The Merced Pitchfork Murders

Fear 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.

On 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 checked.

Jessica 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.

Jessica 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.

That's 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.

In 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.

So Jessica climbed out the window to get help.

Too Late

No 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.

He 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.

Somehow 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.

Covered 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.

The 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.

Guns and Children

Most 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.

"John 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 agree.

Hilton – 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.

"He 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."

In 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.

No More Heroes

Hilton, 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.

Technically, 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.

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

Likewise, 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.

According 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."

The 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.

Media Bias

The 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.

A 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 intelligently.

“Where 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.

Tomorrow: Guns and Race

November 3, 2003