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Convicted Santa Rosa killer seeks compassionate release from prison

Ernest "Kentucky'' Pendergrass

PD FILE, 2004
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 2:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 2:32 p.m.

A third of a century after Ernest “Kentucky” Pendergrass left Sonoma County's mouth agape by killing his ex-girlfriend with a shotgun, the former hard-drinking trucker and civic notable hopes to leave prison alive.

On Tuesday, the state Board of Parole Hearings will consider whether Pendergrass is sufficiently ill and enfeebled to justify his early release from the California Medical Facility, the sprawling hospital prison in Vacaville.

Pendergrass was 58 when he killed Rosemary Edmonds and caused the death of her husband, Rick. On Saturday, the inmate turned 90.

If the parole board in Sacramento finds he is eligible for what's commonly called a compassionate release, the panel will recommend his prison sentence be recalled by the Sacramento County court that 30 years ago convicted him of the two slayings and sentenced him to 54 years to life.

Should the Sacramento judge decide the long-ailing Pendergrass is not terminally ill or medically incapacitated and therefore not eligible for release, he won't be up for parole until 2018 — the year he would turn 95.

But if Pendergrass is freed, the rough-hewn Pearl Harbor veteran and former outdoorsman, tavern regular and member of the county fair board and grand jury will come back to Sonoma County and live in his daughter's hillside house in Santa Rosa.

“He's tired. He's worn out. He has a few months left,” daughter Donna McClelland said. “I would love to have him home. He's got great-grandchildren he's never met.”

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that if the parole board decides Tuesday that Pendergrass is suitable for release, she will request his prison medical records and then take a position on his possible release. Her review of the records will seek to ascertain if he is so diminished by illness and age that he poses no threat to others.

“There are people of advanced years who have committed violent crimes,” Ravitch said. When Pendergrass, who has been treated in prison for a host of potentially fatal maladies, applied last year for clemency, Ravitch urged against it.

In the Sonoma County of three decades ago, Pendergrass was a big man about town and a widely liked one. So the tragic turn of events that he set into motion while full of booze on the night after Thanksgiving in 1981 struck the county like a temblor.

Pendergrass had a shotgun in his pickup when he drove from Santa Rosa to the home on Thorn Road, southwest of Sebastopol, of the newly reunited Rick and Rosemary Edmonds, both 35.

During a marital break-up, Rosemary Edmonds had become romantically involved with Pendergrass, who at the time was estranged from his late wife, Jean. Edmonds and Pendergrass were together only about four months, a period he recounted as the “happiest time of my life.”

Upon their split in October 1981, Edmonds returned to her husband. In response to what she said were threats from Pendergrass, she obtained a court order that required him to stay away from her.

As Pendergrass' pickup approached the Edmondses' Tudor-style country home at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 27, the couple was eating dinner at the kitchen table with friend William Day, then 31.

Pendergrass stepped up to the house and fired a 12-gauge shotgun into the kitchen window. The blast struck the chest of the woman who'd been his lover just three weeks earlier, killing her.

Rosemary Edmonds' horrified husband and slightly wounded friend, Day, pushed away from the table and ran to grab guns. Moments later, Day leveled a rifle at a male figure inside the house, and fired.

He'd shot Rick Edmonds. Day then made a frantic call to the sheriff's office. He told the dispatcher, “Kentucky Pendergrass is outside, He just killed Rosemary Edmonds. I've been shot, so has Rick.”

As a vehicle headed away from the house, Day ran outside and fired several shots at it.

When a deputy sheriff pulled over a bullet-pierced pickup near Cotati a short while later, driver Pendergrass smelled of alcohol and bled from a minor wound to his hip. He was jailed and a short time later charged with the murders of Rosemary and Rick Edmonds.

Though he didn't deny going to the couple's place and firing a shotgun, he claimed from early on that he was lured to the house by the Edmondses. He said that as he approached the house he thought he heard a shot so he reflexively fired the shotgun, from his hip.

“Boy, did I get sucked in,” he told a sheriff's captain as he was being booked into the county jail later the night of the killings. He added, “I can go to bed tonight knowing I did nothing wrong.”

His trial was moved to Sacramento after a judge found that because he was so well known and the tragedy had attracted so much media attention, he probably could not get a fair trial in Sonoma County.

The prosecutor was Assistant Sonoma County District Attorney J. Michael Mullins, who would later be elected District Attorney. He said last week that the prosecutor's office did not oppose moving the trial because Pendergrass was so well known, and in 1981 and '82 the county was roiled by conspiracy theories about the case.

“The hardest part of the trial was the rumors,” Mullins said. “It just became the cause célèbre.”

The trial got under way in Sacramento in January 1983, 14 months after the killings. Despite Pendergrass' claims that he'd acted in self-defense when he fired into the kitchen window, his attorney, Jack Montgomery, sought to persuade jurors that the prescription drugs and alcohol in Pendergrass' system that night rendered him legally unconscious.

Prosecutor Mullins fought back with evidence that an enraged and jealous Pendergrass plotted and executed an ambush of his former lover and her husband.

Jurors rejected all of Pendergrass' excuses. On April 8, 1983, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Rosemary Edmonds, second-degree murder in the death of her husband and attempted murder and manslaughter in the wounding of William Day.

Before the sentence was imposed that June, Pendergrass implored Judge Ronald Tochterman to believe he had been muddled by booze and drugs and did not knowingly kill anyone.

“I don't know if I am 10 percent guilty, or 20 percent, or 50 percent,” he said. “I am not guilty of murder because I did not know I was committing the act.”

But as he imposed a sentence that seemed likely to put Pendergrass in prison for the rest of his life, Tochterman called him “a man who is intelligent, generous and a community leader” — but whose actions in this instance “can only be described as cruel, cynical and outrageous.”

Today, Pendergrass has spent one-third of his 90 years in a medical prison and he's waiting to hear if the parole board and a judge will find that he's sick and weak enough to be let go.

His daughter will travel to Sacramento on Tuesday to use her five minutes before the parole panel to plead that her father was an alcoholic, not a murderer, and that there is nothing to gain by requiring that he die in prison.

“There's no more correction to be done,” McClelland said. “He would love to come out and have a few months.”

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