Remembering Tami Carpenter, 35 years after her brutal murder

Sheriff's department car and deputy at the scene where the body of Tameron "Tami" Carpenter, 10, was found. The campsite was in San Luis Creek near Highway 101.
Sheriff's department car and deputy at the scene where the body of Tameron "Tami" Carpenter, 10, was found. The campsite was in San Luis Creek near Highway 101. 7-11-1979

Henry Ketchum sighs and shakes his head as he sorts through old clippings he’s never seen about his sister’s murder.

The headlines include grim summaries about the 1979 case, including “Missing girl’s connection to case told,” “Girl’s body found beneath willows,” and “It took 2 to kill Tami.”

“Some of this stuff is tough,” says Ketchum, a large man who was just 3 when his sister was murdered in Avila Beach. Later, he adds, “How could they do that to a little kid?”

The May 14 parole denial for Randy Cook — one of four people convicted of killing 10-year-old Tami Carpenter to prevent her from testifying in a molestation case — recalled one of the county’s most shocking crimes.

Yet, while the horrific case has long since left the daily headlines, Tami’s life and death still impact those who were close to her while offering a sad reminder of the far-reaching consequences of child molestation.

“I don’t want her ever to be forgotten,” said a childhood friend of Tami’s, who asked only to be identified as Barbara for fear of retaliation from the killers’ relatives.

‘A bright child’

During the summer of 1979, the International Year of the Child, Tami Carpenter was an elementary student at Ocean View School in Arroyo Grande who loved roller skating, swimming and apples. Those who met her said she was sweet and outgoing.

But there was also a grim side to her young life: She had been molested by a family friend, 53-year-old William Record.

Her friend, Barbara, suggested Tami tell her mother, which she did. In turn, Tami’s mother, Beth Ketchum, went to authorities.

“Tami was brave enough to speak up when the rest of us weren’t,” said Barbara, also a victim of child molestation. Terry O’Farrell, now a private attorney, was a county prosecutor then who interviewed Tami on multiple occasions in the molestation case.

Despite the gravity of the occasion, O’Farrell said, Tami was unafraid to testify.

“She was a little more mature than her 10 years,” O’Farrell recalled. “She was a bright child.”

The Crime Victim’s Justice Reform Act of 1990 allows investigators to testify on behalf of alleged crime victims — shielding the victims from intimidation — at the preliminary hearing, during which the prosecution has to show it has enough evidence to proceed toward a trial.

But in 1979, Tami had to testify before her abuser during the pretrial proceeding. At Record’s preliminary hearing in April 1979, Tami told the court the defendant had molested her twice — once at Burnardo’z Ice Cream Plant in Arroyo Grande and once after swimming at Avila Hot Springs.

When asked if she disliked Record, the little girl answered, simply, “Yes.”

As July arrived, prosecutors were preparing their case for trial when Tami went missing. Record’s 20-year-old stepdaughter, BranDee Sisemore (formerly BranDee Tripp) had arranged to take Tami swimming on July 8.

Instead, she took the girl to a store where Sisemore’s husband, Hilton Tripp, and friend Randy Cook, both 17, were waiting to take the girl.

Today, alleged crime victims have protections during the court process, said Jerret Gran, chief deputy district attorney. Prosecutors can ask for protective orders against people who might want to harm the victims, and addresses and phone numbers of victims can be concealed.

But that wouldn’t have helped Tami since Sisemore was a longtime family friend.

“I can see why she could have trusted BranDee,” Barbara said. “I loved BranDee.”

Record had paid the trio roughly $1,000 to make sure Tami wouldn’t testify at his trial the following week. Once Sisemore lured the girl, Cook and Tripp took her to a makeshift campsite near Avila Hot Springs.

“They weren’t supposed to kill her,” said Sisemore, who now lives in Pomona.

There they severely beat her, then wrapped a rope around Tami’s throat. Each man pulled the rope until the girl died.

“It makes me sick to think about her last minutes here,” Barbara said.

After the killers buried her near their tent, Hilton Tripp took a lock of Tami’s hair to his wife to prove the witness was dead. Sisemore said she couldn’t fathom how they could have committed a murder.

“They just took matters into their own hands,” said Sisemore, who was released from prison in 2008 after serving close to 30 years. “I can’t really say what they were thinking. And by the time they told me what happened, it was too late.”

Though Sisemore had deceptively offered to help find Tami when the girl went missing, she eventually was the first suspect to talk to authorities, who were then led to Cook.

“He showed us where the burial site was,” said John Ferdolage, a detective with the Arroyo Grande Police Department at the time. As police processed the crime scene, Ferdolage said, Cook’s demeanor was coldly matter of fact.

“It didn’t seem to be a big deal to him,” Ferdolage said.

The trials from “The Tami Case” — as The Tribune called it at the time — were heavily covered by the local media.

“Everybody knew about it and I think had probably formed opinions,” said O’Farrell, who also prosecuted the murders.

Due to the amount of pre-trial publicity, Record‘s and Tripp’s murder trials were relocated to Monterey County — a move that has only been needed twice since then. Tripp and Cook were both convicted of first-degree murder. Record and Sisemore were convicted of second-degree murder.

Two of Cook’s brothers, Rick and Jerry Cook, were convicted of intimidating witnesses in the case. Their trials were moved to Alameda County.

A lost sister

Near the shade of a liquid amber tree, not far from the office of the Arroyo Grande District Cemetery, a small tombstone marks Tami’s final resting place. On the stone, featuring the epitaph “Beloved daughter and sister,” someone has placed two pennies.

The pennies refer to one of Tami’s favorite sayings: “Penny for your thought.”

Her friend Barbara, now 45 — the age Tami would be today — said she occasionally places pennies on the marker. And sometimes apples, which Tami loved to draw.

Tami’s mother spoke about her often, Barbara said, though she never discussed how she died. “She was sad.”

Tami’s family moved to Fresno not long after the murder, and Barbara lost track of them. But a year ago, she discovered through the Internet that Ketchum was back in the county, living in San Luis Obispo. Ketchum was too young to remember his sister, but Barbara has helped him fill the gaps about Tami.

“She would help with our diapers,” Ketchum said, referring to himself and his brother, Charles, who is a year older than him. “And she would hold us when we cried.”

After speaking to a Tribune reporter, Ketchum asked if he could see some of the old clippings about Tami’s case. While he had a few clippings, he’d never seen most of the reports, including one story about an apple tree that was planted in Tami’s memory.

The tree, planted at the Oceano Head Start Center in 1980 with the family in attendance, came with a plaque that read: “A tree for Tami reaches above, offering protection comfort and love. It’s like Tami warm and free. A golden memory that will always be.”

“I’m going to have to find that tree,” Ketchum said.

Ketchum said he has three or four photos of Tami. He remembers his mother talking about her. But in 1987, not long after his mother remarried, Beth Hagerdon — her name after remarrying — became the next family tragedy.

“She was walking to the liquor store, a block and a half from our house, and she was hit and killed by a drunk driver,” said Ketchum, who turned 11 the month his mother died. Hagerdon is buried 20 feet from Tami.

Ketchum, whose father was not involved in his upbringing, would experience more family tragedy in 1994 when two of his foster brothers were killed in a single-engine plane that crashed near Prado Road in San Luis Obispo.

“There’s all kinds of weird stuff in our family,” said Ketchum, who is no longer in touch with his brother or their older sister, Betty Maddocks, who live together in Nevada.

It was revealed in court testimony that Maddocks also had been abused by Record. An attempt to kidnap Maddocks, who had also planned to testify against Record, had failed before Tami’s murder.

Ketchum didn’t want to discuss why he’s estranged from his siblings. But he wonders what it would be like if Tami had never been killed.

“She’d have been there when my mom died, and she’d have been able to help us through it,” he said.

While he doesn’t remember his sister, Ketchum’s emotions are still raw when he speaks of her. Meanwhile, the legacy of her death has influenced his own parenting.

“I’ve never really let my kids out of my sight,” said Ketchum, whose youngest of three daughters is now Tami’s age. “I want to know where they are and who they’re with.”

Even after 35 years, Barbara said she still has a sleep disorder because of the murder. And she has had to come to terms with survivor’s guilt — especially since she’s the one who suggested Tami tell her mother about the molestation.

Tami’s murder, she said, had a chilling effect on other children who had been molested.

“It kind of made the rest of us shut up,” she said.

Even though her own daughter is now 26, she said she’s still overprotective, knowing what happened to her friend. “It changes who you are and the way you see things,” she said.

Ketchum, wearing a bracelet with the word “Faith” engraved on it, said he has mixed feelings about the killers today.

“It’s not my place to judge,” he said. “Granted, I’d love to have my sister. And I can’t say that if they stood right here in front of me that I wouldn’t knock the shit out of them. ... They were paid a thousand bucks to split between them to murder a 10-year-old child.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune