The Murder of Jesse Dirkhising
Disclaimer: This story includes disturbing details of sexual assault and sadistic acts.
Jesse wasn’t long out of primary school. He’d just started 7th grade at Lincoln Middle School — a few miles down the road from his hometown of Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
The year was 1999, nearing the end of September. The 13-year-old boy sometimes went by Jesse Yates and that month he would die in the town of Rogers. He may have taken his last breath in the apartment of his parents’ friend — a man named Davis Don Carpenter. Or he may have died on the way to St. Mary’s Hospital.
The news reports aren’t clear, but he never made it back to Prairie Grove alive.
What is known: Jesse was staying the weekend with Carpenter, 38, and Josh Brown, 22. After Jesse succumbed to his injuries, Carpenter and Brown considered dumping him somewhere, then decided to call the authorities. They figured they had a pretty good legal defense: they would claim it was the kid’s fault he died the way he did.
Child abuse in small-town USA
This is the story of Jesse Dirkhising, who spent his short life in rural America, and whose murder barely made the news. Later, some media outlets would claim the lack of national coverage proved the liberal media was biased toward stories in which gay men looked like victims instead of perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the distasteful topics of pedophilia and child abuse got a pass.
Some news sources chose to compare Jesse’s death — at the hands of two gay men — to Matthew Shepard’s, who was tortured and murdered by two straight men after they picked him up at a Wyoming bar in 1998. Others pointed out that the two crimes had little in common: Shepard, an adult, was the victim of a hate crime, whereas Jesse died after the culmination of rape and pedophilia at the hands of two sexual sadists.
Jesse Dirkhising’s terrible death eventually got noticed, mostly for the wrong reasons.
The crime scene
During August and September 1999, Jesse would occaionally stay in Rogers — a 45-minute drive — with Carpenter, a beauty salon manager. With the permission of his parents, who thought he was helping out at the salon on weekends, Jesse often spent a couple of nights with Carpenter and Brown.
Brown had been sexually abusing Jesse for at least two months leading up to September 26th, when police were called to the Carpenter’s apartment in the early morning hours.
Rogers Police Department received a 911 call to Sunset Drive, where they entered the apartment of a “middle-aged man” exclaiming “he’s not breathing, he’s not breathing!” Also at the scene was a younger man, completely nude, who held a telephone and flashlight.
The police found Jesse, naked and unresponsive, lying on a mattress on the bedroom floor. He had duct tape wrapped around one hand, and there were feces on his abdomen and genitals. He had been gagged.
Next to the boy, they saw an empty bottle of pills.
The teen was unresponsive when EMTs arrived. He was rushed away by ambulance, but did not survive. The coroner reported his cause of death as positional asphyxia with acute amitryptiline (an anti-depressant) intoxication.
Brown and Carpenter
Police attempted to interview Brown, who later admitted he was high on meth. He told the cops that he and Carpenter had given Jesse an antidepressant and a sedative and had also used an enema of urine laced with amitriptyline on the boy.
During their interview, they told police Jesse was a willing participant.
Police determined that Jesse Dirkhising had been raped repeatedly for several hours. Josh Brown explained that on day two of raping Jesse with a variety of objects, he wanted to pause long enough to fix a sandwich in the kitchen. The boy actually died choking on his own underwear, which Brown stuffed in his mouth to keep him quiet while he made himself a meal.
From the kitchen, Brown noticed Jesse had stopped breathing.
They asked Carpenter to come to the RPD station for questioning. Brown was arrested at the scene for second-degree battery after striking one of the investigating officers.
Brown and Carpenter would later blame each other for Jesse’s death, as authorities predicted they would. Similar to the trial of Australian sadist Bevan von Einem, who was convicted in the rape-torture murder of Richard Kelvin in 1983 — each man seemed to have a reason why he was only a witness.
Brown claimed Carpenter directed the plot against Jesse, leaving notes and instructions. Carpenter stated Brown committed all the acts and he only watched.
The media response
In the weeks after the murder, the community of Rogers was described as “circling the wagons.” Residents got tired of talking with reporters, and some questioned why their town was being singled out as especially evil.
In Arkansas, Jesse’s murder was covered widely but the Associated Press didn’t send it to the press wires — a wide distribution network — for almost a month, until October 29th. The Washington Times ran a news brief the next day, but was one of the few national newspapers to report on the story.
But Jesse’s murder did begin to garner national attention when right-wing commentators began attacking the Washington Post and other liberal news outlets. Why, they questioned, was it okay to focus on a gay man as a victim but not explore what lay behind two gay men who were criminals?
The Washington Post had this to say about their coverage:
“Our policy is not to cover murders from out of the Washington area at all unless it’s a case of mass murder or has caused a large local sensation or has raised a larger social issue,’ said Jackson Diehl, the assistant managing editor for national news. ‘The [Matthew] Shepard story was news… because it prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country. It was much more than a murder story for us. More routine crimes may be ignored or limited to news briefs culled from wire services.’”
Sadly, the torture death of a child is not a clear case of an unusual crime, and is not a ‘larger social issue’.
Joshua Brown had already done jail time. He’d been arrested twice for possession of marijuana, once on a contempt citation for failure to report to his probation officer, and once for having an expired license plate.
He was interrogated the night medics spirited Jesse away, and went through a second interrogation the following morning. He made various incriminating statements to the police and also insinuated he wasn’t responsible and didn’t really do anything wrong.
Brown was charged with capital murder and six counts of rape. The rape charges were later reduced to one count, and he was ultimately convicted of rape, for which he received twenty-five years, and first-degree murder. The jury deadlocked on a sentence for the murder conviction, but the Benton County Circuit Court judge sentenced Brown to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Josh Brown (ADC#120142) resides in the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys.
In his legal appeal in September 2003, Brown claimed the police falsely promised leniency in exchange for a confession. With a full-scale IQ of 114, Brown tested in the “high-average” range of intelligence and was not coerced or tricked. The appellate court ruled against him as there was no evidence, based on his tape-recorded confession.
Police recovered child porn from Davis Carpenter’s home, including a how-to guide for sedating a child. Carpenter had in his possession a diagram showing how to tie up and position a victim — in addition to notes detailing fantasies of molesting children.
Carpenter’s court-appointed attorney put in a motion for a change of venue from Benton County, claiming the extensive pretrial publicity would bias jurors. This was denied.
Trial testimony revealed that the two men discussed cleaning Jesse up in the shower and dumping his body right before Carpenter dialed 911.
As with Brown, the jury found Carpenter guilty of rape and first-degree murder.
On April 26, 2001, Davis Carpenter became an inmate (ADC#120443) in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. He resides in the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker. In 2019, he attempted to get a court to test for DNA to introduce exculpating evidence to his case. The judge denied the request, citing his willing confession, admitting to the rape in open court, and being present at the scene.
The crime was all-too-familiar in some ways: a meth-fueled horror show in a state that has the highest meth use rate in the nation. Ultimately, this gruesome child murder got lost in the mix, perhaps because it was too horrible to face or maybe the people of Rogers just wanted to move on.
Few people felt the parents were at fault. They couldn’t have known that their friend Davis Carpenter was a child molester or that his lover was a sadist.
Back at Lincoln, Jesse’s classmates added remembrances to his school locker, which became a memorial. His friends placed flowers on the school bus seat that took him to and from middle school.