I eluded to this case a bit in my last blog mentioning that a clear motive could not be determined in this case. Earlier I posted a case about Gregory Phillips who murdered his neighbor, her daughter and then himself. This left a lot of unanswered questions for authorities and they were forced to piece together what happened based on the evidence. The same was the case here. The difference between this and the Phillips case is that there is a clear theory of motive in this case and it is not the kind you see very often.
On March 14, 2002 some officers were paroling an area in McMinnville Oregon when some neighbors in the area stopped them and expressed concern about a family in the area. No one had seen the Bryant family in quite some time and there seemed to be no movement in the home. Officers went to the home and after noticing that the mail had seemingly piled up for several days and getting no answer at the door they began looking in windows. It was then that one of the officers saw a body laying in the front room floor and called it in. Apparently it seemed that they did not believe the person they could see through the window could be saved and had a search warrant issued before entering the home.
Inside they would discover that the body that they had seen through the window belonged to thirty-seven year old Robert Bryant. Upstairs they would find five more bodies. Janet Bryant would be found in the master bedroom of the home and each their four children would be found in their beds, in their rooms. There was fifteen year old Clayton, twelve year old Ethan, ten year old Ashley and nine year old Alissa.
The neighbors were shocked. The Bryant family had not been in the area long. They had only moved into that particular home a few months earlier. They had only been in Oregon since the summer before, coming from California. Robert Bryant owned a landscaping business and seemed to be doing very well financially. In fact, the family had bought the two plus acres of land and had paid it off before putting the modular home they were living in on the land. Those associated with the family said that they planned to build a house on the remaining property once spring arrived. Investigators would later learn that things had not been so rosy back in California.
As was the case in the Phillips case, the investigators had to piece together what they found to determine what they believed happened. They learned that the children had last been seen at school on February 22nd. Teachers and school officials had not been worried at first because it was “flu” season but it does seem that after several days absence different people, as well as neighbors had attempted to reach the family. February 22nd was a Friday so it was likely late the next week before anyone noticed anything was amiss. It seemed clear to investigators that Robert Bryant had murdered his family and then himself. It was determined that February 23rd was Robert and Janet's anniversary and that early on that evening Robert had bought shotgun shells and paid with a hundred dollar bill. The receipt was found in his pocket. A total of four weapons were found in the house. Two of those were shotguns and were determined to have been used in the murders.
Investigators would come to believe that Robert had murdered the children while they were in their beds and that Janet may have heard the noises and got up out of bed herself. She was found just on the side of the bed but her foot was entangled in the sheets. They believe that after Robert shot Janet he then went downstairs and knelt to the floor, placing the shotgun to his chin and pulled the trigger.
Nothing in my research indicated that any note was left in the home to give investigators an idea to a motive. It took more work to try to determine that. Now, I want to point out that every single article that I read on this case, save one, indicated that this family, at the time of the murders were prospering financially. They had filed bankruptcy in California in January of 2000 (the reason of which I will get into in a bit) but at the time of the murders Robert's business was bringing in over $7,000 a month. They had not moved to Oregon until June of 2001 and for the first six months they lived in a mobile home park while Robert got his business back up and running. They had bought the land that the home sat on for $96,000 and had paid it off very quickly. All indications were that they had paid that off before placing the home on the land and moving onto the property. The one article that disputes this says that according to Robert's sister he had told her in December that they had two months of food remaining and after that he was not sure what was going to happen. I call bs on this for a variety of reasons. I know, I know, you do not see language like that here often but you will likely see why I say this soon.
The “sensationalism” part of this story surrounds not just the fact that the Bryants were former Jehovah Witnesses but the alleged motive behind the murders. The Bryants, along with Robert's family, had been very involved in their church when they were in Shingle Springs California. The children were all homeschooled when they lived there. Some former neighbors described them as a bit standoffish while others said they were very pleasant. However, things changed for the family in 1999. While no one seems to know what the exact issue was the church has said that the family was eventually “expelled” from the congregation and shunned “for conduct that was not in harmony with Bible principles.” That was from the word of a church elder after the murders were committed.
At the time of the shunning Robert Bryant owned his landscaping business. It seems that his brothers and father were also involved in the business but many of their customers were also Jehovah Witnesses and upon his shunning he lost a lot of business. My research indicates that his family was all but required to also shun him but his father did not disassociate with the business until March of 2001, a year after Robert was forced to file bankruptcy. But about three months later the family left California in the middle of the night, allegedly telling no one in his family they were leaving or where they were going.
Some of the people who knew the family in Oregon stated that Robert Bryant had a fear that his family was attempting to gain custody of the children. He had expressed that they had left California because he felt as if the “grandparents” were “brainwashing” the children. But, just exactly what the grandparents were doing and were in the process of doing is unclear. An elder (or two, it was not clear) seemed to at one point say that relatives had already filed documents to seek custody of the children but other things say they had filed for visitation rights with the children. This indicates that a) Robert Bryant may have had legitimate fears about the care of his children and b) it is possible that his family had located them.
I did a quick search on grandparent visitation rights in California but of course I found current standards and not necessarily what was being done or allowed in 2002. Grandparent visitation was one of the things I was most interested in when I was studying family law. I will try to give a quick lowdown of how they progressed, and then later regressed. When something new enters the courts the result becomes what is called precedence. In essence any future filings would look back at the result of previous attempts. Grandparent visitation was a “big” thing for a while and it was often used, if not in court, then verbally, as threats by grandparents who felt they were being unjustly distanced from their grandchildren. The reason that grandparent visitation got as far as it did initially is that the courts were not making the petitioners (the grandparents) justify or prove why their contact would benefit the children but instead required the parents to prove why contact would be detrimental to the children. The other large thing that played a role in many of these cases was money. Generally the grandparents had more money than the parents as most were no longer raising children and had good nest eggs that they had saved over the years. So, when the cases did not first end their way they had more money to appeal the cases and keep them going. In reality they also had more time for it. The parents were busy making a living and raising their children. In many cases the parents would end up giving up and settling the cases which from the eyes of the courts were “wins” for the grandparents. And this is how precedence was set. The courts finally realized that not only had they forced the parents, who were the respondents, to prove why the grandparents should not have visitation but they were oftentimes impeding on the rights of the parents to make sound and just decisions for their children. States then began being a bit harder on the grandparents. Not only did they start doing what the court should have done in the first place, make them prove why they would be beneficial to the children's lives, obviously against the parents' wishes, but they also made new rules. One of the biggest rules that most states enacted was that they could not sue an “in tact” family. That meant that unless the parents were separated or divorced they had presumably made this choice for the grandparents not to see the children, or see them on their schedule, together. In most states it made it nearly impossible for a grandparent to sue their own child even if the parents are separated. These rules greatly lessened the “power” that grandparents had.
Whether these laws were enacted yet in 2002 I cannot say, but even if they were it does not mean that Robert and Janet Bryant knew of them. Many people had just heard of cases where the grandparents were given visitation and in fairness many grandparents thought it was simply a given.... they were entitled, and they would receive. It really never was that simple. This is not to say that the Bryant's did not have anything to worry about. A lawyer associated with the church was likely representing the grandparents and I am going to guess this was not the first case they had seen. A lot could also depend on the judge in the case and what they were known to do. Some of these questions can never be answered because the Bryants are no longer alive to tell anyone what they were thinking. Janet's sister is seems was the first to come out and say she believed that the murders had occurred because of this issue with Robert's parents seeking custody or visitation. In her mind Robert was protecting his family. This is why I stated earlier that I called bs on the comment allegedly from Robert's sister about their finances.
That one single article was the only one in many, many, that I read, where anyone indicated that Robert Bryant was having financial issues what so ever, let alone not having the ability to feed his children. Not only did every other article I read express that the family was obviously well off financially at the time and that Robert's business was booming but they all also expressed that they had no contact with members of his family. If Robert expressed fear from his family as told by many who knew them why would he have had contact with any of them and how is it that of all the people that knew them at that time his sister was the only one to claim a different motive for the murders? To add to this, not only why but how would the family, who had lived in a trailer park for six months pay off a $96,000 loan on land so quickly if they were in such dire straits? By all accounts this seemingly was paid off before the home was placed on the land and the family had moved in just before Christmas. And yet, according to his sister it was Christmas when Robert allegedly said they only had enough food for a few months, as if no other money was coming in. Financial records showed the business was going well. In fact, when they had stayed at the trailer park Robert had discussed with the owner making some changes and upgrades. Later the owner spoke to Robert again about those ideas and at the time he had expressed that he had more business than he could handle at the time so those upgrades would have to wait for the time being. In my opinion Roberts sister made those statements because she knew that public opinion was against them. Right or wrong there is often a distaste aimed towards the Jehovah Witnesses in general. To add this many people were blaming the actions of not just the church, but specifically Roberts parents.
The long and short of it is that no one will ever know for absolute certainty that this was the motive behind the murders. I do personally believe that the motive does seem to be the issue surrounding not just the children at risk but also the idea that Robert did not want them influenced by the church in any way. While we can speculate and feel we know the answer for the murders, giving us an answer, I do not feel we will ever know the true reason the family was shunned from the church in the first place. This is not something that is taken lightly and devote followers do not question the elders or their teachings without knowing this going in. I agree with almost all of the theories and perceptions made, save one. While my research points out that February 23rd was Robert and Janet's anniversary and felt that it was significant to Robert for that to be the day the murders occurred they do not mention the significance to Janet. Investigators have said they believe the children were murdered first. If this is true it leads me to believe that Janet knew what was going on, knew what was going to happen and with that said condoned it. I can only assume that fingerprints were taken and only Robert's were found. But, in my opinion that does not mean that Janet was unaware. It seems odd to me that he would murder the four children first, each with one close range shot to the head, and risk waking Janet, just as investigators suspect. This is why I suspect that she knew it was going to happen and agreed with the actions. It is also just as likely that she did not want to be the one to do it. But again, I think the anniversary was significant to both of them. Their gift to each other was everlasting.