Later this year, Danny Palm, a 60-year-old retired Navy commander and a man described by friends, neighbors, and family as a gentle, honorable man, will return home to his Dictionary Hill neighborhood in Spring Valley after eight and a half years in prison. His crime: killing the neighborhood bully on November 28, 1995.
Bully might not be the word to describe John Harper, Jr., who died at the age of 48. In a letter written to Judge William D. Mudd, who presided over Palm's murder trial, Alex Alvarez, Harper's next-door neighbor, described him as an "unstoppable drug-crazed terrorist." Alvarez went on to write that during "the last two years before [Harper's] death, my family and I lived in terrorized fear of him."
Alvarez wasn't the only victim of Harper's terrorization during that time. Court papers say, "At least 42 residents in the hillside neighborhood centered on the T intersection of Helix Lane and Highview Lane had been harassed by Harper." One of them was Palm. In a motion for a new trial, Elisabeth Semel, Palm's attorney during the penalty phase of the trial, wrote, "Mr. Palm himself had four personal encounters with Harper. During the first incident, Mr. Palm was driving on Helix Street and had just entered the S-curve when a white El Camino, going the opposite direction, veered into his lane... Mr. Palm did not recognize the driver but described him as a middle-aged male with shoulder-length hair and a beard."
Mr. Palm's second direct incident with Harper occurred in late 1993 or early 1994, when he was a passenger in Charles Smiley's car. The Palms and Smileys were headed to dinner and were driving from Highview Lane onto Helix when they saw an El Camino parked northbound along Helix with its lights turned off. As the Smiley car turned onto Helix, the El Camino's lights came on, and the El Camino closed in on the Smiley car from behind at a high rate of speed. The El Camino turned on its high beams, as it got closer to Smiley's car. Smiley was driving about 25-30 miles per hour on Helix, which is a winding road. The El Camino tailgated Smiley until he pulled over to allow the El Camino to pass. As Smiley pulled over onto the shoulder, the El Camino pulled right alongside Smiley's car, pinning it to the side of the road. Mr. Palm could see that the driver of the El Camino was the same person who had almost hit him previously. The driver was yelling.... When Charles Smiley told the driver he was sorry if he had done something offensive, the driver responded, 'Don't fuck with me. I know where you live.'
"The third incident involving Mr. Palm occurred in April 1995. He was turning onto Highview Lane, and Harper almost rammed him three times, driving very fast toward the rear of Mr. Palm's car, and then slamming on his brakes at the last minute. Harper was driving a white Ford F-250 pickup at the time. Mr. Palm described his reaction to the incident: 'I was frightened. My hands were shaking with nervousness. I had a kind of sick-in-my-stomach feeling.' "
A fourth incident involving Palm and Harper occurred May 19, 1995. Palm heard a loud bang coming from the direction of Harper's house, which his home overlooked. Seeing a cloud of dust coming from that direction, he determined that there had been an automobile accident. Palm got in his car and drove part of the way to Harper's house then parked because "I didn't want [Harper] to connect me with my car and thereby be able to connect me with my house."
Palm walked the rest of the way to Harper's house, where a car had slammed into a telephone pole. Harper and his pickup were there, and the buzz among the neighbors spilling out of nearby houses was that he had caused the accident. In talking to some of them, Palm found out that he wasn't the only one who had been terrorized by Harper while driving the neighborhood's streets. "At least three, maybe five people approached me at that accident site."
Palm, who had brought his camera, snapped some photographs of the accident scene, including shots of the license plate on Harper's pickup. At that point, court papers state, "Harper came up to him...and Mr. Palm snapped a photograph of Harper when he got to be five or six feet away. Harper then said to Palm, 'I'm going to fuck you up.' "
"We had run-ins with Mr. Harper for a couple of years up to the shooting," says Barbara Bunderson, who lives between the Palms' and Harper's former house on Highview Lane. "Our house is on Highview Lane, and if you go down the hill on Highview and kept going straight and didn't make the turn onto Helix, you would go right into Harper's yard. Well, our son, Grant, who was 17 or 18 at the time, came out of our street one day, and as he reached the corner, a car was coming north on Helix. Grant waited for him to go past, and he turned north behind it. At the same time, Harper was in his driveway waiting to pull out behind the same car. So when Grant, who had the right of way, pulled out behind the car, and Harper had to wait for him, it made Mr. Harper irate. And he started chasing Grant, coming up behind him real close, and I believe he even bumped the car. Grant tried to get away, but John kept following him really close and coming up alongside, trying to cut him off. Grant escaped by pulling down a friend's driveway."
Though they were upset about the incident, Bunderson and her husband thought maybe Harper had felt provoked. But the incidents continued. "My daughter pulled out with a friend and had just started by the front of his place when a rock hit her windshield. By this time we knew that Mr. Harper was doing strange things. Elizabeth slammed on the brakes and looked behind, and there he was in the bush on his own property. She whipped around and came...home and told me what happened, and I called the sheriffs. They went down there and came back and said, 'Well, he wasn't home, and we will check in with him some other time,' and it just kind of dropped."