On a Windswept Wyoming Prairie An Abused Son Kills a Father to Bring Peace to a Family

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

On a dark, cold evening last November, a Cheyenne, Wyo. housewife named Maria Gonzales Jahnke, 40, sat in the passenger seat of a VW Beetle while her husband, Richard, got out to open the garage door. The couple was returning from a dinner to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the day they met. Her 38-year-old husband, a short, balding, tough-faced 200-pounder, was an IRS investigator who rarely left the house without a gun.

Suddenly the world exploded. A shattering burst of shotgun fire from inside the garage tore slug holes the size of quarters through the glass-and-wood-paneled garage door and ripped into her husband's body, killing him instantly. Shrieking in horror, Maria leaped from the car. Inside the dark garage, the couple's slight, tormented 16-year-old son hugged the 12-gauge shotgun to his chest. "I heard a ringing in my ears," he would later say, "only it wasn't a ringing, but my mother's shrieks. I couldn't bear to have her see me, to point her finger at me."

Richie left the garage and raced into the living room where his 17-year-old sister, Deborah, sat on the couch next to a high-powered rifle—to defend herself in case her brother had missed and was cut down by their father. "Let's get out of here," her brother said. The kids escaped through a rear window. At his trial Richie testified that moments before his parents returned home, Deborah had entered the garage to ask, "What about Mom? Are you going to shoot her too?" "No," he replied. "Shoot Mom," he quoted his sister assaying.

Maria Jahnke's children had widowed her. Both of them faced possible life imprisonment: Richie, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy, and Deborah, for conspiring with him to kill their father. It was difficult to imagine the agonies of this short, heavy, shy and soft-spoken woman, who sat outside the courtroom where her son's trial began on Feb. 14. Her short red hair was freshly permed, and at times she appeared offensively blissful, surrounded by a coterie of protective women friends. Few knew that these were the first friends in Maria's life since she had met her husband two decades earlier. She entered the courtroom only to testify for the defense and hear the closing arguments and verdict.

When she did speak up on the witness stand, it was in a barely audible voice. "My husband," she said, "put on a good appearance to the outside world, but inside that house it was pure hell." She was a battered wife; her children had been physically and emotionally abused since they were 2 years old. Her volatile husband surrounded himself with an arsenal of 32 rifles, shotguns and pistols. "He loved his guns," she said. "That's all he lived for—his guns." Under cross-examination by District Attorney Tom Carroll, Maria was asked why she had stood by and watched her husband do such terrible things. "I was afraid for the children and myself," she replied. Didn't she also have a temper? Didn't she also contribute to the abuse of her children? "Mr. Carroll," she replied, "I'm no angel. When you live under such terrible fear, you do things you are ashamed of." She also insisted that her husband had good qualities: He cared about the children's education, he was very intelligent, he remembered everyone's birthdays.

It was Richie, not his mother, who provided the most shattering testimony about life inside the eight-room ranch-style house on Cowpoke Road, a house removed by half an acre from the nearest neighbor, offering a desolate view of windswept prairie. For three hours he expounded on a lifetime of rage and hurt: "He hurt me inside. He hated me so much, he just wanted to make me miserable. He beat me all my life. He wanted to hurt me; he wanted to hurt my family. He hit me with a leather belt—'Stop crying, you baby, or I'll really give you something to cry about.' He'd only stop when his nose began to bleed; he had high blood pressure.

"He used to beat my mother; sit on her, pounding away, her mouth foaming with blood, calling her 'slut' and 'a fat spic.' Last year when my sister got acne, my dad accused her of not washing. He dragged her into the bathroom and scrubbed her face so hard she began to bleed. He showed her how to brush her teeth. He scraped her gums so hard, they bled. He pushed my sister against the wall and to discipline her, he'd grope her breasts. I once saw him reach into my sister's pants and feel around. My mother saw it too, but pretended she didn't. Dad would tuck Deborah into bed; once I looked into the room and saw him lying on top of my sister. I told my mother about it. She got mad at my sister and said it was her fault for wearing shorts. When I was very young I had terrible asthma. Dad got mad at me if I coughed, so I'd run into my room and cough into a pillow. One time, when I was 6, he filled my plate with so much food and forced me to eat it until I threw up.

"I hurt so much. My parents were always arguing. They slept in different rooms; it was a relationship without love. We lived without love, without compassion—it made me so inhuman.... were all trapped. There was no place to go. I remember my mother praying aloud that he'd be hit by a car—but it never happened. She wanted to leave him, but she was scared. My sister thought she would leave the house and go away to college. He said, no—he spent all his money on guns and a house he couldn't afford. I told my sister that night, 'Don't worry, Deborah, I'm going to protect you. He's never going to hurt you again.' She was going crazy—she was being hurt so much. She needed to be free. I had to free my mother and myself...free them from the pain and misery my father had caused us, and would always cause us."

On the sixth day of the trial Richie's lawyer, James Barrett, summed up the case for the jury by declaring that the murdered father "had murdered his son by inches, bits and pieces, day by day, week by week. That's the crime—slow torture. The father was the aggressor for 14 years against his son, daughter and wife; for the first time, hear what happened to this boy and believe what he said. He did tell the truth." The judge instructed the panel that to be acquitted for self-defense, the youth "must have had reasonable grounds to believe he was in imminent danger of serious bodily harm for which he could save himself only by using deadly force against his assailant."

Maria Jahnke sat in the front row of the court at 9:30 on a blustery Saturday night when the seven-woman, five-man jury announced its verdict after seven hours of deliberation. Several women jurors wept, an indication that their hearts had been overruled by their minds. A human life, no matter how vile, had been taken. Maria heard her son convicted of manslaughter but acquitted of conspiracy charges. She saw him slip off his gold ID bracelet and hand it to his lawyer, bury his face in his hands, then quickly whisper to Jim Barrett: "They did the best they could." She saw two sheriff's deputies approach the defense table. Before Richie was led from the courtroom, he paused to hug his mother. "Stay strong," he whispered. Maria collapsed in grief. Cradled in the arms of her friends, she hurled an impotent curse against her dead husband. "May he roast in hell forever. That man always won out against us. He won this time, too."

The next day, a bright Sunday, Maria had regained her composure, after visiting Richie in the jail next to the courthouse. He will be sentenced within a month; the judge has requested extensive reports from various social service agencies. Most of Cheyenne hopes that Richie will be released on probation rather than face a prison term and that local prosecutors will drop their charges against Deborah before her trial this month.

When a reporter drops by the house on Cowpoke Road, the visit is a grand occasion—Maria says it's the first time since her marriage that a stranger had ever been invited inside her home. Not once did she ever entertain. Not only did Richard Jahnke have no friends to invite home, his widow recalls, he actively sought out confrontations. "My husband," she says, "used to prowl this neighborhood with his guns at night, hoping to stumble on a prowler. 'Oh, Maria,' he'd say, 'how I wish someone would try to break in so I could blow his head off.' " She's standing at the kitchen stove making coffee and points to the round table in the breakfast nook. There are three chairs. The one nearest the counter was Richie's chair. Deborah's was next to his. Maria's faced the window. She points to a spot 10 feet away, just inside the living room. "My husband ate there on a small tray table, monitoring us. If the kids scraped their forks on their plates, he'd go berserk. So they ate with plastic spoons. Poor Richie, he couldn't even go to the bathroom. My husband would pound on the door and shout, 'You've got one minute!' And he'd begin to count to 60."

She met her husband when he was 18, an enlistee in the U.S. Army on leave in Puerto Rico, where she was born. She was 20, and in her wedding pictures she was stunning. "He was so sweet, so loving, such a clean, ambitious boy—the man I had hoped to meet. I was an abused child—my mother used to beat me with her high-heeled shoes; sometimes they embedded in my flesh. She threw me down cellar steps. He had a tough time, too. But the first years with him were wonderful. Then he was sent to Korea for two years. I had two small infants on my hands and we were broke. He wrote every day, but when he returned he had changed. He began to beat me, and when I threatened to leave him he said, 'No other man will ever have you. I'll find you and I'll kill you.' I knew he meant it. He wanted me to devote myself entirely to him and resented the children. He was sick, and got worse and worse, and I wanted to love and do right to all of my family, but I was caught in the middle between all of them. The children hated me for being his ally; he hated me for being their protector....It was so sick, and I would lash out at all of them."

In the living room, seated on the couch where months earlier her daughter had sat with a loaded rifle, Maria confides: "I swear by all that's holy, when those shots rang out, I never thought Richie was shooting. I thought that my husband, who was so violent, was being gunned down by some enemy. I remember leaning down over his body when suddenly I felt a hand touch mine. I looked up and saw George Hain, who lives across the street and came running over. He said, 'I'm here if you need me.' My whole life I was so isolated; I knew nobody. George called the police station and when they were finished questioning me, the police said, 'Your neighbors, the Hains, want you to spend the night with them.' I couldn't believe it. They were so kind and loving to me. And then all the neighbors started to come, to tell me how sorry they were, not only for my troubles, but for being so wrapped up in their own lives. Now they want to show how much they care about the woman down the street. I have friends! Carolyn Wheeler, who sold us this house, takes me to exercise class. I lost 26 pounds. Oh, I'm going to live. I'm going to live to the hilt. My son has freed me. He has freed all of us. I hated this house with such passion, but now it is free of hate and fear. My husband's things are just as he left them, and one day, when I am ready, they will all be gone. It tore out my heart when I heard that Deborah wanted me to be shot, too. She has been so hurt, and needs so much help. My poor children face ordeals, but now, for the first time, we have hope. We can live."

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