The Merced Pitchfork Murders

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stalks Merced, California — fear of the government. Because of that
fear, two innocent children died needlessly, victims of California's
"safe storage" gun laws. The mass media never told Americans
what really happened in Merced. But the tale of the Merced Pitchfork
Murders will not die. Through talk radio; through the Internet;
by word of mouth, the story gathers momentum with each passing year.
Like the tale of the Boston Massacre in 1770, passed from patriot
to patriot over tankards of ale, the Merced Pitchfork Murders live
and burn in the hearts of millions of Americans.

that terrible morning of August 23, 2000, fourteen-year-old Jessica
Carpenter had been left in charge to look after her four siblings,
Anna, 13; Vanessa, 11; Ashley, 9; and John, 7. Their father had
left for work. Their mother had taken the car to get the brakes

heard noises from the livingroom. Still half asleep, she rose from
bed and walked to the kitchen. Then she froze. There was a man in
the livingroom. A strange man. He was stark naked.

fled back to her bedroom and locked the door. Someone knocked. Then
he knocked again. And again. Jessica picked up the phone, but heard
no dial tone. The intruder had taken the receiver off the hook.

when Jessica thought of her father's gun. Mr. Carpenter had taught
Jessica and the other children to shoot. Jessica had passed her
hunter safety course and received her certificate at age 12. She
knew that her Dad always kept a .357 Magnum in his bedroom.

deference to California's safe storage laws, however, Mr. Carpenter
kept the pistol high up on a closet shelf, unloaded and out of reach
of the children. Even if she could somehow get to the other end
of the house to retrieve it, Jessica knew she would have to climb
up on something to reach the gun, scramble around for the bullets
and then load them. The man would be on her before she had a chance.

Jessica climbed out the window to get help.


one knows why 27-year-old Jonathon David Bruce, a part-time telemarketer
with a history of violence, drug abuse and mental illness, picked
on the Carpenters. We only know that, on the morning of August 23,
Bruce armed himself with a pitchfork and entered their home, barricading
himself inside with the five Carpenter children. Jessica escaped
through her bedroom window. But her little brother and three younger
sisters were left behind to face the madman.

attacked thirteen-year-old Anna first. Bruce entered her bedroom
and jabbed her with his pitchfork, yelling profanities while Anna
screamed and fought. "Stop it!" yelled Ashley, age 9.
"Don't hurt my sister!" Bruce turned to Ashley, and killed
her with his pitchfork.

Anna and Vanessa managed to escape out a window. Outside, the two
girls met Jessica. They ran to a neighbor's house — a man named
Juan Fuentes — and pounded on his door.

with blood and growing weaker by the moment, the wounded Anna pleaded
with Fuentes to get his gun and "take care of this guy."
But Fuentes declined. Instead, he allowed them to use his phone
to call 911.

sheriff's deputies came quickly, but they arrived too late. John
and Ashley were dead. Seven-year-old John had been killed while
he slept. When the deputies entered the house, the intruder charged
them with his pitchfork. They shot him 13 times, killing him on
the spot.

and Children

people reading these words will never have heard of the Carpenter
family or their ordeal. For Big Media, the only good gun story is
an anti-gun story. The Carpenters believed that California's
"safe storage" laws had robbed their children of the only
chance they had to fight back. This was not the sort of message
Big Media wanted to send about guns. National news organizations
swept the Pitchfork Murders under the rug. Only one local news story
in the Fresno Bee discussed the safe storage issue at all.
National news reports of the incident omitted all mention of guns
or gun laws.

Carpenter's children are probably dead because John obeyed the laws
of the state of California," says Reverend John Hilton, the
great-uncle of the Carpenter children. In Hilton's view, the tragedy
could have been prevented had the children been provided with easy
access to a loaded gun. Many of Hilton's friends and neighbors quietly

— who is pastor of a Pentecostal church in Merced — recalls that,
when he was growing up, his father always kept a loaded Colt .45
in a holster fastened to the pantry wall.

was away a lot of the time, working on construction jobs,"
says Hilton. "But he made sure that gun was available to us,
if we needed it. Without even looking, you could reach over and
get hold of the handle."

those days, it was common to let children use firearms. They learned
to use them early, safely and responsibly. And there were no school
shootings. Ever.

More Heroes

who was 66 years old when I interviewed him in December 2000, says
that he shot his first deer at age 7. By the time he was 10, he
was proficient with the Colt .45 and capable of defending his family
with it. Nowadays, Hilton's father would be putting himself at risk
of imprisonment by giving children access to a loaded gun. California
law imposes criminal penalties on gun owners if children are injured
or injure others while using their guns.

if Jessica or any of the other Carpenter children had managed to
get hold of their father's .357 Magnum and gun down the killer,
their father could have faced criminal charges. It was for fear
of the law that John Carpenter kept his gun unloaded and hidden
on a high closet shelf.

more afraid of the law than of somebody coming in for his family,”
Hilton told the Fresno Bee.

the neighbor who refused to intervene may well have hesitated out
of fear or uncertainty about the law. In today's legal environment,
heroism is not encouraged. The way to stay out of trouble is to
sit back and wait for the police — even if innocent children are
being slaughtered right next door.

to their mother, Tephanie Carpenter — whom I also interviewed —
every one of the surviving Carpenter children vowed that they would
have shot the killer if only they had had a gun handy. In fact,
the wounded girl Anna told her father that, when she saw the man
go after her sister Ashley, "I could have shot him right in
the back of the head."

children's bravery and fighting spirit were not considered newsworthy.
These elements were left out of the story by the wire services.
Instead, the Carpenters' ordeal was reduced to a depressing yarn
of five helpless children attacked by a maniac, a tale without meaning,
moral or purpose.


Carpenter case is but one example of a larger problem — the problem
of media bias. In the Carpenters' case, their tale ended tragically.
But many similar stories have a happier resolution. According to
a 1995 study by criminologist Gary Kleck, Americans use firearms
to defend themselves up to 2.5 million times each year — or nearly
7,000 times per day. In 11 out of 12 cases, the attacker
flees as soon as his intended victim brandishes the gun or fires
a warning shot. Such incidents form part of everyday life in America,
yet they rarely make the news.

study by the Media Research Center released in January 2000 showed
that television news stories calling for stricter gun laws outnumbered
those opposing such laws by a ratio of 10 to 1. When it comes to
guns and gun rights, we are hearing only one side of the story.
Small wonder that few Americans are equipped to debate the issue

the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe,” wrote
Thomas Jefferson in 1816. But when the press aligns itself with
special interests – such as the anti-gun lobby – critical information
is censored, and liberty itself hangs in the balance. “If a nation
expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and
never will be …” warned Jefferson.

Guns and Race

3, 2003

[send him mail] is a New York
Times-bestselling author and cyberjournalist. His latest book is
Seven Myths of Gun Control
from which this article is excerpted and adapted.
He writes for and runs his
own blog site


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