Late in 2013, I wrote an article outing Jon Carpenter, a prodigious filer of hundreds of lawsuits against small businesses in Los Angeles, as a convicted child molester who never did his prison time.
In March, nearly four months after L.A. Weekly's story, the wheelchair-bound Carpenter traveled to Zurich, Switzerland. He did not come back.
A week later, I started getting emails saying Carpenter was dead. The third was from a family friend, Taylor Best. It read: "Jon Carpenter killed himself because of this article." He linked to my Dec. 5, 2013, article headlined, "Child Sex Abuser Profits by Suing 1,000 Firms Under Disability Act."
Taylor Best closed with: "Fuck you."
Was Carpenter really dead? Was it because of my story?
A former caretaker of Carpenter's at first doubted his suicide. If anyone was capable of faking his own death, it was the sly, manipulative Carpenter.
According to a Swiss death certificate obtained by the Weekly, Jon Carpenter, 49, died between 12:45 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on March 30. The "Cause of Death" section is blank. His family and lawyers have told people that he went to an assisted suicide facility, which is legal in Switzerland.
I first heard about Carpenter from a friend of my brother's. A quadriplegic by his own hand, Carpenter had sued more than 1,000 people, businesses and property owners in Southern California under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). He targeted the most minute of violations: He was big on finding design flaws in disabled-parking spaces, or suing people whose ramps were a bit too steep. Or whose posted signs didn't contain exactly the right wording. That sort of thing.
He filed 257 lawsuits in 2012 alone, more than there were days on the court calendar. Although the financial figures are not available, it's likely that he reaped millions of dollars from vulnerable mom-and-pop stores and small property owners who couldn't match Carpenter's aggressive and well-prepared lawyers in court.
It seemed like a straightforward news story. But then a small group of lawyers who defend the store owners and others against frivolous ADA lawsuits let me in on a secret: Carpenter had been a teacher at a church in Utah, where he was convicted of child molestation for sexually abusing two 8-year-old girls. There may have been others.
Carpenter pled guilty and got up to 15 years in prison. But on his second night in prison, he purposely dove from his upper bunk, head-first into a concrete floor. He never walked again and had limited use of his arms and hands.
Two days later, Utah Judge George E. Ballif, acting on the recommendation of the state, suspended Carpenter's prison sentence "until such time as the defendant has achieved medical stability." After that, the Utah County district attorney and Ballif apparently decided the quadriplegic Carpenter couldn't do any further harm. He never spent another day in prison.
Carpenter moved to Los Angeles, into an apartment near USC and an elementary school, where he was served by a revolving cast of personal caretakers. One was actor Sean Summers, who emailed the Weekly after Carpenter died.
While Carpenter was in Zurich, Summers read the paper's December article outing him as a child molester and was mortified.
"It was a pretty devastating experience to find out that he was what he was," Summers says. He says Carpenter sexually abused children here in Los Angeles: "He still managed to molest kids even after he was in a wheelchair. I felt awful I allowed it to happen."
Summers contacted the family of one child victim in the Los Angeles area, pushing them to press charges. "They talked it over and decided not to —their kids had gone through therapy," Summers says. "They decided they were over it. That's their choice."
Carpenter's suicide caught just about everyone off-guard. Summers tells me that the Zurich trip was planned only a few weeks in advance and that Carpenter was an avid traveler, enjoying trips to Portugal and Morocco.
Another caretaker contacted by the Weekly responds via email, "I would never really talk about this to outsiders or the media." But, he says, he would consider talking "in exchange for compensation of my time and true first-hand knowledge of the story."
I tell him that few journalists will pay for interviews but offer to buy him lunch. He writes back: "If it was for an uplifting, positive, inspirational story, I might consider it. But I am not sure how you could do that."
It turns out there's bad news on the horizon for mom-and-pops targeted by Carpenter: His lawyer, Mark Potter, of the sanctimoniously named Center for Disability Access, is pursuing Carpenter's lawsuits despite his death. The money reaped from people targeted by Carpenter for obscure offenses against the Americans With Disabilities Act purportedly will go to Carpenter's mother — and, of course, to Potter himself.
James Link, who has fought Potter in court on behalf of small businesses, says Carpenter is still the named plaintiff in 40 active cases. Those being sued may not even know Carpenter is dead and thus are likely to settle to avoid his well-worn tactics — draining their time and forcing them to lawyer up.
In effect, Carpenter is haunting defendants from beyond the grave.
Potter and a cadre of attorneys like him are the driving force filling the courts with ADA lawsuits pursuing people over modest errors.
Potter, who has never returned any of my phone calls, is replacing Carpenter with a new cast of lawsuit filers. "Apparently there's no shortage of folk out there that are willing to become plaintiffs," Link says.
Summers says Carpenter was clever, manipulative, charming. "He and I had some heart-to-hearts about past mistakes," Summers says, although "not specifics. But I think he felt remorse. I really do."
But then again, Summers says, "Maybe he wasn't saying he did anything wrong. He said, 'I wished I had sometimes made different decisions.' He's a tricky soul."
Carpenter was the oldest son in a fairly large Mormon family. He was called Rick, since his dad's name also was Jon. One of Rick's younger brothers, who attended a memorial in L.A. after his death, defends Carpenter, saying he helped out his personal aides who'd been poorly treated in the health care industry. "Rick would help these guys [get] on their feet, help them find better prospects. These people are now going to medical school and film school.
"You know who was at his memorial?" the brother adds. "His pharmacist was actually there. She was completely distraught. He actually connected with her on such a personal level, and treated her as someone important, as a person."
The brother insists that a note Carpenter sent to his family before he committed suicide "had nothing to do with your piece. ... He never mentioned it."
How often do we think of ourselves as little islands? Carpenter was proof of our enormous capacity to affect others. He touched so many lives — harmed so many people. Thousands of businesses. A number of little girls in Utah. And maybe some girls in the Los Angeles area, too.
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Beth Roskelley was 8 when Carpenter sexually abused her in Utah. In her interview last year with the Weekly, Roskelley's voice was tinged with anger. But a month after Carpenter's death this year, she seemed calm.
"I had been in church, and they had talked about how you need to forgive everyone," she says. "I just thought I couldn't hold those past experiences back. So I started praying — 'Please help me to feel the desire to forgive him.' Because my heart was like a stone."
Before she heard about Carpenter's suicide, Roskelley had a dream: She was in a courtroom with him and forgave him. When she woke up, she actually felt forgiveness.
"It's pretty amazing," she says. "I'm no longer haunted. I'm on the other side of it. In my family, the bitterness against Rick Carpenter — I never knew know how much it was worth."