Barbara Bunderson would call the sheriffs twice more regarding Harper, once after her son Grant thought he'd been shot at by Harper as the latter passed him going the opposite direction, and after her daughter Elizabeth was chased down the hill by Harper. "Grant," she recalls, "had pulled out right behind her and saw Harper start to chase her. He went around Mr. Harper, on this winding hill — crazy — and put himself between Elizabeth and John to protect Elizabeth. When he told us later what he had done, my husband and I were horrified."
By early 1995, area residents, most of whom had been menaced by Harper at least once, started holding meetings about the problem. Palm attended the meetings. Their first attempt at a solution was to write a letter to Harper's elderly parents, whom Harper lived with, in hopes they could rein in his behavior. When this produced no results, the group was advised by the sheriff's department to document Harper's activities. From his house higher up Dictionary Hill, Palm could look down on Harper's house. He began to compile detailed logs of Harper's comings and goings, and he snapped rolls of photographs of Harper through a telephoto lens. Palm's skills as a former weapons systems inspector for the Navy made him a natural fit for the task. "He was an obsessive-compulsive type personality," his wife, Carol, said recently, "who kept notes and did that for a living and got paid very well for it."
Despite Palm's efforts, Harper's harassment continued until August 3, 1995, when the district attorney's office filed felony assault charges against Harper in connection with an incident involving Melody Hurt, a neighbor of Palm's. Court papers state, "Hurt claimed that Harper bumped her car after he tailgated her for a distance."
Palm testified at Harper's trial in El Cajon Superior Court. But on the morning of November 22, 1995, a mistrial was declared after the jury hung at eight to four in favor of conviction. The court set November 28 for further proceedings. On that day, Harper pleaded to a misdemeanor reckless driving charge and was put on probation. Around 11:00 that same morning, Carol and Danny Palm, unaware of the plea bargain, received a phone call from a neighbor, Louis Szuch, who told them Harper was driving up the hill toward the Palms' house. Palm would later testify in court, "I felt that John Harper, Jr., was coming up to my house to hurt me or my family."
Palm got dressed and was getting out his .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and an extra clip of ammunition when he heard his wife call, "He's out front." Looking out a window, Palm saw Harper's silver El Camino stopped in front of his house. "I was terrified," he later testified. "I can remember looking above my head thinking that there might be a Molotov cocktail coming."
After a few nervous minutes, the El Camino slowly rolled down the hill. Palm went outside and, from a hiding place, watched Harper cruise down Highview Lane. He then got into his own car and followed Harper, bringing the .45 and extra ammunition with him. "Dan wanted to make sure that Harper didn't go to the Bundersons'," Carol Palm said, "because the children had been attacked by Harper before."
Down the hill, Palm saw Harper's car stopped at the side of the road. Szuch was leaning in the passenger window talking to Harper. "After Szuch walked away," court papers state, "Harper drove another 10 or 20 feet down the hill, pulled over to the extreme right-hand side of the road, and stopped. Harper waved his arm at Mr. Palm to come down or pass him. 'I was just absolutely terrified,' Mr. Palm testified. He believed that going home was not an option because his wife was there. 'I was panic-stricken; I froze.... I felt pressure...in my face, heat in my face. I was hyperventilating. I felt there was no way to avoid some kind of confrontation, that he was demanding it, and I, after some number of seconds...I eased my foot off the brake, and I coasted down to where my car was side to side with him.' "
Palm later testified that, despite being armed with a .45, as he pulled alongside Harper's car, he "felt like prey for a predator."
Holding up the gun for Harper to see, court documents say, Palm "deliberately slapped the clip into the gun in front of Harper, to demonstrate that this was a serious situation. Nonetheless, at that point, Mr. Palm testified, 'I still felt that he was a threat, and I felt that he was forcing me to confront him, that he had demanded a confrontation, that he wasn't going to leave the neighborhood without one.' "
Palm chambered a round in full view of Harper who, according to Palm, made the threat, "You and your family are as good as dead."
On the witness stand, Palm testified that he went blank and recalled only hearing a faint pop. That pop was a round he fired from his .45 that hit Harper "damn near between the eyes," according to Blaine Bowman, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. The shot, which traveled through Harper's brain stem, was fatal. He slumped forward in his seat, and the car rolled down the hill and came to rest against a tree. "The next thing Mr. Palm knew," court documents state, "he was standing next to Harper's car with his gun in his hand. He did not recall shooting 12 more times or reloading his gun."
Eight of the 13 shots Palm fired traveled through Harper's body. A ninth grazed his scalp. Palm hid the gun in a nearby canyon, then returned home. Two hours and 40 minutes later, sheriff's deputies arrested Palm at his house.
At Palm's murder trial, which began May 16, 1996, Judge William Mudd, of Westerfield trial fame, quickly shut down the self-defense tactic of Palm's attorney, Elliot Kanter. Mudd said the number of shots fired precluded the notion of self-defense. Kanter's tactics shifted to psychological evidence. "They had a doctor," Bowman says, "Dr. Glen Lipson, who, in his initial report, said, 'He may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from being in the military.' Then, at the hearing before the jury, the judge said he was not going to allow it because it wasn't a diagnosis. Then Lipson stood up in the back of the courtroom and said, 'Your honor, I will say that he does have post-traumatic stress disorder.' Then he gave Danny Palm a written test a couple of days later, and based on that he said he suffered from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder. So he went from he might have it to he does have it to an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the jury discounted the majority of Dr. Lipson's testimony."