Pitchfork murders, a teen-ager accused of decapitating his mother among grisly stories
MERCED – A pitchfork-wielding intruder stabs two children to death in a farmhouse. A teen-ager is accused of cutting his mother’s head off with a knife.
In less than a month, Merced County has earned a reputation as the grisly crime capital of California.
“I know it’s taken a toll on some of my detectives,” said Assistant Sheriff Henry Strength. “The normal homicide is one thing, but these are all bizarre.”
At a local McDonald’s restaurant, old-timers take in the stomach-turning morning news with cups of coffee. One man asks how someone could kill his own mother. Others jaw about another gruesome front-page story in the local paper about a farming accident in which a man was ground up in a corn chopper and deputies had to identify him by his feet and shoes.
“I can’t believe what’s happening,” said Alex C. Flores, a retired construction worker. “This is supposed to happen someplace else.”
Indeed, death has visited Merced County — derived from the Spanish phrase for Our Lady of Mercy — in a most merciless way.
Until August, this 2,000-square-mile patch of farmland, home to 209,000 residents in the center of the state, had not recorded a single homicide this year.
In just over three weeks, however, authorities have found themselves at grim crime scenes facing aggressive suspects.
Jonathon David Bruce, 27, was shot after deputies said he charged them with the pitchfork after killing two kids. David Lange, 18, who was naked and covered in blood when he was found near his mother’s beheaded body, chased firefighters out of his house with a knife when they responded to an emergency call, according to investigators reports. The Delhi teen surrendered peacefully when confronted by armed officers.
To say the killings have shocked the county is an understatement. They’ve even shaken the area’s veteran peace officers.
“It does exact something from you, we’re all human,” said Sgt. Rick Marshall, head of the sheriff’s major crimes unit. “These are very, very heinous, bizarre things. Two of these come down, with the same people investigating, it’s not that easy.”
All of this comes at a pivotal time for the county. A new visitor’s center was built to lure tourists heading to nearby Yosemite National Park. And the University of California plans to build a campus here.
“Merced is not a bad place to live,” Strength said. “We’ve had some bad luck.”
Strength traces the county’s notorious crimes to a bizarre kidnapping nearly two decades ago that put the county on the wrong kind of map and remains in its conscience.
A Merced boy named Steven Stayner became a local hero and the subject of a book and movie when he escaped from a child molester who kidnapped him seven years earlier. Stayner rescued a 5-year-old boy who had also been abducted. His tale took a tragic turn when he died in a motorcycle accident in 1989.
That story would not seem relevant if Stayner’s brother had not been accused of being the serial killer who stalked Yosemite last year, killing four women.
Cary Stayner’s name is an enduring stain on the county that bills itself as “The Gateway to Yosemite.” Although he was working as a motel handyman outside the county at the time of the killings, Stayner — like Bruce and Lange — was raised in Merced County.
Two weeks ago, the 39-year-old pleaded guilty in federal court to murdering a naturalist in the park and, under the plea, will be sentenced to life in prison. He still faces a state trial for the killings of three Yosemite sightseers and could get the death penalty in that case.
Jerry O’Banion, chairman of the county supervisors, comes up short on solutions to what seem like isolated incidents that occurred in a close vicinity.
“I think it is truly a tragedy that so many of these crimes are happening right now,” O’Banion said. “We’ve had crime but nothing of this magnitude. I don’t know what can be done.”
When Bruce went on his pitchfork rampage, investigators thought they had an easy explanation: drugs.
The Central Valley is widely known for its budding methamphetamine trade. Raids are a regular occurrence on primitive labs manufacturing the mind-altering upper known to trigger paranoia, psychosis and violence.
Before killing 9-year-old Ashley Carpenter and her 7-year-old brother, John William, Bruce was spotted in the house naked. With little to explain the seemingly random attack, the sheriff’s department speculated that the killer was high. Strength said meth users often strip because they overheat from the drug.
But lab tests came back negative and deputies are holding their tongues before leaping to the same conclusion about the beheading, where the common link seems to be the nudity.
“I would have given up a year’s salary to tell you (Bruce) was on drugs,” Strength said. “I don’t even want to speculate on this guy.”
There have been no easy answers in the murders that haunt Merced and that leaves some residents uneasy.
As Mary Ornelas, 65, walked her dog Tuesday on the manicured lawn outside the county courthouse, she lamented that her hometown was just not the same and that fear had crept in.
“It just makes me sick to think those things are happening in Merced,” Ornelas said. “I hate for that to happen because it’s a nice little town.”