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.
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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