By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Kimberly Brennan found herself struggling through her daily routine of classes. Troubling her was the news she heard while driving to her Cal State San Bernardino campus on the morning of November 17, 2005, about a particularly gruesome murder that occurred in the pre-dawn hours mere blocks from the Palm Desert home of her grandmother, Virginia Bragg. She called Bragg to ask if she knew anything about the murder. She didn’t get a clear answer.
Even though she was estranged from him, Kimberly couldn’t stop thinking about her brother, Kevin. She’d been angry with him for surrendering his potential to rabidly addictive methamphetamine. But today, Kimberly was feeling more apprehension than anger. It was the kind of intuition twins are famous for having, and Kimberly had a sick feeling. She thought about the murder, then she thought about Kevin. No, he couldn’t have been involved. The killer was 35 and the victim was 20. Kevin is only 19.
Kimberly called her grandmother one more time, saying that she wanted to visit. Driving east along Interstate 10, she tried to stay calm by imagining arriving at her grandmother’s and seeing Kevin there. Or maybe her grandmother would tell her Kevin had called and everything was fine.
Passing San Bernardino’s fast-food outlets and ’50s-era suburbs, Kimberly followed the freeway southeast through mountain vistas, across grassy hillsides, Indian gaming casinos, and the fields of spindly windmills outlying Palm Springs.
East of San Bernardino, the air turns crisper and clearer, and Palm Desert’s tract homes, its rows of palm trees and expansive golf courses, imply a wealth that’s harder to find back in San Bernardino, or farther east in Indio.
Though the scale of drug use that for years earned the Inland Empire the reputation of “meth capital of the world” has started to decline, the stark brutality of meth and its consequences still covers the landscape like a layer of dust, even in upscale burgs such as Palm Desert and La Quinta. Meth is a drug of camaraderie as well as a respite from the disappointments and heartbreaks that are indifferent to income levels and neighborhoods.
So pervasive is meth here that Dr. Kiti Freier of the Loma Linda University Medical Center estimates that 30 percent of the Inland Empire’s quarter of a million schoolchildren suffer some consequence of the drug’s grip on the area. This, despite raids on local labs by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency last year and the passage of the Combat Meth Act in 2005, which restricted the sale of cold medicines that provide ingredients of the synthetic drug.
Originally from Chicago, Virginia Bragg is of Irish stock. The Catholic Church has always been a central part of her life, and of her family’s. Looking at Bragg, one can see where Kimberly and Kevin inherited their high foreheads and wide noses. Kimberly and her grandmother also share a gentle demeanor and wry sense of humor — not quite sarcastic, but on that trail — especially when describing the tragedies and absurdities of their travails. They both speak in short, clipped phrases and don’t dwell on their hard knocks. Instead, they pray and put on strong faces — until they explode, or break down in tears, or both. But for the most part, they endure with stoic perseverance, like pioneer women of folklore, world-wise and a little bit weary because of it.
“My daughter, Nancy, was promiscuous,” Bragg tells me when I meet her at her spacious tract home with its cozy fireplace and her knitting and embroidery projects draped over the kitchen table. She seems lost in the fog of memory, running her fingers across the tabletop as she speaks.
An incongruous mix of health addict and occasional drug user, Nancy abandoned the Catholic Church for more bohemian interests, like many hippies of her generation. An avid sewer, she worked as a wardrobe mistress for MGM Studios in Las Vegas, and as a waitress in a coffee shop. She traveled to China and was a vegetarian before she had the twins.
The story of the twins’ origin is a monument to convolution. Nancy was going through so many boyfriends at the time of their birth; nobody has been able to determine where her AIDS came from. (Bragg is sure that Nancy never used drugs intravenously.) The twins got their surname from one of Nancy’s boyfriends, a guy who called himself Paul Brennan. (Nancy already had two small children when she met Brennan.)
Later in the day, over a snack at the local Coco’s Restaurant — one of Bragg’s favorite hangouts — Bragg sips on a glass of ice water and ties together her truncated recollection of Paul Brennan. “Nancy was crazy about him because he somehow convinced her that he cared for people. He got her to take the kids and live in a trailer up in Oregon.”
After the Brennan affair ran its course, Nancy returned to the desert. Following another brief fling that ended when the guy smacked Nancy, William Bragg, the son of Virginia’s second husband, entered the picture and fathered the twins. As Virginia Bragg notes with twisted humor, referring to her own second husband, oil executive Roger Bragg: “His son and my daughter had the twins, so I was married to both of their grandfathers.”
At the time Nancy was pregnant with Kimberly and Kevin, she was working at a restaurant where she fell in love with a co-worker, Dan Jimenez. Because of her crush on Jimenez, she banished William Bragg from her life, and from the lives of their children, even before they were born. The kids were given Brennan’s name, though he wasn’t their father and, it turns out, Brennan was a pseudonym he used. Meanwhile, they grew up calling their stepfather, Jimenez, dad.
Nancy, Jimenez and the twins lived in an apartment near Virginia Bragg’s home. As Nancy became more ill, Jimenez began his progressive withdrawal from the family. When Nancy became too weak to care for her children, the family moved in with Virginia, who still keeps Kevin’s bedroom with the teddy bears, stuffed wool lizards and the fire engine he used to play with as a child.
Kevin was a “mama’s boy,” Bragg remembers, not just because of his own temperament, but also because of the way Nancy doted on him. This was among the reasons that Kimberly forged a particularly close bond with her grandmother, and why Nancy’s death may have devastated Kevin even more than it did his sister.
Bragg remembers Kevin’s bravery at the scene of his mother’s death: Bragg, Kevin and Jimenez were all in the hospital room when Nancy stopped breathing. Hours passed, and the body needed to be moved from deathbed to gurney. “I don’t know what to do with this boy,” Jimenez said, trying to face the difficult task ahead of them. “I can’t do this with him in the room.”
Kevin told his grandmother that he wanted to stay.
“And Kevin walked with her all the way out to the hearse,” Bragg recalls while chewing on an ice cube.
Bragg says that Jimenez didn’t show up for the funeral. She remembers Kevin pacing up and down, looking everywhere for his stepfather. Jimenez withdrew from the family after Nancy’s death. So when Nancy died, it was as if the children lost two parents.
Virginia Bragg walks slowly through Harry Truman Elementary School in Palm Desert, which Kevin attended. It’s an hour after the day’s final bell, and a marching band is practicing in a classroom off a narrow walkway. A chorus of clarinets wanders in the vicinity of a common note, a trumpet squeaks. Bragg walks by, slowly, remembering how Kevin played clarinet in that same band, for a term.
Farther inside the quad, there’s a beehive of activity — tables being set up for a dinner fund-raiser. Tablecloths are tossed over benches, then linens and silverware hastily spread.
Barbara Frenznick, a fifth-grade teacher who had Kevin in her class, tells me that Kevin was a good student and well liked by his peers. “At the beginning of the school year,” she says, “I have them do a writing sample — tell me something I wouldn’t know just by looking at you. Most wrote about their hobbies, what they did over the summer, but Kevin chose to write about his mom, and the event of her passing, and how that affected him, an emotional piece with unusual depth about the loss of a parent. He was always very respectful, not super outgoing, maybe a bit introspective, a few friends, not as many as most, but he wasn’t a loner.”
As we drive out of the parking lot, Bragg, in the passenger seat, squints into the sun, remembering how Kevin also used to hang out after school with the janitor, part of his endless quest for father figures.
In middle school, Kevin excelled in the Cadets, an after-school police-training program for youth, administered by the Riverside Sheriff’s Department. He basked in the discipline and male camaraderie, the marching in formation and the standing in place. He was an altar boy at his grandmother’s church, St. Francis of Assisi in La Quinta, where parish priest Jack Barker gave both twins as much care and support as he could, using the church as a kind of extended family.
The stucco and Spanish-tile church is nestled beneath a looming crucifix planted in a daunting cliff of desert rocks directly behind the cavernous chapel. The air is cool inside. Bragg stares at the stained glass.
“I used to watch Kevin in his Cadet drills and during the Book of Names service at the church. I was amazed by his self-discipline, his ability to stand stone still, almost like he wasn’t breathing, for an hour at a time. ‘Grandma, it’s in your mind,’ he told me.”
Kevin’s mind may have been strong as steel, but his sister could tell his heart was breaking. She sensed something was wrong and tried to get her grandmother to talk to Kevin, to get him to open up in a deeper way. But Bragg is of a generation that doesn’t do that, doesn’t know how.
Kimberly noticed that Kevin had never cried since he was a child, not even at their mother’s funeral. Kimberly understood that she had careened into a huge depression following her mother’s death, which she talked through with counselors and her closest friends. She found herself sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the night and growing uncharacteristically irritable. Sometimes she found it difficult to face the day, to go to school. She was frequently ill.
Kimberly and Kevin didn’t talk much, about their mother’s death or anything else, but they watched out for each other like soldiers in a bunker.
On one occasion, Kevin found a dead cat in the yard. He begged his grandmother to keep Kimberly inside the house while he dealt with it.
Still, they maintained an almost formal distance from each other, some of which was imposed by the Palm Desert school system, whose policy is to keep siblings out of the same classes. While Kevin, with a small, loose attachment of friends, was drawn to art and computers, Kimberly was comparatively sociable, and had a tight circle of friends. The twins may have come from the same root, but they were growing in different directions.
You get a good view of the sun setting from the lunch bench behind the grassy quads at Palm Desert High School. A steel clip clanks against a flagpole in the desert wind.
In their first year and a half of high school, Kevin tutored his sister about music, turning her on to bands such as Sublime, Weezer, Green Day, Incubus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sometimes he’d quiz her by playing music to see if she could identify the artist. They ate mainly their grandmother’s home-cooked meals. Yet by the end of high school, neither was home much, spinning into separate worlds. Kimberly went to local restaurants — Del Taco, T.G.I. Friday’s, Red Robin, The River — with her friends. She remained active in church and school clubs. Meanwhile, Kevin found a new circle of friends, what Kimberly calls “the wrong friends,” bonded by drugs.
From a distance, Kimberly watched her brother’s growing infatuation with his first high school sweetheart, which came around age 14. His girlfriend’s father was a psychiatrist, an advocate for what he called “emancipation.” Kimberly remembers the man as “strange.” Bragg calls him a “control freak” for continually interfering in the growing relationship. He insisted that Kevin stop attending St. Francis church and go instead to his family’s evangelical church.
Against his grandmother’s wishes and his sister’s advice, Kevin followed his girlfriend’s requests and obeyed her father. Bragg recalls a bizarre conference phone call in which the man telephoned Bragg while Kevin was on the line, and said, “Kevin, tell your grandmother why you’re so afraid of her.”
Then, one day, the psychiatrist forbade the relationship between Kevin and his daughter. Kimberly suspects it was because the man learned that Kevin was starting to experiment with drugs. They could be friends but they couldn’t hold hands and were not allowed to kiss.
Kimberly says that this broken relationship, in conjunction with Kevin’s early drug use, precipitated profound changes in Kevin’s appearance and behavior: He was becoming noticeably thinner as the meth sapped his appetite, and more agitated, easily distracted.
While Kimberly maintained a grade-point average that would qualify her for most state universities, Kevin’s scholastic and professional ambitions were being overruled by his drug habit. Ferociously intelligent by all accounts, Kevin couldn’t maintain good grades. He said he had no interest in attending a university. Being a computer whiz, he was setting his sights on ITT Technical Institute, or the military.
While Kimberly remained devout, Kevin started to slip away from his grandmother’s church and its influence.
Meanwhile, Kimberly noticed the occasional $20 bill missing from her wallet when she got up in the morning. The same thing started happening to Bragg. They started sleeping with their money tucked under their pillows. Kimberly confronted Kevin, who answered with a volley of denials, apologies and more denials. Screaming matches led to shoving matches between brother and sister. She pleaded with him to enter drug rehab. He did so on several occasions, but never completed a program.
Bragg remembers watching her grandson during one of the last Masses he attended. The 15-year-old altar boy stood silent and still during the Book of Names service, but Bragg noticed his fists clenched, like never before.
“It must have been the drugs,” she says.
On one occasion, Kevin transferred funds from his grandmother’s credit union into his own bank account. Bragg caught the theft on paper. More denials. More apologies. Bragg insisted that her grandson repay the funds over time. And he did.
When the twins were in their junior year of high school, Bragg called the sheriff after discovering that somebody purchasing beer and cigarettes was using her stolen credit card at the local Albertsons.
“I figured it was Kevin. That call was one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” Bragg says.
When Kevin got home, the sheriff was waiting for him.
“Kevin, do you have your grandmother’s credit card?”
“Why don’t you give it back to her.”
Kevin was taken to juvenile hall, the first in a series of youth facilities and rehabilitation centers that he paraded through over the coming months.
Because Kevin knew some of the Riverside sheriff’s deputies from his participation in the department’s Cadets and Explorers after-school programs, he was able on some occasions to talk his way out of incarceration. One time, when he was imprisoned near the Mexican border in a particularly isolated and brutal facility, he even persuaded his skeptical grandmother to collect him. “Manipulative” was replacing “charming” as the favorite adjective among friends and family to describe Kevin.
Meanwhile, exasperated by the emotional turmoil inflicted by her brother, Kimberly moved out of Bragg’s home to live temporarily with a neighbor, Deena Hayes, and her family. Kevin learned about this and wrote to his sister furiously from a detention center, almost ordering her to return home, and lecturing her on the sanctity of family. Kimberly was too angry to reply to this or any of his other letters, though she did save them.
Kevin returned from rehab shortly before Christmas 2003. He had been court-ordered to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, though Morgan Burkett, a girlfriend of Kevin’s at the time, said he was smoking meth throughout. Burkett says she broke off the courtship after Kevin grew too demanding of her time and also because he was monopolizing the time she used to spend with Kimberly, her best friend.
As Kim applied to Cal State Hayward, for new vistas and to be near her half sister, Amie, in Oakland, Kevin — as razor sharp as ever — tested out of high school early. He wanted to join the Navy, but he didn’t qualify until he could complete a drug-rehab program. The Army tried to recruit him, but Kevin decided he’d prefer to stay in the California desert than visit an Iraqi one.
It was around this time that Kimberly was invited to a neighboring high school prom as a blind date and met Jude Johnson, with whom she forged a stabilizing partnership. “He tolerated all my tantrums and moods with a huge support. He saved my life,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kevin was working odd jobs and taking classes at a local community college.
“He was trapped in the desert,” says Kimberly.
In the summer of 2005, at the wedding of a cousin in San Diego, Kimberly and Kevin finally met their biological father, William Bragg, who was there with his wife. Kimberly didn’t talk to him much, but Kevin and his father found a common language, and friendship, which they vowed to continue. As she had through so much of her life, Kimberly watched Kevin from a distance but also with relief as he appeared to find some meaning in his past, and perhaps some hope for his future.
“I think meeting our father helped Kevin feel like he had a place, like he wasn’t just a lost person.”
Adds Virginia Bragg, “For the first time, Kevin saw an older man with a physical likeness to himself. He started to feel where he came from.”
Ernest Harmon is a big man with a Fu Manchu mustache and a gentle demeanor. He appears groggy in an orange jumpsuit behind the thick glass that separates prisoners from their visitors at the Larson Justice Center in Indio. He signals that we have to wait until exactly 8 a.m. for the microphones to go on. When the second hand on a wall clock rolls over the 12, all the prisoners and visitors pick up telephones on their respective sides of the glass. Harmon keeps rubbing his eyes and nodding.
Harmon, who grew up in Fontana and worked as an electrician, was 34 years old when he first met Kevin, in late 2004. He denies he was ever Kevin’s friend. “We were acquaintances,” he says. “Our relationship was based on drugs.” On several occasions, Kevin slept over at Harmon’s Palm Desert apartment on Michigan Street.
Harmon’s apartment was also occupied by his girlfriend of two years, 23-year-old Christina St. Louis, and her 5-year-old daughter, Crystal. Preliminary hearing testimony, court documents and police reports piece together a picture that is something other than domestic bliss. St. Louis has been a meth addict since she was 16. On one occasion, police found three meth pipes in her bedroom closet, and one stuffed under a couch, inches from where Crystal was sleeping.
In early 2005, Harmon was arrested for possession. He entered a court-ordered rehab program that he, unlike Kevin, successfully completed. His primary goal in life, from the summer of 2005, was to stay off meth. With this in mind he tried repeatedly and in vain to persuade St. Louis to enter a rehab program, but his attempts were continually undermined by his girlfriend’s drug supplier — Kevin Brennan.
November 13, 2005, was Harmon’s 35th birthday. Harmon’s friend Lucia Sanchez, was at Harmon’s apartment that evening cooking dinner. Also present were Kevin, St. Louis and Crystal. It was a strange and strained celebration, given how, St. Louis admitted to police, she and Kevin had had sex the day before. After Harmon learned of this infidelity, he and Kevin struck a pact whereby Kevin wouldn’t pursue St. Louis romantically and would stop supplying her with meth.
St. Louis, however, had other plans. In the days following her liaison with Kevin, she tried to sever her relationship with Harmon and persuade him to pack his belongings and vacate his own apartment. Harmon grew increasingly distraught.
Meanwhile, Kimberly found herself alienated and lonely in Northern California. In the fall of 2005, she transferred from Cal State Hayward back to the desert climes of Cal State San Bernardino, living at times with her grandmother and at other times with her boyfriend, Jude Johnson. Upon her return to the Southland, she was almost completely disengaged from Kevin and his world, but relieved that, from her understanding, Kevin appeared to have stabilized, holding down a steady job as a clerk at the auxiliary store of a Chevron station in Rancho Mirage, while also working as a caddy at a nearby golf course. His supervisor at Chevron, John Molina, describes Kevin as reliable and friendly — “a good worker and a good guy.” At last, Kimberly felt she could stop worrying about him.
On November 14, St. Louis was jailed in Fontana on an outstanding arrest warrant for unpaid traffic violations. Two days later, Harmon and Kevin drove to Fontana to pick up St. Louis and her daughter, Crystal, where they’d been staying with a friend. According to pretrial testimony, when they got back to the apartment, Lucia Sanchez was smoking cigarettes on the patio. Kevin and St. Louis ditched Crystal and repaired to a bedroom closet to smoke meth.
This breach of the pact Kevin made with Harmon further inflamed the tensions among them. Later in the evening, while Kevin was taking a shower, Harmon asked St. Louis to pick him up a pack of cigarettes from a local store. After a brief, bitter argument between them, St. Louis drove off to run this errand in such a pique that her tires screeched as she sped away.
From outside the bathroom, Harmon overheard a cell-phone conversation between Kevin and St. Louis.
“You just left? When I’m done taking a shower, I’ll meet up with you,” Harmon heard Kevin say.
Sanchez gave authorities a chilling account of what happened next. At about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of November 17, from the patio, she heard screaming. Not realizing the source of the cries, she ran inside and entered the bathroom, where she saw Harmon, dressed, on top of Kevin, who was naked in the bathtub. Harmon appeared to have smashed Kevin’s head through the drywall. Sanchez told detectives Harmon was plunging and twisting a 6-inch knife inside Kevin’s neck. Blood coated the walls and the floor.
“No, Ernie,” Kevin pleaded, while Sanchez shouted at Harmon, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She started to run back outside. “Don’t go!” Harmon ordered. “Don’t leave!” Sanchez testified that Harmon’s eyes were rolled back in his head, maniacally. She ran from the house and immediately called her ex-boyfriend, Richard Meza, who advised her to call the police immediately.
Now out on the street, Harmon saw his reflection in a car mirror and was shocked that he was covered in blood. The responding sheriff was initially concerned that Harmon had injured himself. “I stabbed by girlfriend’s boyfriend,” Harmon told him. “It’s bad.”
That same afternoon, Kimberly returned from her classes to her grandmother’s home. As she pulled into the driveway, she noticed a family friend leaving the property. “I could tell something was really wrong,” Kimberly recalls. “She said, ‘Just take care of Grandma, okay?’?”
Kevin’s funeral, packed with family and friends and community, took place at the same La Quinta church that the twins had attended as children. Father Jack Barker’s eulogy described how ever since his mother’s death, Kevin suffered from “a pain in the heart that would not go away.”
After a year of postponements, Ernest Harmon’s trial is now scheduled for no later than March 2007. The charge is first-degree murder. The defense will argue for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, based on a crime of passion rather than premeditation.
Kimberly has moved once again, this time with Johnson, to the outskirts of San Diego, where she’s continuing her studies at Cal State San Marcos. She says that she misses her brother.
“I always think about how I’m never going to be able to see him — or not for a long, long time — and how he’s not going to be here when I get married and have kids. Even for us not being close, I still miss him. He should have had a chance to live happily,” she says, her voice breaking slightly as we sit in the Cal State San Bernardino student union. “He was so smart, he could have done anything. I used to call him ‘my encyclopedia,’ because I could ask him about anything, and he’d know.
“I’ve been taught you forgive everyone. That’s what Jesus did. It was really hard at first. Now I think [Harmon] doesn’t know why he did it either. It’s not worth hating him and thinking about him all the time. It’s better to think about my brother, happy things about my brother. My friends who were close with him get really upset and want me to hate Harmon. I say if I, as Kevin’s sister, can forgive Harmon and let it go, I think anybody can do that. It was. It happened. That’s all.”