Merced pitchfork murders

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The Merced pitchfork murders were a home invasion and double homicide comitted by Jonathon David Bruce on the morning of August 23, 2000, in Merced, California, a San Joaquin Valley farming community 130 miles southeast of San Francisco. The perpetrator was armed only with a spading fork, a type of pitchfork.

The case is often cited by gun rights advocates as an example of both the dangers and unintended consequences of safe storage laws.[1]

Unfortunately, 17 states now have these so-called safe storage laws. The problem is, you see no decrease in either juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides when such laws are enacted, but you do see an increase in crime rates.
Dr. John Lott, Yale Law School[2]
Child murderer Jonathon David Bruce in an undated police photo.

Contents

[edit] The murders

On the morning of August 23, 2000, Tephanie Carpenter left her Vassar Avenue home and took her car to a nearby garage to have the brakes serviced while her husband, John Carpenter (no relation to the filmmaker but the similarity of names is ironic, as described below), was at work. Tephanie had left her youngest children — Anna, 13; Vanessa, 11; Ashley, 9; and John William, 7 — under the supervision of her eldest child, 14-year-old Jessica. Prior to leaving, she had ensured that the family's guns were securely locked away in a newly acquired gun cabinet in order to comply with recently passed safe storage laws.

At an unknown time before the children awoke, and armed with a pitchfork, Jonathon David Bruce jimmied the lock on the garage door and entered the house after cutting the phone line[3]. He then proceeded to rearrange the furniture in such a way as to barricade himself and the children inside the house.

Jessica awoke to find the naked Bruce in the family's living room, pulling on his pants. Her first thought was of her father's .357 pistol which he kept (or did, until recently) in the parents' bedroom. But that was "safely stored," so Jessica slipped back into her bedroom, locked the door and tried to call police. The phone was dead. Having noticed her, Bruce began banging on the door, demanding to be let in. With Bruce at the door and no phone, Jessica took the only option she had left: she climbed out her window and sprinted across a farm field to the nearest neighbor’s house.

Bruce then turned to another bedroom where he told Anna, 13, to lie down, before inflicting numerous defensive wounds as he attacked her with the pitchfork. He was then distracted when the youngest girl, Ashley, burst in and yelled at him to stop. As he turned his attention to Ashley, Vanessa gathered up Anna and began to haul her towards the laundry room at the end of the hall.

They managed to make it to the laundry room and lock themselves inside, after Ashley bought them time by wrapping herself around one of the attacker's legs, shouting to her sisters to "Go, go, get away."[4] Even after suffering severe wounds as Bruce stabbed her with the pitchfork, the girl refused to let go. Vanessa and Anna managed to escape out a window after Bruce had approached the door, saying "let me in, I’ll be nice to you." As they fled form the house, they could still hear Ashley screaming[5].

Having found the nearest neighbor's house empty, Jessica ran to the next, finding resident Juan Fuentes at home.

When the 14-year-old girl ran to a nearby house to escape the pitchfork-wielding man attacking her siblings, she didn't ask her neighbor to call 9-1-1. She begged him to grab his rifle and "take care of this guy."
the Fresno Bee[6]

According to numerous accounts, including that of the children's grandmother, Mary Carpenter (see below), Fuentes refused to intervene directly, out of fear of criminal prosecution. Instead, Jessica had to settle for calling 911.

There’s somebody in my house who I don’t know. [He’s] stabbing my brother and sister with a pitchfork... he’s going to kill them.
From the transcript of Jessica's 911 call

When deputies arrived, they entered the house through a front window and saw Bruce charging at them with the pitchfork. Bruce was promptly shot 13 times and expired, in a taxpayer money-saving fashion, at the scene.

Ashley and 7-year-old John William Carpenter were found dead in their beds. The boy apparently had been asleep during the attack. He was stabbed 46 times, with the majority of the wounds being to the chest, neck, and head. The worst of Bruce's fury, though, was reserved for nine year old Ashley; the little girl who had dared to get between the killer and what he wanted. Ashley had 138 puncture wounds; 71 of them from her clavicle to her jaw. The killer had tried, unsuccessfully, to behead her with the pitchfork.

Anna suffered defensive wounds on her arms and hands from Bruce's attack on her. Jessica had injuries to her feet from sprinting barefoot through fields at top speed. Both recovered from their injuries. Vanessa escaped the encounter with no injuries of the physical nature.

[edit] The killer

27-year-old Jonathon David Bruce was identified through fingerprint records from a 1999 arrest for being under the influence of methamphetamines and fighting with police. Despite this, speculation that he was under the influence of narcotics or similar substances at the time of the murders proved to be incorrect. He was not under the influence of any substance at the time; toxicological testing during his autopsy revealed no signs of drugs or alcohol other than trace amounts THC, the active ingredient in marijuana[7]. There was no connection between the family and the attacker[5].

Investigators were never able to conclusively establish any single motive for Bruce's actions, but some aspects of his existence are known.

He was a former part-time telemarketer and had recently been evicted from the duplex in which he lived. He had a history that included hard drug use, resisting arrest, kidnapping, uttering death threats, mental illness and domestic abuse. He was also known to be openly hostile towards children.

He was a fan of the Halloween franchise of slasher films by John Carpenter. It should be noted that, for all the speculation that the murders were somehow connected to the fact that the children's father has the same name, there has been NO evidence put forward to support this wild notion. Bruce's motive was and remains unknown.

[edit] Safe storage

This case is often cited by gun rights advocates as an example of the dangers and unintended consequences of safe storage laws. This is because a recently enacted California law required all firearms to to be made inaccessible to children when adults are not immediately present. In spite of the fact that each of the children knew how to shoot and had been extensively trained in gun safety, they were unable to access their parents' guns for their defense: they had been secured in a locked gun case in compliance with the new law.

As Yale Law School Senior Research Scholar Dr. John Lott — author of the book More Guns, Less Crime — pointed out: "The problem is, you see no decrease in either juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides when such laws are enacted, but you do see an increase in crime rates."[2].

Had the guns been accessible in a timely fashion, it is undeniable that they would have changed the odds in favor of the children. At fourteen years of age, the eldest, Jessica, would almost certainly have been capable of effectively using her parents' shotgun or her father's .357 Magnum pistol to incapacitate their attacker. In the words of the children's great-uncle, the Rev. John Hilton, "If only [Jessica] had a gun available to her, she could have stopped the whole thing. If she had been properly armed, she could have stopped him in his tracks."[6] Even nine-year-old Ashley could have have stopped Bruce, using one of the family's small caliber firearms, had she been given the opportunity.

The inescapable fact is that, had the children been armed, they would at least have had some chance of saving themselves, instead of having to wait for the police to do it.

[edit] Mary Carpenter

In the aftermath of the murders, Mary Carpenter (John Carpenters mother and the children's grandmother) became an outspoken advocate of armed defense and a staunch opponent of so-called "safe storage" laws. One of her public appearances is documented in the YouTube videos below (somewhat poor audio quality):

Mary Carpenter In Her Own Words Pt1
Mary Carpenter In Her Own Words Pt2

Mary Carpenter has also become known in the firearms community for her letter writing efforts. Arguably her most well known effort, known simply as "the Mary Carpenter letter," was sent to the North Carolina General Assembly in 2001, when the Assembly was debating whether or not to enact safe storage laws of their own. In it, Mrs. Carpenter makes abundantly clear just what she thinks of trigger locks and mandatory storage regulations.

Mary Carpenter
April 20,2001

North Carolina General Assembly
To Whom It May Concern,

To my understanding you are debating the passage of laws requiring trigger locks and mandatory storage of guns. I am a second generation resident of the State of California, a mother and a grieving grandmother. I wish to express to you how trigger locks and mandatory storage laws in the State of California affected my family. I hope my testimony may save someone in your state from sharing the pain we must now endure for the remainder of our lives. No law you can pass will keep the irresponsible from shooting accidents or a felon from stealing a gun. I am enclosing a portion of a letter I wrote to my own state legislators concerning the constant progression of laws restricting our guns in my state.

Depending on whether or not you truly care, you may or may not recognize my name. I am the paternal grandmother of the two children who were brutally murdered inside their rural Merced California home on August 23, 2000 by a stranger with a pitchfork.

Instead of suing gun manufacturers, I am of the opinion it is our lawmakers who need to be sued. It was you who created the laws that kept my grandchildren from being able to defend themselves with any weapon greater than their bare hands. All of my son's children had been trained in the use of firearms but were unable to get to their Dad's weapon because of California State Law.

You, who have CCW permits or armed body guards, or both expect me to face a society gone mad because of drug altered brains and lax laws on the perpetrators of crime? You had no room in your prisons for the killer of my grandchildren though his wife had reported to the police in Mojave California in June of 1997 that he had forced her and their infant son into his car (kidnapping) while living in southern California? At that time she also reported how she had managed to escape from him in Mojave after he held a gun to her head (assault with a deadly weapon) threatening to kill her and their one-month-old child?

Though more recently she had given to the Dos Palos California Police Dept. the tape from her message minder threatening to kill her present husband? Though he had assaulted a police officer while resisting arrest for drug charges? Though he had violated his parole by not appearing at his hearing and they had a warrant out for his arrest? Though they knew where he lived, and also his mother and grandmother, yet failed to pick him up? Will you then find room for my son in your prisons should his fourteen year old daughter have access to his gun while she is babysitting her siblings?

There is a growing list, in my area alone, of people (mostly women) who might still be alive had they not been in a state where the use of a gun was prohibited.

Juli Sund, Carole Sund, Selvina Pelosso, Joie Armstrong, Ashley and John William Carpenter to name a few. Lawmakers talk big about a woman's right to choose yet don't allow me the very basic right to choose to defend myself? If teachers were allowed to carry a concealed weapon to school you would see the school shootings disappear. The same is true with the citizen on the street. The reason is, these killers are cowards. You can tell by their choice of victims. They operate best where they know there are no guns.

Look at your child tonight and imagine him or her with their eyes jabbed out, their skulls splintered, their brains pierced, and their spines broken with the heavy tines of a spading fork. In defending her sisters to the death with the only weapon you allowed her, Ashley had 138 puncture wounds. Twenty-nine of them were on the right side of her face, five on the back of her head, and thirty-seven to her chest and lower neck. (Obviously he was trying to behead her.) She was nine years old. While committing no crime greater than sleeping in his parents bed, in his own house, John William, 7 years old, was stabbed 46 times, with most of them in the chest, neck, and head. Depending on the condition of your heart, you may or may not feel a small measure of the pain my family and I must endure for the remainder of our lives.

Now, imagine all the gun laws you can dream up and honestly admit whether or not they would have stopped such a mad dog as this. This man was a total stranger to the family, and other than a trace of marijuana, was not on drugs at the time. However, by the testimony of his wife and girlfriend, he was a drug user who became frightening whenever he used them. All your imagined gun laws will do is insure someone's children will die again. Take a drive downtown and see for yourself all the drug addled brains.

You may declare gun free zones, but you cannot declare killer free zones. This tragedy has made me realize I am not even safe in my locked home, my barn, or my backyard. I dare you to request the autopsy reports of John William & Ashley Danielle Carpenter done on August 28,2000 from Sheriff Tom Sawyer of the Merced County Sheriffs Dept. Also ask him for the police interview with the killer's wife and girlfriend telling about his drug use and devil worship. Ask Detective Parsley about his fetish for horror movies produced by a John Carpenter, (no relation to us), and one he especially liked, that we have learned depicts a killing done with a pitchfork.

His last employment was as a telemarketer in Merced. If you have an honest bone in your body you will see this country is in desperate need of a change of heart not the gun laws that have been in place for over two hundred years. All the gun laws you can imagine cannot change the heart of a killer and you know it. Until man's heart is changed, we will be like sheep led to the slaughter without our weapons of defense.

May you stand before God and man as my two precious grandchildren's killer if you pass any more gun legislation that will make me a felon should I own a handgun or any other gun for that matter.

Sincerely,

Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter, in a letter to the North Carolina General Assembly


[edit] References

  1. Erich Pratt, "When Gun Safety Locks Kill," Gun Owners of America website
  2. 2.0 2.1 Vin Suprynowicz, "Deaths In Merced," Las Vegas Review-Journal, 9/24/2000
  3. Some accounts disagree with this, saying that Bruce had merely lifted another phone in the house off the hook. The majority, however, explicitly refer to the line having been "cut," not an extraordinary feat for a person with even rudimentary knowledge.
  4. Mike Conway, "Sorrowful Farewell," The Fresno Bee, 8-31-2000
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brian Melley, "Pitchfork Killings Leave Father Stunned," ABC News, 8-25-2000
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kimi Yoshino, "No easy answers," The Fresno Bee, 8-26-2000
  7. "Pitchfork Killer Not On Drugs," Central Coast News, 9-1-2000

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