In a heartbreaking, shocking edition of After Hours AM/The Criminal Code — Wednesdays 9-11pE with hosts Joel Sturgis, Eric Olsen, and our secret weapon, forensic psychologist Dr. Clarissa Cole — we speak with legendary True Crime journalist Alan Prendergast about his classic book, The Poison Tree, chronicling the infamous Richard Jahnke child abuse-and-parricide case. The book was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best True Fact Crime and has recently been republished as an ebook by Open Road Media. We speak with Alan in the 10pE hour; in the 9pE hour, Clarissa leads a review of the week’s scintillating True Crime news, leading to the conclusion that some people are mean.
One cold November night, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, fifteen-year-old Richard Jahnke Jr., ROTC leader and former Boy Scout, waited for his parents to return from celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the night they met. When his father got out of the car, the boy blasted him through the heart with a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun. Richard’s seventeen-year-old sister, Deborah, was sitting on the living room couch with a high-powered rifle—just in case her brother missed.
Was it cold-blooded murder? Or self-defense?
Richard Jahnke Sr., special agent for the IRS, gun collector, and avid reader of Soldier of Fortune, had been subjecting his wife, Maria, and both children to harrowing abuse—physical, psychological, and sexual—for years. Deborah and her brother conspired to finally put a stop to it themselves. But their fate was in the hands of a prejudiced and inept judicial system, and only public outcry could save them.
Alan Prendergast’s stories about the justice system, historic crimes such as the JonBenet Ramsey case, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have appeared in a wide range of 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 recently appeared on the CNN program How It Really Happened: Who Killed JonBenet?
Since 1995, Prendergast has been a staff writer for the Denver newsweekly Westword. He was awarded the 2015 Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award by Ball State University for his article, “Bloody Ludlow,” which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the worst labor conflict in American history, was the cover story in the April 14, 2014 issue of Westword,
Alan served as consultant and principal reporter for a CBS News one-hour documentary about the Columbine shootings, hosted by Ed Bradley, which aired on 60 Minutes and was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism. His investigations of life and death inside high-security prisons have also received national recognition; Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, has called Prendergast “the best prison writer in America who’s never done time.”
Prendergast began his career as an office assistant at The New Yorker. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University, where he studied as a Kiplinger Fellow. He has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, NPR, the BBC and numerous other television and radio programs to discuss his work and teaches journalism at Colorado College. He lives in Denver, Colo.