09.02.10

Murder at the Family Farm

They fled the suburbs for a simpler life in the country. But when their son met an older local woman, he turned on them—and their pastoral utopia became a terrifying hell.

They were a couple who dared to do what so many other frazzled cubicle drones only dream of. After 25 years of working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, David “Scott” Jondle, 61, and his wife Marilyn, 58, abandoned their concrete jungle and moved to the placid farming community of Polk County, Oregon, in 2000, to try their hands at organic farming.

Their dream of a more idyllic life, however, was transformed into a nightmare this week. On the 210-acre sustainable farm set on a bucolic stretch of the Kings Valley Highway, sheriff’s deputies responding to a 911 call on Tuesday morning discovered a macabre scene. Scott lay dead in his garage, stabbed repeatedly by his own scythe. Just inside the kitchen was Marilyn, beaten to death by a section of galvanized pipe. It became the Polk County Sheriff Department’s first murder investigation since 1999.

Young Andrew, barely out of his teens, started a sexual relationship with Beck, a homely 46-year-old with felony convictions for theft and criminal mistreatment. 

With the house ransacked, the crimes at first appeared to be a botched robbery. But it wasn’t long before investigators homed in on an even more unnerving suspect: the Jondles’ lanky, pasty-skinned 20-year-old son, Andrew. 

How this family’s seemingly happy journey from the suburbs to the countryside ended in bloodshed is just now becoming clear. The Jondles left California behind because Scott was tired of corporate life, as he said in a video posted on the website for their Abundant Life Farm. (The website was disabled at some point on Thursday.)

“I would look out the window at work and say ‘Boy, I’d love to be outside,’” Scott says in the video, set against a backdrop of lush green pastures. “Especially on a nice summer day.”

The couple also wanted out of Silicon Valley because they were concerned about raising their boys in a “corrupting” place such as California. “Their faith was very strong,” says Keith Nelson, who runs Teal Creek Farms in nearby Dallas, and had been a friend of the Jondles for the past five to seven years. Apparently, the rural Northwest felt more like God’s country to them.

The Jondles chose farming because of a book titled You Can Farm that Marilyn happened upon. It was written by Joel Salatin, best known for his prominent inclusion in Michael Pollan’s organic-foodie bible, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Scott and Marilyn wrote to Salatin and asked him if he knew of anyone else in the West who was farming using the pesticide-, antibiotics-, and hormone-free methods Salatin advocates. Salatin said he didn’t, and agreed to teach the Jondles how to be farmers if they’d come to his farm in Virginia for a few months. 

“We leased our house, put all our stuff in storage and lived in a tent trailer, all five of us, for six months,” said a smiling Marilyn in the video, produced for a Web show called Living Culture. “We wanted to make sure this was something we wanted to do.” 

The oldest son, Wayne, didn’t take to the farming life at all, largely because he suffered terrible hay fever. As soon as he was eligible, Wayne joined the military, and is now stationed at Camp Pendleton. Luke, the middle son, got married and moved to Salem, but still helped out on the farm from time to time.

It was Andrew who seemed most likely to follow in his folks’ footsteps, says Nelson. 

The boy often accompanied his father to the Salem Public Market to hawk the farm’s goods. He was helpful, friendly, intelligent and polite—if a little socially awkward, says Nelson. 

“He lacked a lot of social skills being out on the farm, and didn’t have a lot of kids to play with,” says Nelson. “He had a hard time communicating. He’d sometimes stand next to me for 10 minutes, without saying a word. I’d go ‘What’s the matter?’ And he’d go ‘I just don’t know what to say.’”

Still, Andrew seemed the typical teenager, according to Nelson, complete with being “bored to tears” at times at the market. He’d sweep the floor and help seniors carry their bags. 

“As far as I know, Andrew was planning on taking over the business,” says Nate Rafn, a Salem television producer and writer who put together the video about the Jondles and later became their friend and customer. “From what I could tell, he enjoyed working on the farm, working with animals. He was planning on taking over the business, continuing the work his parents started.” 

Investigators are still piecing together how exactly the boy’s relationship with his folks went so terribly awry, says Sheriff Bob Wolfe. But they believe the answer revolves around his involvement with a local woman named Cindy Lou Beck.

At some point, young Andrew, barely out of his teens, started a sexual relationship with Beck, a homely 46-year-old with felony convictions for theft and criminal mistreatment. As neighbors gathered at the crime scene on Tuesday morning, they began telling investigators about Andrew and Beck, how the pair’s odd relationship had put significant strain on a family that seemed like it had found paradise in the farmer’s way of life. 

After they found the bodies, deputies went to the Salem apartment where Andrew and Beck had been living for the past few months. The moment they walked inside, they spotted Scott and Marilyn’s credit cards laying out on a coffee table. 

After a few hours of questioning, the boy confessed to the murders, says Sheriff Wolfe. In lurid fashion, his tale of what happened that night gradually spooled out.

Andrew said that sometime around midnight on Tuesday, he drove to his parents’ farm and lay in wait on the property he’d once helped tend, waiting for the couple to go to sleep. He and Beck were late on the rent at the apartment they lived in. Together, Wolfe said, the couple plotted to rob and murder the Jondles, whom they’d repeatedly asked for money in recent weeks. But the Jondles’ son apparently carried out the killings by himself.

“He did go there with the intent to get some money,” Wolfe said. “But he also went there with the intent to kill them.”

According to police, when his parents didn’t go to bed soon enough, Andrew called them on the phone, asking his father to meet him at the gate of the property. The moment his father opened the garage door, Andrew attacked. When Marilyn came out to the garage to see her son killing his father, Andrew ran her down and beat her to death with the pipe, police say. The boy then trashed the house to make it look like a burglary, loaded up on credit cards and his family’s jewelry, and raced back to Beck, who helped him get rid of his bloodied clothing. Wolfe says there’s no evidence she participated in the killings directly, but she faces conspiracy charges for helping plan the attack. 

Andrew was scheduled to be arraigned on two counts of aggravated murder charges Thursday afternoon. Beck faces charges of conspiracy to commit murder and hindering prosecution, says Wolfe.  

How Beck and Andrew met and why they wound up together is a puzzle, says Wolfe, but it appears they got to know each other in the neighborhood. She spent time at other residences in the vicinity of the Jondle farm. 

The romance did not sit well with Scott and Marilyn. 

“They were at great odds with this older woman,” says Nelson. “They were really upset about it, and had gone around and around about it several times.” Adds Wolfe: “They tried to talk to him a couple of times about how this wasn’t a good situation for him.” 

About two months ago, several months after their romance began, Andrew and Beck moved in together, says Wolfe. Andrew continued to battle with his parents, asking them for money. Scott and Marilyn refused to cough up.

A neighbor at the Salem apartments where Andrew and Beck lived told the Salem Statesman-Journal that he’d called the police several times in the past month, because the two were bothering other tenants for money, and threatening them. On the night of the murders, the neighbor said, they showed up at his apartment asking for cigarettes. “She had her hood up, and he was shaking uncontrollably.” 

That image led the commenters on newspaper websites to speculate that perhaps the couple had fallen into drugs. But Wolfe says a search of the apartment turned up only a marijuana pipe, and that neither seemed to be under the influence of anything when interviewed by detectives. 

On Rafn’s video, both Scott and Marilyn seemed delighted with their new lives—a path they chose in part, Scott said, because she wanted to find more things for the family to do together. Most of his software projects were classified, and his children couldn’t see where he worked or what he did. 

Now, “I just have to step out my front door and go to work and it’s great,” Scott can be heard saying. “As a family, we’re certainly glad we made the change.” 

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.