The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Terror

The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Terror

by Alan Prendergast


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504049511
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 01/30/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 326
Sales rank: 637,437
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alan Prendergast is an award-winning journalist and author. His stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including the true crime collection Seven Sins (2012), The Best American Crime Reporting 2008 , and The Best American Sports Writing 2009. He has also written for Rolling Stone , Outside , Los Angeles Times Magazine , Men’s Journal , and other national publications, and is the author of The Poison Tree (1986), a book about child abuse and parricide that was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.

Read an Excerpt

The Poison Tree

A True Story of Family Terror

By Alan Prendergast


Copyright © 1986 Alan Prendergast
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4215-4


The city of Cheyenne stands on the high, windswept plains of southeastern Wyoming, at the junction of two interstate highways. Half an hour's drive from Nebraska and Colorado, it is a crossroads town, an outpost on the edge of vast and sparsely settled country — a web of railroad yards, motels, gas stations, fast-food franchises, state and federal offices, and military barracks.

Although it has been the state capital for almost a century, Cheyenne doesn't fit in with the popular image of Wyoming. The fabled land of Old Faithful, black bears, and Marlboro men working horseback beneath purple mountains' majesty — what locals still call "the real West" — lies hundreds of miles northwest. Cheyenne represents another side of Wyoming. The city was created out of the white man's need for a cheap stopover on the way to somewhere else, and that fact has colored much of its history. It is an encampment of fifty thousand people but home to very few. Many of its citizens are bureaucrats, blue-collar transients, upwardly mobile Midwesterners, or young families stationed at Warren Air Force Base, waiting for the next promotion, transfer, new job: a way out. Until something better comes along, they end each day in the shadow of the real West — along with the traveling salesmen, the truckers disengaged for the night, and the sons of the pioneers — all huddled together in a ring of bright lights against the encompassing darkness of the Great Plains.

In recent years, development in Cheyenne has marched north. Five miles north of downtown, outside the city limits but within the confines of Laramie County, several dozen houses are scattered along the rolling hills of sagebrush and prairie grass. The settlement is known as Cowboy Country. In the language of realtors, Cowboy Country is not a suburb but a "rural subdivision," a place for people who want to live out in the country but not too far from the comforts of town. The moderately expensive brick houses sit on two- to four-acre lots in splendid solitude. The more desirable properties hug the bare hillsides like upper-class bunkers, sheltered from the hammering wind and out of sight of one another. The view is one of empty skies and endless prairie.

Looking out upon a treeless hump of sagebrush every day, it is easy to pretend that you are alone here, that your neighbors don't exist, that Cheyenne itself has disappeared. The illusion can be particularly strong at night, when the streets that wind through Cowboy Country — unpaved, unlit roads with names like Lariat Loop, Bronco Trail, and Cowpoke Road — vanish into the hollow blackness of the prairie. At night the great "out there" closes in on you, and it is possible to feel trapped in the so-called wide open spaces of the real West.

It is even possible to feel that you have been imprisoned at the very edge of the world.

Snow came early to Cheyenne in the fall of 1982. It was nothing like the ferocious blizzards that routinely sweep across southern Wyoming in late winter and early spring, closing 1-80 and confounding the schedules of long-haul truckers. Still, the light dusting every few days muddied the streets and made the locals grateful for the sporadic sunshine. By the middle of November several inches of fresh snow covered the surrounding plains, and the persistent wind raised wisps of powder on the hilltops, like swirling jinn dancing on the bleached dunes of the Great American Desert.

The season encouraged early rising and quick action, for the days were getting shorter. November 16, a Tuesday, dawned brisk and clear, but morning sank quickly into afternoon, and the sun disappeared completely before five o'clock. Within minutes of its fall the temperature plunged below freezing, and a cold, crisp, moonless night gripped the prairie.

It was one of the blackest nights of the year. Cowboy Country was swathed in darkness — all except for one solitary strip of Cowpoke Road, where, shortly after sunset, one house was ablaze with lights from one end to the other.

The house was a spacious one-story of pale red brick, with white trim, white shutters, and a white four-poster facade, a vaguely neocolonial style popular in Cheyenne. There was one just like it, only bigger, up the road two hundred yards. A steep ridge behind the house hid the larger model and the rest of its neighbors from view. One of the last addresses to be erected on Cowpoke, one of the last to be sold, the house cast its light forlornly on the deserted hills around it.

On the east side of the house was an attached, two-car garage and a concrete driveway that sloped downward thirty feet to a wash of gravel that led to the road. Like the house, the driveway was flooded with light. Only two areas of the house remained dark: the garage itself and a large room on the south side, adjacent to the front entrance.

Deborah Jahnke paced distractedly in the darkened front room, returning every few moments to the window to gaze out upon the empty road. When she stood still her fingers flew up to her temples and brushed her hair back over and over, until she felt the need to pace again.

She was seventeen years old but struck some people as much younger. This was partly because of her size — she was two inches over five feet tall, with spindly arms and small hands — and partly a matter of her fidgetiness, her thick, unruly shock of brown hair, and the girlish clothes she sometimes wore; all of which gave her the aspect of a street urchin in a Truffaut movie. To others, though, she seemed much older than seventeen. Her figure was petite but well defined; her large, somber green eyes roamed everywhere in conversation and seemed to miss nothing; and there was a strained quality to her incessant talk, a forced cheerfulness in her manner, that suggested she carried with her the half-submerged troubles and anxieties of a much older woman.

Tonight Deborah was having difficulty persuading herself to leave the living room. Living room! The name was a joke. No one "lived" there, really, just as no one did family-type things in the "family room," and no one ever came in through the front door of the house. No one even went into the living room. There was no reason to, nothing there. When they moved in they didn't have enough furniture to fill this huge, stark, homely place; so sorry, kids, no living room. The room was dark and empty, and maybe that was why she felt safe and didn't want to come out, even though Richard had told her to stay away from there.

A sharp ringing broke into her thoughts. She stopped pacing to listen. Telephone in the kitchen. Don't answer the phone, Richard had said. Well, she could answer it if she wanted to. But that would be a mistake. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy's Law. Richard's Law. Her law, too.

Somewhere in the back of her mind she counted the rings. Two. Three. Four. She wandered into the kitchen. Five. The ringing stopped. She walked past the phone into the family room and stood there, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other.

Don't worry, Deborah. I'll take care of him.

She didn't like wearing shoes; as a rule, she didn't wear them in the house. They were off — zoom! — flung to the far reaches of her room as soon as she walked in the door. But she had them on now because Richard had told her to get ready. She knew she should have fetched her coat, too, but she didn't want to do that, not until it was absolutely necessary. Come on, her brother had said, first I'm going to get you out of here. But what the hell was taking him so long? Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, whatever can go wrong —


"In here," she called.

"I can't find the goddam car keys."

Richard Jahnke stood just inside the kitchen, studying his sister intently. He was fifteen months younger than Deborah but seven inches taller. His pale blue eyes were strangely accented by the dark lines beneath them. The natural shadowing made his eyes seem huge; sometimes it gave him a sunken, haunted look, as if he hadn't slept for days. Tonight his face was flushed, and there was something hard and glittering in his eyes that Deborah had never seen before.

"You're kidding me," she said.

"I can't find them anywhere," Richard said, an edge rising in his voice. "He must have hid them."

"Oh God."

"You're going to have to stay here," he said.

"Sure. Sure," she murmured. "Okay, whatever ..."

"You're going to stay, then?"

"Yeah. I guess," she said. She added quickly, "I mean — yeah. It's like you said: whatever can go wrong will go wrong. If I wasn't here, I guess that's when you'd need me."

"Okay." He started to leave, then stopped, still framed by the doorway. "Does that mean — you'll help me? Will you help me do it?"

She looked away from him.

"No. I can't, Richard. I can't. I'm sorry, but —"

"Okay. You wait here."

"— I'm not as strong as you are ..."

He was gone again, moving quickly toward Dad's bedroom at the east end of the house. She sat down on the couch and waited, trying to think of something, anything, to get her mind off what was happening. She hated this house, with its white walls and white posts and white trim; she'd always hated it. Countless times she'd imagined what she would do with it if she were given the chance ... what wonderful colors she'd give it ... tear up the brown carpets, throw out the heavy Spanish furniture, redo the whole place in Art Deco maybe ...

It was no use. She could hear Richard going wild in Dad's room, pulling rifles out of the gun cabinet and ammunition out of the big box by the bed.

She wondered if she should go talk to him, but she couldn't think of anything more to say. She had never seen him so upset before. He was trying so hard to take charge, he was being so ... active. He had been like this ever since Mom and Dad left and she found him cleaning up the mess in the kitchen. Deborah told him how truly, utterly sick she was of all this crap, how she couldn't wait until she was out of here and off to college. Richard told her she was dreaming, it was time to do something. And he went on and on about Mom, and the things she told Dad he had said to her that he didn't even say; how the hell could she do that, he'd had enough of both of them. (Deborah had agreed with him. It was about time he saw that Mom was part of it, too. Besides, that was a pretty shitty thing for Mom to do; Deborah knew that her brother didn't say those things.) And then Richard took the peach carnations out of the vase, the ones Dad had brought home and Mom had gushed over as if they were some kind of rare orchid or something, and he threw them in the trash compactor. He muttered something like, She's on his side now — spat it out, really, his voice so strangled that Deborah could hardly understand him. He was breathing hard, his hands shaking with fear or pain or maybe simple rage. She asked him what he was going to do, and he told her, Don't worry, Deborah, he's never going to touch you again ...

Richard reappeared in the doorway. He had a rifle in each hand and a revolver in a holster on his belt. He held out the rifles for her inspection.

"Which one do you want?" he asked.

Deborah looked from one weapon to the other. They were both big, black, ugly things, with long, evil snouts. One did seem smaller and more attractive than the other, but after a few moments she shrugged.

"The one that kicks the least," she said.

Tuesdays are busy at the Casa de Trujillo in Cheyenne. The business comes on Tuesday because the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, casting patrons adrift in a town not known for its Mexican food. At 5:30 P.M. on Tuesday, the sixteenth of November, the Casa was almost full, and Richard and Maria Jahnke did not have a reservation. Fortunately, a table had just been cleared at the back.

That suited Maria just fine. She settled into her chair with a sigh of relief. It had been one hell of a day, buster, what with the house a mess and Richie smarting off and Big Richard losing that famous temper of his — on this of all days, mind you, the twentieth anniversary of the night she met him — and then that business at the light at Yellowstone and Prairie on the way over here; how did that old man get so old running red lights like that, she thought for sure they were gonna die this time. But no such luck, my friend. Richard spun the Volkswagen to a screaming halt in the middle of the intersection and honked at the other driver and unburdened himself of the torrent of bad words he kept ready for such occasions. Then they were on their way again, like bats out of hell. The last thing they needed now was a wait for a table, that would only get her husband started again, as waiting for anything always did. Better they should have this little corner to themselves.

They had hardly ordered, it seemed, when their food was brought to them. The service was amazing, Maria thought, considering the number of people in the place. She was glad that they hadn't been given a table closer to the other diners. That was another thing that set Richard off; if there were people nearby, sooner or later he would find one that offended him somehow. He would nudge her and urge her to take note of someone's table manners: Look at that pig, isn't that disgusting? Look, Maria, take a look for yourself. Or he would catch someone glancing their way and glare back at him, as if to say, You looking at my wife? You looking for trouble, asshole?

Can you believe it? As if anyone would be ogling the wife of Richard Chester Jahnke; as if anyone even noticed her. Several times when they went out together, Maria had tried to picture what she and Richard must look like to the rest of Cheyenne. It was a painful thought, but she had managed it: here's this dumpy little housewife in slacks, a real beauty queen, not even forty and already worn out; and this jowly, balding, fussy little man with the big belly, coming on like Mr. Macho Mustachio in his brown leather jacket, chewing on his cigar, trying to stare them all down with those huge, pale blue eyes. Who was going to care? He was lucky people didn't laugh in his face.

They said little after the food came. When they were almost finished, Richard asked her what was bothering her. He seemed to want some assurance that she was having a good time; after all, it was their anniversary. His mood was perilously difficult to read at times like this. Like all true romantics — and Maria herself was one, she knew all about it — he was so darned unpredictable. After the big fight with the kids at the house, and the near-accident on the way here, and all the cursing for the rest of the drive, Maria didn't want to get him started again. Yet she knew she had to say something.

"I can't help it," she said. "I'm going crazy in that house."

It was her usual opening gambit. When things got out of hand at home she threw up her hands and told them all to stop it, she was going crazy. Not that anyone seemed to hear. She slaved like a dog for all of them and yet no one paid any attention to her; for all they cared she could go bonkers or kill herself.

"Those little bastards," her husband said. "They make me sick."

"Please, Richard."

"I can't wait for them to get the hell out. You heard me, didn't you? I told him, 'You don't like it here? Then leave. Who's stopping you?' And if she wants to go with him, fine. Good riddance."

"Do you have that letter that came today?" she asked.

"Oh yeah, I was going to look at that," he said, pulling a piece of paper from his jacket.

"It's from the church."

"I can read."

"They're starting this counseling program for families," Maria began, choosing her words carefully. "I think it sounds interesting. Let's face it, Richie and Deborah need help. I need help" — the last thing she wanted to say was you need help — "we all need help."

"Little bastards. They screw everything up."

"Richard, I'm tired," she said, trying to head off another round of swearing. "I'm tired of living the way we do. All the fighting, all the yelling. We don't have a family life, we really don't, and I can't stand it anymore. I really do need some counseling."


Excerpted from The Poison Tree by Alan Prendergast. Copyright © 1986 Alan Prendergast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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