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Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge Hardcover – June, 1986

4.6 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Prendergast, who for Rolling Stone covered the trials of teenagers Richard and Deborah Jahnke in Wyoming for the 1982 murder of their father, has produced an objective, affecting account of the case. A borderline psychotic, Jahnke senior subjected his wife and children to abuse both physical and psychological and, for a time, made sexual advances toward his daughter. Their residence became a house of terror, with the mother the most terrified of all, according to Prendergast. The children's feeble and intermittent attempts to acquaint outsiders with their situation were of no avail. Finally, with his sister's semiconnivance, Richard shot his father. The trials of the two, held separately, showed American justice at its worst: a prosecutor more interested in convictions than in finding the truth, and two inept and hidebound judges, one of whom would not admit evidence of child abuse. Deborah's sentence has now been commuted to one year of probation and Richard has been released on parole. A searing, convincing indictment. Literary Guild alternate.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

After suffering years of paternal abuse, 16-year-old Richard Jahnke, aided by his sister, Deborah, shot his father to death at their Cheyenne, Wyoming home. This case received national attention as a segment on 60 Minutes and as a TV movie, Right To Kill? The Jahnke children won the sympathy of many, including the author. They were both convicted of voluntary manslaughter but are now free. Prendergast had the full cooperation of the Jahnkes in writing this thorough account. Essentially, it is a story of a brutal father who drove his son to murder and of the failure of the community to respond to cries for help. This readable book should be a popular choice for most libraries. Literary Guild alternate selection. Gregor A. Preston, Univ. of California Lib., Davis
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Pub Group (T); First Edition edition (June 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399131388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399131387
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,907,985 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have no explanation for why this book has only three reviews on Amazon. Maybe it was written before Amazon reviews became popular and it simply slid by without adequate notice. I hope interest will revive because, as another reviewer stated, this is one of the most well written true crime stories I've read. Richard Jahnke was the kind of father who would scare the daylights out of any family. He was not only cruel and sadistic but so hardened that no glimmer of mercy ever peeked through the hard-bitten exterior.

In my opinion, this is as skillfully researched as anything written by Olsen, Rule, McGinnis or Bledsoe. If you're captivated by the evil that men do and how they are brought to justice, this is a book you must add to your library.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is very well done! No one deserves to be murdered but, on the other hand, no child deserves to be abused by the child's parent--ever. When the system let the children down, the children took matters into their own hands. The two teens murdered their father, a murder that shocked Wyoming 20 years ago and has not since been forgotten.

Prendergast accurately describes the 2 teen's trial and appeal court proceedings for the murder of their father, while providing insight into the family's dysfunctional dynamics not available in the court records. Through the mother and children, the reader learns how Richard Jahnke had routinely inflicted physical, emotional and sexual abuse in varying degrees on his wife, daughter and son.

Much of the author's information came from the family, sources which are not reliable depending on how and what each one chose to recall. Each one's recollection was clearly skewed by that person's age, grief, anger, abuse, shame, and family position. However, the author never loses objectivity in telling the story through their eyes and their insights.

I knew how the story ended, but I couldn't put the book down--it IS that well written! Highly recommend to anyone from Wyoming or interested in the state of mind which exists behind patricide.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1982 after a lifetime of his physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing his family, IRS agent, Richard C. Jahnke, was shot to death by his son Richie in Cheyenne, Wy. Author Alan Pendergast's THE POISON TREE is the study of the case and of the Jahnke family which also included mother/wife, Maria, and daughter/sister, Deborah.
I found the book to be a fast and interesting read about an interesting case and also about the concept of murder as self-defense as it relates to years of ongoing abuse rather than to a specific and immediate incident. There are many positive and one - to me - glaring negative.

Pendergast's research is outstanding and provides an in depth sturdy of a family gone all wrong. The book contains no filler or repetition and, as in all good true crime, the trial is discussed judiciously providing new and relevant information and eschewing tedium.
The author has clearly made the effort to write a good book here and has to a great extent succeeded.

But there is one major complaint I have with this book. Pendergast can be, and usually is, a talented professional writing for adults. But he repeatedly makes use of two devices, commonly found in lesser true crime and lesser writing that I found highly off-putting.
The first is omniscience. Pendergast was apparently privy to the thoughts of numerous of the participants and rather than describe their attitudes or feelings, he presents it with a stream of consciousness rendering of those thoughts:
At the police station, "(Maria) was starting to spend the rest of her life answering questions. Then the two officers stepped out of the room to confer in private. She wondered if they would let her go now.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Though i read the book the first time about 25 years ago, near the time the tragedy happened, I found the book still very interesting. Most of the book I remembered but I liked the review.I believed the book was well researched and written as accurately as possible. A good book on the subject of child abuse and denial.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well I have to say I lovedthe book because I lived there at the time and was a police officer myself. The detective named Bomar in the book - I was married to him when this occurred. We have a signed copy of the book by the author but he kept that in the divorce . So now I have my own copy. Not signed but able to read again about all of the deputies, attorneys , and other persons who were a part of my life back then. It made 30 years ago come back to today. Mr. Pendergast wrote truthfully and with good back ground. The movie was a farce of idiocy but the book captured the personalities of each person involved. I'll be writing my own book soon about those days. And I promised Bomar the ex will be built a little differently. But I'm writing fiction. This is a story that should not have happened. But in health care as I am I can't say it doesn't still happen.
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