Jenn Carson’s father was great at braiding hair and baking cakes. He was the perfect stay-at-home Dad. A little bit of a hippie, sure. But it was the ’70s in California. And Jenn liked tie-dye t-shirts. When Jenn was 9 years old, she found out that her father had brutally murdered 3 people and was suspected to be involved in the deaths of at least 12 others across North America and Europe, including Ireland. She spoke to Dave Fanning on The Ryan Tubridy Show about her father, Michael Carson and growing up as the child of a serial killer.
Jenn described the early, more idyllic days she spent with her Dad.
“The father I knew was a hippie-stay-at-home-Dad who went to Grateful Dead shows and Santana and Cream and loved to read books and made me tie-dye shirts and brushed my hair and baked me cakes. He was a very hands-on, hippie, stay-at-home-Dad.”
In 1978, Michael Carson met Susan Barnes at a party. Everything changed after that, Jenn explained.
“He meets this Svengali-type woman. They meet and it’s like gasoline and a match. Very explosive the moment they meet. And from that second, he essentially does not leave her side for 5 years until they’re arrested.“
After Michael and Susan met at the party, they abandoned their friends and families to be with each other. They moved in together almost immediately. Jenn remembers visiting her father after he had moved out and how she felt unable to make her mother understand how frightened she was during these visits. Gone was the father who used to bake her cakes. In his place was a man using hallucinogenic drugs daily and exhibiting increasingly erratic behaviour. Jenn was 4 years old.
“My first visit to the home, the door opened and instead of furniture, there were a hundred potted plants…I slept on the floor. I felt trapped there. It felt like a haunted forest from a scary movie. They didn’t feed me. I remember crawling up into the kitchen cabinets and trying to get food. I remember trying to escape the house when they were passed out on drugs.”
Her now step-mother, Susan Barnes, was a source of fear for Jenn.
“I felt she was going to drown me in the bathtub. She was pushing me down. And then the last visit, she scratched my back and left five open wounds on my back.”
Jenn had told her mother that Michael and Susan hadn’t been feeding her but due to Jenn’s young age, her mother had assumed she meant that they weren’t giving her treats, not that they were neglecting to feed her anything. Following the visit when she came home with visible injuries, Jenn’s mother moved to a different part of the state, terrified that her ex-husband would try to find them. She had heard that Michael and Susan had been trying to get a passport for Jenn.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You will never see that woman again’. And she made sure I did not.”
Michael Carson and Susan Barnes narrowly avoided arrest while living in a tent in the woods. A search party that had been looking for a lost hiker stumbled upon Michael and Susan behaving so erratically that investigators took a closer look. While running away, Michael dropped a bag containing a gun and a plan to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Jenn and her mother were quickly tracked down by authorities.
“I literally opened the door and there were men in black at our door and my mother said, you know, ‘Oh my god, how did you find us‘? They laughed and said, ‘We’re the Secret Service‘. So, at that point, my mother knew they had killed at least one individual and that they were under investigation for wanting to kill the Governor [of California] and the President of the United States.”
For Jenn’s mother, it was the culmination of years of sacrifice and worry. She had left a good job as a teacher without a reference in her haste to get away from Michael and Susan, working several low-paying jobs under-the-counter to avoid a paper trail.
“She had gone to authorities and said, ‘These people are dangerous. They’re going to kill someone’. And no-one believed her. And so, the Secret Service showing up at our door was an affirmation that she never wanted. You know, she didn’t want to say, ‘I told you so’.”
Michael Carson and Susan Barnes were arrested in 1983 after shooting a man dead on the side of the road in Sonoma, California. The man had given them a lift after spotting them hitch-hiking. After spending some time with him in the car, the pair decided that he was a witch and they needed to kill him.
“It was in broad daylight. Families were driving by with children in the cars…In broad daylight, they were stabbing and shooting a man whose only mistake had been to be kind and offer them a ride.”
Jenn told Dave that Michael and Susan demanded a press conference, saying they would confess to other homicides if their request was granted. The resulting press conference was apparently not the full extent of their crimes.
“They walk up to the microphone and Susan turns to Michael and says to my father, ‘Now, Michael, we’re only going to talk about the ones in California’.”
Dave asked if Jenn thought that Susan Barnes had influenced her father or if the number of hallucinogens they were both consuming was the catalyst that caused him to become violent. Jenn thinks that the combination of both was “the perfect storm”.
“There was the obsessive relationship between the two, there were extremist beliefs, there was the dropping acid – not experimentally like a lot of baby boomers did, it was every day – they were using LSD, which I think caused some brain damage. I truly believe that with both individuals, they did have psychopathic tendencies where they did not feel empathy and they did not feel remorse.”
Jenn told Dave that people often ask her how she rationalises how loving her father was during her childhood. She thinks it’s all in his make-up.
“A lot of narcissistic psychopaths love their children as an extension of themselves.”
Following her father’s arrest, Jenn found herself trying to understand what her father had done.
“I was trying to sound out words like ‘decapitate’, you know, at age 8. You know, these weren’t familiar words. But I was able to decipher, you know, what it meant and what had happened. When I realised that the hands that changed my diapers stabbed, shot, you know, did all these horrible things to these innocent young people, the world felt incredibly frightening. I thought if my father could kill, anyone could kill. I started sleeping with knives and scissors under my bed. I was suicidal. This vicarious trauma was just eating at me.”
Jenn remembers worrying that she would one day grow up to murder people. It caused her extreme mental distress.
“Here I am, I am a suicidal 9-year-old with a homicidal father. It was just a period of torture...Most children of serial killers self-destruct with either substance abuse or being suicidal or they change their name and disappear and lay low. And there’s a few of us who do advocacy.”
Jenn is one of those people. She told Dave that her work as an advocate for children of prisoners has helped her immensely.
“In the United States, 1 in every 40 kids has a parent in prison right now…it’s just my life’s work to help kids impacted by trauma.“
That’s not to say her adult life has been without its problems, Jenn explained. The stigma of who her father is has affected her relationships.
“The man I had hoped to marry had said, you know, ‘I just cannot have children who have to deal with this.”
Dave asked if Jenn has any contact with her father today. He and her step-mother remain in prison. Jenn recounted the last time she saw him, as a young adult. It was the moment she decided not to have him in her life anymore.
“During that meeting, there was just absolutely no remorse. There was even bragging about the murders. And so, I just kind of told myself that my father was not in there anymore. That that is a different person. And I just kind of walked away.”
As well as working with children of prisoners, Jenn works with families of victims as well.
“I’ve actually had the honour of meeting the families of my father’s victims. Three of the victims’ families. And we joined together in 2015 to fight his release…We’re going to be doing it again in 2020.”
While Jenn doesn’t believe she can solve any of the estimated 12 cold cases by herself, she told Dave that she will co-operate with any investigation that might come up. Including, she says, one on Irish soil.
“You have four cold cases in Ireland within the time period. One of them is kind of a little bit similar to the MO [of Michael Carson and Susan Barnes]... I would be glad to give my DNA to your police in Ireland.”
Listen back to the full interview on The Ryan Tubridy Show here
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