Thursday, August 18, 2011 – 3:30 PM
The witness was a co-worker of the victim at The Juke Joint in 1987. The interview was conducted at the Yoknapatawpha County Sheriff's Department by Detectives Armstrong and Murphy and was recorded with the witness' knowledge and consent.
- Detective Ted Armstrong
- Detective Samantha Murphy
- Rhonda Pendergrass
Rhonda Pendergrass: I got your call. You wanted to see me?
Detective Murphy: Yes, Ms. Pendergrass. Thanks for coming. We have just a few more questions about Kevin Gilmore.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Of course.
Detective Murphy: Before we start, can you give your name and address for the record?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Rhonda Jo Pendergrass, 396 Ridgewood Manor Drive.
Detective Armstrong: That’s a nice location.
Rhonda Pendergrass: I’ve been lucky. What can I do to help?
Detective Murphy: We appreciate that, Ms. Pendergrass –
Rhonda Pendergrass: Call me Rhonda.
Detective Murphy: Okay, Rhonda. I know you’ve already told some of our colleagues how you knew Kevin, but I hope you don’t mind discussing it again.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Of course not. We were coworkers at the restaurant.
Detective Murphy: The Juke Joint?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yes. Actually, at the time it was less of a restaurant and more of a movie theater. It was in transition. There was a café, but small – there were usually just two of us on shift at a time for serving food.
Detective Murphy: How long had you been working there?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Don’t you know this already? I started in 1979, just a couple years after it opened.
Detective Murphy: And how long did Kevin work there before he died?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I think he started in 1986. Don’t remember exactly. So many kids come through. It’s an ideal student job. I remember Kevin specially because – well, with everything that happened.
Detective Murphy: How well did you know him?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Okay, I guess. The staff was so small, and when it was slow we could hang out.
Detective Murphy: Were you and Kevin especially close?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I don't know what you mean by that.
Detective Murphy: Like did you and he date?
Rhonda Pendergrass: [LAUGHS] God, no. No, no, no. If anything, I was like these kids’ mom. I mean, geez, I was more than twice their age. But Kevin – well, he was like a number of boys who came through. They all reminded me of Bobby. That’s my brother. He played basketball too. Died in Vietnam in ’68.
Detective Murphy: I’m sorry.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Thanks. It was rough. And to see it playing out again today – Obama sounds good, but he’s a fascist just like the rest of them. All those kids dying in Afghanistan. And he’s got more covert ops going than Shrub ever did. It’s an outrage.
Detective Armstrong: Let’s stay on point, Rhonda.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Sorry. You’re probably ex-military, aren’t you?
Detective Murphy: So you’re saying Kevin was like a brother?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. I definitely felt love for him, but nothing creepy. I mean, I just really wanted to protect and help him. It was the same for all those young guys. I tried to be generous with them. Share my life experience – I’ve been around. And Kevin – his background was different, not having money, and working so hard, and wanting something better for himself than what he started with. Being a single mom, more or less, I understood how he was being pulled in all kinds of directions to make that happen. We connected over that.
Detective Murphy: Did you ever see each other outside work?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No.
Detective Armstrong: You never had any of these guys over to party?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Look, I had two kids under age ten. I wasn’t doing any partying, and if the others were, they didn’t invite me. I didn’t have time. No, we just bonded at work. That was it.
Detective Murphy: So you never spent time with Kevin outside the Juke Joint?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No.
Detective Armstrong: Did you ever give him a ride back to campus in your car?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. He almost always got a ride with other students. But – oh, wait. I remember. I get why you’re asking about this. Someone told you I gave him a ride to Tupelo once.
Detective Murphy: When was this?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Don't know why you guys just can't come out and say it. I mean, what’s so hard about saying, "Did you ever take Kevin to Tupelo to visit his aunt in the hospital?"
Detective Murphy: Is that what the trip was for?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. And it was -- well, it was just a couple of weeks before he died, max. Maybe even the week before.
Detective Murphy: What happened on the trip?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Like I told you, he had a sick aunt in Tupelo. He told me he was worried about her one night at work, and so I said, well, let’s go see her tomorrow. So I got my mom to watch the kids, and we drove over there and back. That’s it.
Detective Murphy: What happened at the hospital?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I stayed in the lobby, smoked a cigarette outside. I figured he wanted to see her on his own. Hospitals creep me out.
Detective Murphy: Did he talk about what made her sick?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Don’t remember. I do recall him saying she was going to be okay though. Yeah.
Detective Murphy: The drive’s, what, an hour each way? What did you guys talk about?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Work, I guess. I don’t really remember.
Detective Armstrong: Did he mention this second job he was going to get?
Rhonda Pendergrass: What job?
Detective Armstrong: Well, a couple of days ago you told the other investigators that Kevin said something about owing money, and that he was looking for another job, or a higher paying job. This was at work.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Right.
Detective Murphy: So did you talk about it in the car?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. He just mentioned it that one time. But I was always worried about him. I was always telling him he had to keep his grades up so he kept the scholarship. I kept saying, you have to stay in school, it’s your ticket out of here. He knew that, but he was always overcommitting. [LAUGHS] I probably lectured him the whole way to Tupelo and back. He probably couldn’t wait to get out of that car.
Detective Armstrong: Did Kevin mention his health?
Rhonda Pendergrass: His health? No. He wasn’t the one that was sick.
Detective Murphy: It’s just that sometimes, I don’t know, you visit the hospital and it brings to mind your own situation.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Does it? I was just glad to get the hell out of there.
Detective Armstrong: What about at work? Did anyone ever mention Kevin having problems?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. He never called in sick. I mean, geez, he was an athlete, he was cute, he was strong, what could the problem be? Unless he had an STD. Safe sex, I always told them – all the kids at the restaurant. I would lecture them all. We had condom machines in the bathrooms. At the time, in this town, it was a scandal.
Detective Murphy: Okay, Rhonda. So you drove Kevin to Tupelo. Do you remember anything else unusual that happened right before he died?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. We saw each other at work, and then all of a sudden he was gone. It was shocking.
Detective Murphy: Do you remember the last time you saw him?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah, obviously, we just talked about it. The thing about the job. Do we really have to go through it again?
Detective Armstrong: I’m afraid so.
Detective Murphy: It will really help us, Ms. Pendergrass.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Rhonda. Call me Rhonda. Okay. It’s just – well, I never really thought through this stuff before, but now that I mentioned Bobby, I guess the shock was kind of the same when Kevin died. This young man, his whole life ahead of him, it’s all gone instantly. It was so sad.
Detective Murphy: Of course, Rhonda. So when did you last see Kevin?
Rhonda Pendergrass: It was a Thursday night – was that December tenth? – at work.
Detective Murphy: Did you notice anything unusual?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Well, yeah. That was when we had the whole money discussion. He came into worked looking all upset, and I asked him if he was feeling okay and what was wrong, and he told me he had to take on another job to earn some extra cash to pay back his debts.
Detective Murphy: What did you say?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I gave him another lecture about keeping his priorities straight. Asked him where was this job, and what was this money he owed. I really put on the mom act.
Detective Murphy: What did he tell you?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Nothing. He kind of clammed up and said it would be okay, and not to worry about it. I must have been pushing too hard. When I left, I gave him a hug. God, thinking about it now – it’s so sad. I wish I said something else, I don’t know, to stop him. I could have given him the money. I feel terrible.
Detective Murphy: How much was he talking about?
Rhonda Pendergrass: He didn’t say. I mean, I guess if it was a lot, which it sounded like it was, I couldn’t really give him the money – but I didn’t even try. It’s rough. One of those moments you wish you could do over.
Detective Armstrong: Did he look sick at the time?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Why?
Detective Armstrong: You asked him if he was feeling okay.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. I guess he looked stressed. Maybe a little pale. He was always on top of his schedule – he had never called in sick before. So I guess I noticed.
Detective Murphy: He never told you he had a health condition?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Why do you keep asking about this?
Detective Armstrong: Did he say anything to you about his health?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. What’s the story – was he sick or something?
Detective Armstrong: Let’s move on. What happened that night when you left the Juke Joint?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Same as what always happened. I went straight home to the apartment. My mom could get home to bed. And then I checked the kids, put the coffee maker for the morning, smoke a cigarette, and go comatose.
Detective Armstrong: What do you remember about the days between Thursday and Sunday, when Kevin’s body was found?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Well, I remember he didn’t show up for work Friday. He was on the schedule, but he wasn’t there. Someone called the dorm, left a message. Then on Saturday, some jocks came in and they told me he wasn’t at the game.
Detective Murphy: At that point, what did you think had happened?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I have no idea. Maybe he took some time off or needed to catch up on finals – it was end of the semester, those kids worked so hard. But missing the game – I knew he’d never do that. It creeped me out. At that point, I tried calling but I just got the machine. I didn’t leave a message, I didn’t know what I would even say.
Detective Murphy: Did you talk with any of the other staff at the restaurant about it?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Not beyond wondering where he was, and them complaining about having to cover for him.
Detective Murphy: What about Kevin’s friends, or his girlfriend – did you hear from them at all?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. God, they must have been beside themselves. And his parents.
Detective Murphy: Did you try visiting the dorm?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Oh, no. Thatt didn’t feel right. Besides my ex – well, at the time, he was still my husband – for once, he was home that weekend, so I didn’t really think too much about it.
Detective Murphy: What’s your ex-husband’s name?
Rhonda Pendergrass: JT – that’s Jeffrey Theodore Pendergrass. He’s a long-haul trucker, or maybe he’s retired now. I don’t know. We split more than twenty years ago.
Detective Murphy: He still live here in town?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. But he didn’t know Kevin.
Detective Armstrong: So what about that Sunday?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Well, I was with JT and I got a call from Jim – Jim Mason, he owned the restaurant at the time. He told me Kevin was gone and the police wanted to ask some questions. I pretty much fell apart.
Detective Armstrong: Did anything else happen that day?
Rhonda Pendergrass: JT started yelling, asking me who was the guy that died and why did I care. We had a fight. I remember that. The kids were crying. That whole day was just terrible.
Detective Murphy: After that, did you talk more about Kevin?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Of course. Geez, how could we not talk about it? I mean at work. We were all just in shock, and kept wondering if there was something we could have done.
Detective Murphy: Did you hear from his friends again, or maybe his parents?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Never. It was just us at the restaurant who talked about him, wondering. And then when summer came they all left for break, and we got some high school kids in who of course didn’t know Kevin, and then the next fall it was a whole new crew. That’s how it was, back then – a revolving door.
Detective Armstrong: Now, this was 1988 you’re talking about, right?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. The year I bought Jim out.
Detective Murphy: How did you come to buy The Juke Joint? It sounds like you had your hands full with your kids.
Rhonda Pendergrass: I did. But – what does this have to do with Kevin?
Detective Armstrong: We’d just like to gather some background information.
Rhonda Pendergrass: It’s completely unrelated.
Detective Murphy: Please, Ms. Pender – I mean, Rhonda. It will help us find his killer sooner. How did you come to buy The Juke Joint?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Okay. Whatever. It was just such a freak occurrence. It was an inheritance out of nowhere. So I bought the place.
Detective Murphy: Who was it from?
Rhonda Pendergrass: My uncle. Orvil Whelan, over in Memphis. I barely knew the guy, but I guess he didn’t have any kids, so he left it all to me.
Detective Murphy: Do you know why?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No idea. I last visited him when I was living in Chattanooga, before the kids were born. We didn’t keep in touch, but he talked to Dad. Maybe he knew about me coming back here.
Detective Murphy: Did he leave anything to your brother?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Gene? No. I didn’t get why. But you know what they say. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Detective Murphy: How much was it?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Fifty thousand dollars.
Detective Armstrong: That’s quite a sum.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. It was literally just a check in the mail, came with a letter from a law firm explaining what had happened. It was a while after he died.
Detective Murphy: No one mentioned it at the funeral?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Memphis. The funeral. No. I didn’t go. Dad did; he went alone. Mom stayed here with me and the kids. Dad never said anything about it. I doubt he knew.
Detective Murphy: Do you still have that letter?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I should have framed it, right? But no. I tossed it at some point. We moved a couple times since then.
Detective Murphy: Do you remember the name of that law firm?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Sorry, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then.
Detective Armstrong: What made you use the money to buy the Juke Joint?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I still don’t get what this has to do with Kevin.
Detective Armstrong: Trust us – we wouldn’t waste your time if we thought it wasn’t going to lead somewhere.
Rhonda Pendergrass: "Trust us." No offense, but I don’t trust cops. I lived through the sixties. Watergate.
Detective Murphy: I understand, Rhonda, but this is just us. No conspiracy. We’re just trying to help Kevin.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Right. Okay. I don’t get it, but fine. Why did I buy The Juke Joint, you want to know. Well, once upon a time, I would have spent it all at once, but at that point, I’d been around a but. I had kids. So I thought about it, and I figured the best way to use the money was to buy something that would continue making more money. The Juke Joint – well, at the time it was a wreck. But I saw possibilities.
Detective Murphy: Was it for sale?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Not like listed, or anything. But Jim – bless his heart, he founded the place. He couldn’t balance a checkbook. And he couldn’t keep up with the changes. We all had our hippie fun, but Jim wanted to stay back there in the past. He’d show art house stuff at seven and nine, really obscure, two or three people in the audience, and then at midnight all the frat boys would come in to watch porn. Debbie Does Dallas, you name it. That was when I first started. I helped sell popcorn – that was it for food. When video came out, no one came to theaters to watch porn anymore, and that was what was keeping us in business. We were in trouble, so Jim opened the café – already things were changing, and I said to him, I want this place to keep going, I want to keep my job, and I can take it to the next level. He was about to foreclose, so I bought him out. Assumed the mortgage and gave him a lump sum.
Detective Murphy: You assumed his mortgage officially?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. The bank and everything. It probably only went through because Mom and Dad co-signed.
Detective Murphy: When was this?
Rhonda Pendergrass: November 1988. I wanted to make some changes before spring semester.
Detective Murphy: What kind of changes?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Well, the college kids were different – our customer base. It was the 80s, all of a sudden they had money. It’s been that way ever since, all these little yuppie mini-mes. I’m just giving them what they want. The late hours were fine, but the food had to get a lot better. For a while we did some bands in the back of the house, but mostly I wanted to keep the movies, vintage stuff. So it’s the good food and the old movies – we do themes, like Valentine’s Day to bring in the dating couples, or girlfriend nights, what have you. Star Wars marathon weekends, for the dweebs. The restaurant takes up most of the room now. Professional grade kitchen.
Detective Murphy: That kind of upgrade must have cost a lot.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Yeah. It was a risk.
Detective Murphy: Did the fifty thousand dollars cover it?
Rhonda Pendergrass: More or less, I guess. I don’t really remember. I might have maxed out a couple credit cards, too. I don’t know.
Detective Murphy: Did you have any other income at the time?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No.
Ted Armstrong: Did you sell drugs through the restaurant?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Are you kidding? No way.
Detective Murphy: What about now?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Absolutely not.
Detective Armstrong: What about when Jim Mason ran the place?
Rhonda Pendergrass: He might have. But look, I have kids. I had them back when I started waitressing. No way was I going to put them at risk. I wanted no part of any of that. Is this why we’re actually talking? I’m here to help Kevin.
Detective Murphy: All right. What about Kevin – was he ever involved in drugs?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Absolutely not.
Detective Murphy: What makes you so sure?
Rhonda Pendergrass: Well, his condition, for one. I mean being an athlete. That would have been a really dumb way to lose the scholarship and he knew it. No need to lecture on that one.
Detective Murphy: He never mentioned dealing drugs?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. He would never do that.
Detective Armstrong: Have you had any other jobs on the side since you moved to Oxford?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. Well, I owned some dot com stuff once, another company here in town, but it got bought out. It’s just the restaurant now.
Detective Murphy: Has anything else come up about Kevin over the years?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No. I sure remembered him – from time to time, I’d think about how he might have grown up. But no. When I read in the paper about the new evidence I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t thought about him in a while, and it brought everything back.
Detective Murphy: Is there anything else you can think of that we should know?
Rhonda Pendergrass: No.
Detective Murphy: Who might have wanted to hurt Kevin?
Rhonda Pendergrass: I don’t know. It was like I told the guys the other day. I mean, maybe whoever he owed money to come to collect. It doesn’t make sense. He was so responsible.
Detective Armstrong: All right. Well, I think you've told us everything you're going to. Let's go ahead and put an end to this. Thanks.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Thanks.
Detective Murphy: Just give us a call if you think of anything else.
Rhonda Pendergrass: Good luck.
Interview ended 3:52 PM