The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Terror by Alan Prendergast

Menendez Prequel
Review by Kim Cantrell

If you were a big follower of the Menendez brothers’ case, The Poison Tree by Rolling Stones reporter Alan Prendergast is going to sound very familiar. Even though the case was, by the time of their trial, ten years old, Lyle obviously took a page (or two or three or four) out of this book.

Richard Chester Jahnke was a real charmer when he married Maria Rodriguez Jahnke in Puerto Rico. When the children came along, however, he changed – and not for the better.

Deborah Ann Janhke, the oldest child, complained about her father’s verbal abuse; that he called her a slut, a bitch, and a large variety of other deragatory terms. She also claimed that he fondled her and, once she reached the early teens years, treated her (in some ways) like a girlfriend rather than a daughter.

The youngest of the two Jahnke children, Richard John Jahnke spent his life feeling helpless as he watched his mother and sister brutalized at the hand of his father. And when the elder Jahnke wasn’t hitting the girls, he was using Richie, as he was called, as a punching bag while insisting that he was a Mama’s boy and a sissy who should man-up.

As they say, careful what you wished for.

On the night of November 16, 1982, that’s exactly what Richie decided it was time to do. Having watched another episode of domestic violence toward the women of the home that quickly turned on him, Richie decided it was time to end it.

Waiting in the garage of the family home, when Daddy Jahnke came home Richie opened fire. After mere seconds that seemed like hours, Richard Janke lay dead in a pool of blood.

When a nation learned that just a month before Richie had attempted to report the abuse to police and social workers to no avail, its citizens were outraged and demanded lienecy for Richie and his sister, who was charged as a co-conspirator.

Author Alan Prendergast tells a riveting, thought-provoking story about the Jahnke children and the justice system that failed them once and makes you wonder if it’ll do it again. But, fear not, the answer is within.

While I found the story to be very biased in favor of the Jahnkes, I didn’t feel as I was having the opinion shoved down my throat; there was still plenty of not-so-favorable facts reported that allowed me to form my own opinion. (For the record, I agree with Wyoming Supreme Court justices who felt that the abuse was overexaggerated but believe Richard Jahnke was still a mean bastard who got his due.)

The trial section of the book is in-depth but, considering that much of the information is new not having already been presented, still interesting.

The Poison Tree is proof once again the best books are the oldest books. I highly (HIGHLY) recommend this 1986 true crime book.


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At least until 2009 (possibly even now – online real estate records are vague), Maria and husband, John Druce, continued to own the home at 8736 Cowpoke Road in Cheyenne’s Cowboy Country.

Richie and Deborah, having changed their names, are essentially off the radar these days. It’s been said by those who know them personally, that they have each been married and divorced a couple of times and Richie has children.