The Killer and Mrs. Johnson

A gruesome crime. A bizarre defense. Can a crusading author reopen her best friend's case?

For many years, it was widely accepted that people who killed their parents were ruthless psychopaths, in the vein of Denver's own John Gilbert Graham, who blew up his mother and 43 other airline passengers in 1955 in an attempt to collect her flight insurance. Even in the 1960s, the subject of child abuse was still so unmentionable that a sixteen-year-old named James Bresnahan chose to plead guilty to two counts of first-degree murder rather than divulge the horrific circumstances that had led him to kill his parents, a prominent Broomfield physician and his wife. (Informed of the facts of the case, which have never been made public, Governor Richard Lamm later commuted the youth's life sentence; shunning all media interviews, Bresnahan went on to become a doctor.)

The tide of public opinion began to change in the early 1980s, right around the time sixteen-year-old Richard Jahnke shotgunned his father through a garage door in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while his seventeen-year-old sister, Deborah, waited in the family home, armed with a rifle. Both teens were charged as adults, and the subsequent child-abuse defense attracted a flood of national media attention, from People and Rolling Stone to 60 Minutes.

I was one of the cadre of reporters who covered the Jahnkes' trials in Cheyenne. I later wrote a book about the case, The Poison Tree, which was published shortly before a slew of books about similar cases--culminating in the cynical showmanship of the Menendez trials and the inevitable backlash against the so-called abuse excuse. (According to one author, the kid-killer genre has become so popular that the Menendez boys plagiarized key portions of their testimony about parental abuse from other books on the subject, including mine.)

It's easy to draw facile comparisons between the Jahnke case and that of Jacob Ind. Both the Jahnkes and the Inds lived in pristine, upper-middle-class homes, the last place a casual observer would expect to find abused or neglected children. Both families were struggling with secret money troubles and the stress of the approaching Christmas season at the time the crimes occurred. And in each case, the kids had been exhibiting strange behavior and reaching out for help, in their own damaged way, to teachers and friends for months before the killings.

Yet the superficial similarities are less striking than the differences. Unlike Jacob Ind, Richard Jahnke actually reported his father for child abuse, and the authorities did nothing. Unlike Ind, Jahnke took the stand to explain how he'd tried to defend not only himself but his sister and his mother from a gun-toting, daughter-molesting maniac. Unlike Ind, Jahnke did not hire an assassin or try to arrange a hit on said accomplice from jail.

One more crucial difference: Richard Jahnke, whom I've now known for fifteen years, has always had a terrible knowledge of his own transgression, a sense of guilt that will probably be with him his entire life. The jury saw that and found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Wyoming governor Ed Herschler saw it and stepped in to commute his five- to fifteen-year prison sentence to three years in a youth facility; his sister received probation.

True, Ind claims to have been more severely abused than the Jahnkes; his supporters tend to cite the abuse as if it explains everything, including his seeming inability to grasp the enormity of his crime. Even a cold child has his allies--sometimes in the unlikeliest places.

One of the witnesses the Ind jury never heard was Cindy Sandoz, Pamela Jordan's older sister. Sandoz didn't have much contact with the Jordans when the children were small; she did, however, visit their home in Woodland Park frequently in the late 1980s, about five years before the murders. What she saw made a lasting impression on her.

"Their home was the only place I've ever been where I felt a real presence of evil," Sandoz says. "That's the only way I can describe it."

At the time, Sandoz was going through a divorce in Wyoming and was looking forward to reconnecting with her sister, who'd recently moved to Colorado from California. The two had not seen much of each other in years, and Sandoz was shocked at how much Pam had changed. Pam had been raised to be very feminine, Sandoz says, but now she seemed quite mannish in appearance--and unbearably aggressive and demanding. Kermode, who supposedly was on the wagon, was slipping into a tavern in Green Mountain Falls to get drunk. The couple exhibited no warmth toward each other; and whenever Jacob and Charles were around, it always seemed they were being punished for something.

"Pam was terribly verbally abusive to the children," Sandoz says. "Lots of profanity, lots of demeaning language--they couldn't do anything right. They couldn't eat, drink or brush their teeth without her permission. When they ate, she put the portions on their plates, and they weren't allowed to have any liquids with the meal. It was so odd to me."

Sandoz never saw Kermode beat Jacob or Charles, but she did see Pam slap them and send them to their rooms. Most of all, she remembers her sister's strong will and cruel tongue, which Jacob Ind insists was more terrible than any beating. "Pam wasn't anyone you could reason with," Sandoz says. "You couldn't even state an opinion. If she disagreed with you, you'd just better shut up."

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