COURSEY: A simpler time we'd rather not revisit
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 1:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.
The next time you find yourself getting nostalgic for a long-gone, simpler time, remember the story of Ernest "Kentucky" Pendergrass.
As Chris Smith reported in Sunday's paper, the former trucker and man-about-town from Santa Rosa will appear before the state Board of Parole Hearings on Tuesday in a bid to be released from Vacaville State Prison. He's 90 years old, ill and enfeebled and has spent more than 30 years behind bars for his shotgun ambush on the night after Thanksgiving in 1981 that killed his ex-lover and her husband as they ate dinner in their Sebastopol home.
It shouldn't be any surprise that Pendergrass is being considered for special treatment. It's what he was treated to by the “good-old-boy” world of Sonoma County, in which he was a well-known player in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. It's what he received in the years and months and weeks leading up to his crime. It took a Sacramento jury to finally find him guilty and tell him he had to pay for what he'd done — a decision that may still be the biggest surprise of his life.
He told staff writer Mike Geniella in 2004 that he continued to deny the killings were premeditated, as the jury found. And he continued to take refuge in his unsuccessful defense strategies of a drug overdose, the fog of alcohol or maybe even insanity to explain his actions: “So much of it is still a big blur,'' he said then.
What's not blurry is the picture of Sonoma County that Pendergrass helped paint in 1981. This was an “I'll scratch your back; you scratch mine” kind of place then, where if you knew the right people and ran in the right circles you couldn't necessarily get away with murder, but you might get away with everything short of it.
Ernest Pendergrass ran in those circles. Raised poor in Kentucky, he served in the Navy in World War II and came to California afterward, building himself a trucking business on the North Coast. By the late '70s he had friends and influence enough to get a seat on the Sonoma County Fair Board — a plum perk given out to the friends of county supervisors — and an appointment to the Sonoma County Grand Jury. In 1978, he ran for county supervisor, citing “unqualified support” for Proposition 13 and, in one interview, apparently feeling the need to declare, “I am not a redneck.” He came in fifth out of five candidates.
By 1981, he had sold his trucking business and was working for Piombo Construction Co., which at the time was positioned at the very intersection of big development and power politics in Sonoma County. His job title was “troubleshooter.”
On the day after the Edmonds murders, he was described by friends as “a tough but outgoing character who likes to drink, talk and gamble,” according to a story written by a much younger yours truly. He was a big, strong guy who “wasn't afraid to mix it up,” but who was “a hell of a nice guy,” according to one friend, “a Daniel-Boone type,” according to his boss, Sid Shah.
That is, if Daniel Boone had crept in the dark up to a window at his ex-girlfriend's house, aimed a shotgun and blasted her in the chest as she ate. Rosemary Edmonds's husband, Rick, was killed in the ensuing gun-battle when his friend, William Day, shot Edmonds by mistake while trying to defend himself against Pendergrass in the darkened home.
As it turned out, no one should have been surprised that Daniel Boone went on a rampage that night. Pendergrass for weeks had been threatening both Rosemary and Rick Edmonds, roaming the county armed and drunk, violating a court order and generally giving every indication that he was bound and determined to kill his former girlfriend, himself or both.
He had been picked up by Santa Rosa police after following the Edmondses into a restaurant with a loaded gun. Rosemary asked for a restraining order, telling the judge that Pendergrass had once held a gun to her neck, threatening to kill her. She got the restraining order, and was given a police escort out of town, but Pendergrass followed her to Southern California, where he showed up outside her parents' home, only leaving after police were called.
None of this resulted in any arrests or jail time. After all, it was just Kentucky being Kentucky.
On Nov. 12, 1981, Pendergrass was confronted by a cop as he sat in his car outside Rosemary's office. He had with him two loaded guns. The police officer, who later testified he had known Kentucky for years, took him to a nearby restaurant for lunch, where Kentucky told him “several times” he would kill Rosemary. Then, instead of taking him to jail, he took Pendergrass to Oakcrest, the county's psychiatric medical facility.
At his trial, it was revealed that while at Oakcrest Pendergrass made two phone calls to Rosemary's boss, urging the man to fire Rosemary and also threatening to kill her.
Remarkably, the medical staff at Oakcrest asked Rosemary Edmonds to come and meet with Pendergrass — so they could evaluate his “reaction” to her. She told them she didn't want Kentucky to go to jail because it would probably make him even angrier at her. Doctors, satisfied he was “no threat” to her, released him.
Continuing the good-old-boy theme, Sonoma County Public Defender Marteen Miller (another old friend, naturally) picked up Pendergrass from Oakcrest and took him to court, where a judge released Kentucky on the condition that he stop drinking and start taking the drug Antabuse, which causes vomiting if used in addition to alcohol. Miller agreed to make sure Pendergrass took the drug, keeping the pills at his office and requiring Kentucky to stop by the court house each day for his dose.
That worked for a little less than two weeks. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Kentucky came by Miller's office for his daily dose, and picked up enough for the long four-day weekend. Two days later, Kentucky spent the day bar-hopping, visiting six different watering holes in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, becoming a little less friendly, a little more angry and a lot more drunk as the day wore on.
By dinner time, the Edmondses were dead. And by the week after Thanksgiving, a lot of people in Sonoma County who had been friends of Kentucky Pendergrass had a lot of explaining to do.
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.