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Former El Dorado family dead in murder-suicide

By Walt Wiley and Peter Hecht -- Bee Staff Writers
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Saturday, March 16, 2002

Robert Bryant killed his children and wife, then himself, officials say

A family of six that moved from Shingle Springs to McMinnville, Ore., in May was found dead in a murder-suicide, authorities in Oregon said Friday.

Robert Bryant killed his wife and four children before turning the gun on himself, said Yamhill County District Attorney Bradley C. Berry.

All apparently had been killed by shotgun blasts.

"Mr. Robert Bryant killed his wife and children and then took his own life," Berry said. A motive is not yet known.

The children last attended school Feb. 22. Based on a receipt with a time stamp found in the home, the shootings are believed to have occurred the night of Feb. 23, he said.

The body of Bryant, 37, a landscaper who owned Bryant's Landscape Maintenance in El Dorado County from 1981 until the business failed 19 years later, was found in the living room with a shotgun still in his right hand.

Also dead were his 37-year-old wife, Janet Ellen Bryant, and their children: Clayton, 15, Ethan, 12, Ashley, 10, and Alyssa, 8.

Their bodies were discovered Thursday after several reports by neighbors that no one had been seen around the house for two weeks. Investigators believe they had been dead for three weeks.

The Bryants left California after Robert Bryant's business failed and a bitter split with family members and the Jehovah's Witnesses Shingle Springs congregation.

The Bryant family lived for four years in a well-kept, ranch-style home on an acre of manzanita and small oaks near Shingle Springs. They had purchased the home for $159,000 in 1997 and sold it for $245,000 in May.

The family moved to McMinnville, 40 miles southwest of Portland, and lived in a travel trailer from midsummer until Christmas at the Olde Stone Village trailer park.

The Bryants finished paying in December for the 2.2 acres they bought for $96,000 from Dennis Goecks, a former Yamhill County commissioner and neighbor. They planned to build a permanent residence next to the double-wide modular home in which they'd most recently been living, Goecks said.

"The family used to remind us of what we were like when we first got here," Goecks said. "They were excited to have found a beautiful place to live. They were excited about making it look really great."

In Shingle Springs, Mark Messier Sr., an elder at the Shingle Springs Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, said Bryant was expelled from the congregation about three years ago after he announced that he no longer accepted its religious teachings.

Messier said Bryant also became estranged from several branches of his family, including his parents, three brothers and a sister in the Shingle Springs and Cameron Park area.

He said other family members were Jehovah's Witnesses and the split appeared to involve differences over religious beliefs.

"He had isolated his children from the rest of the family," Messier said. "They wanted access to visit with the children, like grandparents would and like uncles would. But he (Bryant) was refusing to allow them visitation."

Messier said grieving members of Bryant's extended family were headed to Oregon on Friday.

The bodies were discovered by Yamhill County Sheriff's Detective Jack Crabtree about 9 p.m. Thursday during an unrelated call in the rural neighborhood.

Crabtree used a ladder to peer through a window after neighbors expressed concern for the family that had not been seen for weeks. He said that when he saw Robert Bryant's body on the floor, he knew he would find more bodies inside.

Ashley and Alyssa were in one room, in twin beds formed like an L. Older brothers Ethan and Clayton were in bunk beds in another room. Their mother was on the floor nearby. There was a lone spent shell for each victim.

At area schools Friday, teachers and students wept, hugged one another and talked about the kids they hadn't had time to get to know very well.

Chris Webb, an 18-year-old senior at McMinnville High School, knew Clayton Bryant as a nice person who never gave anyone any problems.

"He would always be telling me about how he had redone some guy's whole lawn that weekend and that he had been paid," Webb said.

Michel Jo Scott owns a cat boarding business in Newberg. She became worried about the family after Bryant failed to show up to complete irrigation work he had contracted to do.

She, like many others Friday, was left searching for answers.

"He just seemed to be such a nice fellow," Scott said. "He had the sweetest smile."

"When they sold their house and were packing up to move, he said he was having a tough time with his business here and he had a better opportunity in Oregon," said Bob Riley, a neighbor who lived a few houses down the gravel Pleasant View Lane where the Bryants lived near Shingle Springs.

Riley, whose family moved into the neighborhood in March 2000, said his family tried to befriend the Bryants because they had children of similar ages.

He said the Bryant parents kept a close watch on their children and seemed reluctant to have them socialize with the neighbors.

"We tried to create some opportunities for the kids to play together, and we invited them to our church," Riley said. "But (Robert Bryant) said they were Jehovah's Witnesses and they celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday. We tried maybe a half-dozen times to get the kids together but came to the conclusion that they were a family that wanted to keep their kids close and they didn't want to expose them to outside influences of any kind."

He said Bryant would take the children on fishing and camping trips.

"The children were well-liked and respected by everybody who knew them," Messier said. "The children have always been very outgoing and energetic and sociable. But he limited their socialization. That was his choice."

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