mostly enjoyed it.  Since her turn at the Olympics, Andreea Raducan has become a journalist, television host, and sports announcer.  She also does some modeling and promotional work.  In short, she’s moved beyond life as a gymnast and become successful, despite losing her gold medal.  She went on to win five more World Championships medals and retired from the sport in 2002. 

The Other Side of the Medal is the story of how Raducan became a gymnast in a country that was once a veritable gymnast factory.  Raducan notes that since Romania’s society changed after the fall of communism, children don’t get involved in sports the way they used to.  She writes that parents are now too busy to support their athletic kids and they are less willing to send them away to be trained.  I’m not sure what went on at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, but the Romanian women gymnasts were not contenders there.  Raducan writes that a lot of the former great Romanian gymnasts have left Romania and are now working in other countries.  

Andreea Raducan came of age at a time when Romania boasted many wonderful female gymnasts.  She writes about the grueling training it took for her to reach the pinnacle of success and how crushing it was when she tested positive for “doping”.  I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Raducan, who had simply taken a pill that so many people take when they’re feeling sick.  Many people were supportive of her after the controversy, including Nadia Comaneci.  In Romania, she is seen as a sympathetic figure.

For the most part, I think Raducan’s book is a good read.  I did notice some editing glitches, most of which appeared to be slight errors in proofreading.  For instance, I noticed a couple of sentences where she clearly started to write something and changed her mind about how she wanted to express herself.  She obviously went back to rearrange the sentence, but didn’t do a complete job of it.  There were a couple of other times when it seemed like maybe there was a language glitch.  Overall, though, I was impressed by Ms. Raducan’s ability to express herself.  She includes some color photos as well.

I think The Other Side of the Medal is a good read for people who like true stories, enjoy women’s gymnastics, and are interested in Romania.  I think I’d give this book a solid four stars out of five.

A video of Raducan performing at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

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book reviews

Repost: Marjorie Orbin… former stripper, now wears stripes

I am reposting another book review. This one was originally written for in 2011. It was reposted on my original blog in 2014. I am reposting it as is in 2020, mainly because this was a very popular post when I still had the old blog open. Enjoy!

I don’t know what it is about the winter months, but there’s something about cold weather that makes me want to read true crime.  And while I can always find books about evil men who commit gruesome crimes, I’m always intrigued when I run across a true crime book that focuses on a female perpetrator.  That’s why I was eager to read Camille Kimball’s 2010 book, What She Always Wanted: A True Story of Marriage, Greed, and Murder.  This book is about a woman who committed a grisly act and traded her comfortable lifestyle for prison stripes.

The story

Marjorie Orbin grew up in Florida, the second child of a mixed up and oft married mother.  Marjorie’s father, William Kroh, was his wife’s second of several husbands.  He and Marjorie’s mother divorced when Marjorie was very young; not long after the split, he accidentally killed himself when he was cleaning a gun.  Though Marjorie’s mother went on to have two more sons with one of her later husbands, Marjorie only acknowledged her older sister, Allison, as a sibling.  She grew up in an unstable home and as she came of age, found an escape through music and dance.

Besides being very talented, Marjorie was also very pretty.  She easily found work in the entertainment industry in Florida and was able to make a good living as a dancer and choreographer.  She had a lot of boyfriends and married young.  But Marjorie’s marriages never seemed to work out.  By the time she was in her early 30s, she had married and divorced six times.  Moreover, doctors had told her that because she had severe endometriosis, it was highly unlikely that she would ever be a mother.

With the news that she would probably never conceive, Marjorie decided to just live her life for herself.  She eventually hooked up with Michael J. Peter, a pioneer in the strip club business.  Peter founded Thee Dollhouse, a very successful chain of “gentlemen’s clubs” where high class strippers performed for big bucks.  Marjorie was a big success in the industry and soon found herself performing all over the world.  She eventually landed in Las Vegas, where she became a showgirl and eventually met Jay Orbin, a successful businessman who lived in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Orbin had been a fan of Marjorie’s and eventually asked for her hand in marriage. 

Having married and divorced half a dozen times, Marjorie wasn’t too keen on another walk down the aisle; besides, she wasn’t particularly attracted to Orbin.  But she finally relented when Jay Orbin offered to pay for infertility treatments.  She had always wanted to be a mother, even if she hadn’t been very successful as a wife.  The two got married and had a son named Noah.  Marjorie traded her exciting lifestyle as a dancer and stripper for a more conventional one as a Scottsdale housewife and mother. 

Apparently, Marjorie found her new lot in life comfortable, but very boring.  She was unfaithful to her husband.  And when married life grew to be as stifling as the Arizona heat, Marjorie decided she needed to do something to get out of it.  But now that she was a mother and too old to be a stripper, Marjorie had to make sure she didn’t lose the lush lifestyle to which she was accustomed. 

September 8, 2004 was Jay Orbin’s birthday.  It was also the day that he died.  His remains were eventually found in two blue Rubbermaid containers.  He had been shot, frozen, and dismembered.  Once Orbin’s remains were found, Marjorie was free to make a claim on his life insurance policy.  Not long after that, Marjorie Orbin came under suspicion for the murder of her husband, Jay Orbin.

My thoughts

I think Camille Kimball did a great job covering this sensational story out of Phoenix, Arizona.  I had not heard of Marjorie Orbin before I read What She Always Wanted,but I think her case is very intriguing and certainly worthy of a true crime book. 

Kimball really did a lot of research for this book and interviewed many people from Marjorie Orbin’s past, including her sister, Allison, old boyfriends and husbands, investigators, fellow inmates in jail, and of course, Jay Orbin’s family.  She gives a complete overview of Marjorie Orbin’s court case.  Aside from that, Kimball also presents a very complete overview of the events that put Marjorie Orbin in the position she’s in today.  The only thing that’s missing is photographs.  Despite the lack of photos, I found What She Always Wanted to be both a fast and fascinating read.   

There was one thing I didn’t like about this book.  Kimball is so thorough that she includes a lot of endnotes.  I read this book on a Kindle, so looking at the notes was not as easy as flipping pages.  Even so, I found the endnotes a bit distracting.  By the time I’d gotten to them I had forgotten a lot of what they were in reference to.  However, I’m sure Kimball included them in the interest of being very thorough and for those who prize thoroughness, the endnotes will be very welcome.  Sometimes Kimball’s writing is just a little melodramatic.  She sort of reminds me a bit of Nancy Grace, only with a word processor instead of a TV camera. 

Marjorie Orbin’s story is definitely titillating and a touch gruesome, though Kimball keeps her writing fairly tasteful.  While I hate to say I’m entertained by stories about murder, I will say that I always find well written true crime very interesting.  And What She Always Wanted is, in my opinion, well written true crime.  I recommend it to those who enjoy the genre as much as I do.

Camille Kimball’s Web site: