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.