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Kentucky Pendergrass, killer

Convicted Santa Rosa killer Ernest 'Kentucky' Pendergrass dies at 90

Ernest "Kentucky" Pendergrass died in Santa Rosa on Tuesday night, eight weeks after the state released the convicted double-killer from prison because of his poor health.

Pendergrass, who stopped breathing at Sutter Medical Center shortly after a granddaughter kissed his forehead, was 90.

He had spent 30 years in prison and was expecting to die there when he was set free on a "compassionate release" from the California Medical Facility in Vacaville just after Father's Day. He lived his final two months in the Santa Rosa home of daughter Donna McClelland.

Though largely debilitated by ailments that included cardio-pulmonary disease and apparent colon cancer, Pendergrass was able to return last week to the Sonoma County Fair, where he'd once enjoyed VIP treatment as a member of the fair board. Daughter McClelland said he bet on and won the day's first four horse races.

"He came home with $400 in his pocket," she said.

She phoned 911 Saturday when her father passed large amounts of blood. He died at Sutter Hospital at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Pendergrass was a rough-edged, gregarious and generous businessman and teller of tall tales in Sonoma County until he went into a sustained rage after short-term girlfriend Rosemary Edmonds, 35, of Sebastopol left him and returned to her estranged husband, Rick, in the fall of 1981.

The day after that Thanksgiving, Pendergrass stopped at bars while driving his pickup - with a shotgun inside - to the Edmondses' country home. There, he stepped up to a window and fired a blast that killed Rosemary Edmonds as she was taking a bite of dinner.

Shotgun pellets wounded a family friend at the table, William Day, who ran to grab a rifle and moments later mistakenly shot and killed Rick Edmonds.

Arrested on suspicion of double murder, Pendergrass originally maintained that the Edmondses had ambushed him. During his trial, moved to Sacramento because he was so well known in Sonoma County and the crime received extensive local news coverage, he mounted a defense that his mind was fogged that night by Valium and the anti-alcohol medication Antabuse.

The jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the killing of Rosemary Edmonds, second-degree murder in the death of her husband and attempted murder in wounding of Day. The judge sentenced him to 52 years to life in prison.

Pendergrass spent most of the past three decades as an inmate-patient of the sprawling medical facility in Vacaville. He was well-liked by the staff and fellow inmates there, and once was commended for rushing to the aid of a female correctional officer who was attacked by an inmate.

This past spring, prison staffers recommended that Pendergrass be considered for what's informally known as compassionate release. State law allows for the early release of lifers who are either terminally ill or largely incapacitated by poor health.

The state Board of Parole Hearings ruled in March that Pendergrass should be released. The final say went to a judge in Sacramento, where Pendergrass was tried and convicted.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch strenuously opposed early release. She argued that it would be an injustice to Pendergrass' victims and their families for him to be freed and allowed to return to the county, and that the logical conclusion of compassionate release would be that "no one will serve a life sentence in prison."

On May 14, Sacramento Judge Trena Burger-Plavan ruled that "in light of the continuing pressure on the state to reduce prison costs and limit prison population," it is appropriate to release Pendergrass and allow the costs of his medical care to be borne by himself and his family.

He arrived at his daughter's house in Santa Rosa on June 14. McClelland said that since then her father was visited by several old friends and he gained 25 pounds by eating ham, shrimp and other foods he'd missed for three decades.

McClelland said her father did a terrible thing but he was her father, and throughout his life he also did much good for others.

"He was very generous. He built Little League parks," she said. "He did a lot for the community.

"He was more than his crime."

Over the course of the first two-thirds of his life, Pendergrass saw combat in World War II, including at Pearl Harbor, and he worked in trucking, lumber milling and construction. He was a member of the Sonoma County Fair Board for 16 years, served on the county Grand Jury and in 1978 ran unsuccessfully for the North County seat on the Board of Supervisors.

In a 2004 interview with The Press Democrat at the California Medical Facility, he said that early in his incarceration a prison psychologist described him as a narcissist, and he had to look the word up.

"I realized then that probably hit the nail on the head," he said. "Unfortunately for Rosemary and her family, and mine, it was all about my ego."

Weeping, he added, "Her family was devastated and so was mine. All of their lives were forever changed."

In addition to daughter McClelland, Pendergrass is survived by daughter Debra Frame of Kelseyville, brother George Pendergrass of Scott City, Missouri; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be private.

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