Feb. 22, 2008 -- The love of a parent for a child can be an extraordinarily powerful force.
Robyn and Richard Parnell learned this week that their 18-year-old son Jacob Jett allegedly confessed to hiring hit men to kill them. But in an exclusive interview with ABC News in their Independence, Mo., home Thursday, all they could talk about was how much they love their boy.
The Parnells said they desperately want to spare their son the cost of paying for this alleged Shakespearean betrayal for the rest of his life.
"We're going to support him no matter what," said Richard Parnell. "We want to get our son back into this house and love him. That's my goal. I raised this kid."
"I'm not saying he hasn't done something wrong or stupid. But he's a young man, and at that age, they want to be your kid and they want to be their own man. And that's a difficult process for him, and for us," he said.
"It could have been a horrible lapse in judgment," said his wife, Robyn. "But a temporary one, I know."
"We still love him so much."
'Wanted His Parents Killed'
The plot as outlined by police in court filings was cruel and elaborate.
Last month, Jett allegedly gave two would-be killers a couple of .22-caliber pistols and a .38-caliber pistol he'd taken from his father's gun collection, $260 in cash, alarm codes for the home, a debit card and a layout of the house.
Jett and classmate Joseph Garcia, 17, who allegedly introduced Jett to the would-be hit men, are charged with second-degree attempted murder and armed criminal action. The former carries a prison sentence of five to 15 years, the latter a sentence of three years to life in prison. Both are still in prison, being held on $250,000 bonds.
According to court documents, Jett "wanted his parents killed that afternoon."
"This was absolutely for real," Jackson County prosecutor Jim Kanatzar said in an interview.
Prosecutors say Russell Anderson, 23, who was being held at the Clay County jail on an unrelated probation violation, volunteered to police last week that he and Nicholas E. Dobbins, 19, had been contracted to kill the Parnells, but got cold feet at the last minute.
Kanatzar declined to explain why neither Anderson nor Dobbins had been charged in the case, but insisted neither had been given promises of immunity for their testimony.
Clay County jail officials would not make Anderson available for a telephone interview. Dobbins could not be reached for comment and a woman who answered the phone at Garcia's home declined comment.
'They Said Our Son Hired Hit Men to Kill Us'
The Parnells said police told them their son signed a nine-page confession, and they seem ready to believe that at least parts of the story police told them may be accurate.
"They said our son hired hit men to kill us," Richard said. "They said he hasn't asked for a lawyer and hasn't shown any remorse. I have taught him if you do something wrong don't try and squirm out of it, admit [it] and take your punishment."
He paused then, and stared out the kitchen window in silence for a moment as his wife picked up the conversation.
"Whenever we'd catch him doing something wrong, he'd always say, 'yes, I did it. Are you going to ground me?' He just takes it, he doesn't argue, doesn't complain, and takes his punishment. He's always been that way since he was a tiny child," Robyn said, then paused herself, as the weight of what she'd just said seemed to sink in.
Robyn said police told her that according to the confession, the hit men were supposed to come in through the front door and kill her husband first "because he would put up a fight, and then kill me and then go upstairs and take the guns from my husband's collection and then take our Jaguar.'
"They said Jacob told them he would pay them $5,000 once he inherited our money," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. She says police told her that the hit men "said Jacob told them he had taken all the ammunition out of the house so we couldn't defend ourselves."
Jett has no previous criminal record, according to the prosecutor and the Parnells.
Married 25 years, the Parnells adopted Jett as a baby when his mother — Richard's sister — developed a severe drug addiction.
She has spent years in and out of prison, they said. The Parnells work at the nearby Lake City Army Ammunition facility. Richard tests ammunition and Robyn is a data manager. Richard has an extensive gun collection that he keeps in the home. An avid hunter, he said gun safety has always been priority in their household.
Sitting at their kitchen table as heavy snow blanketed the neighborhood outside, the Parnells spoke lovingly of Jett, recalling one story after another of a seemingly gentle soul who they said loves children, fishing and his high school drama club.
"He was an absolutely wonderful child," Richard said. "When he was a little baby, 8 or 9 months old, I would get up early, Robyn was working days, and I would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He'd want to do whatever I did, so I'd pour a glass of milk and then put a couple drops of coffee in it, to make him feel like he was doing what I was doing, and we'd sit there together drinking our coffee. He thought he was a big shot sitting there drinking coffee with dad."
By the Parnells' account, Jett was a well-loved, gentle kid who seems a stark contrast to authorities' characterization of him as a cold-hearted, would-be killer. Which is why the Parnells remain utterly baffled by the notion that he would try and have them murdered.
"When Jacob was in grade school, when he was first playing Pop Warner football, he was a defensive end, though he wasn't as good as he should have been," Richard said.
"I'd say, 'how come you don't knock [your opponents] down?' and he said he just didn't want to hit anybody because he didn't want to hurt anyone. So I finally made a deal with him. I told him 'every time you get through that offensive line and get to that quarterback, I'll give you $5.' That boy cost me maybe $35."
Fishing was another one of Jett's passions, the Parnells said. He and a friend "would go anywhere to fish."
"They didn't care if it was a drainage ditch. But anything they caught, they didn't want to kill so they would put the fish in a 5-gallon [jug] … and parade it all over town. They were always so proud of those fish they caught."
A playful and enthusiastic uncle to his brother Josh's four children, Jett delighted in goofing around with the kids, his parents said.
"He always wore a baseball cap over to the house and the kids would love to grab and it and go hide it," Jacob's biological brother Josh said. "He loved it. The minute he was in the door they'd be at that hat. It was like a hide-and-seek thing. We still have one of his caps over at the house that the kids took and hid on him. It was a big game for all of them."
Jett's youthful fishing buddy got him into the drama crowd at school and he became an enthusiastic member of the school's competitive drama club, playing roles in school productions of "M*A*S*H" — as Colonel Potter — and in Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" playing a drunken security guard. He won a narrative-telling competition in 2004, and participated as a judge in drama tournaments at schools throughout the area.
But during the summer, as Jett prepared for his senior year in high school, the family began to notice changes in his otherwise sunny demeanor.
Josh, 30, who was adopted by Richard's mother, said he learned his younger sibling had begun smoking marijuana, a troubling development that Josh said prompted him to give his brother a stern talking to. The Parnells said they would later learn he'd also experimented with cocaine and muscle relaxants.
Jett's middling grades fell further when the school year started. He began failing classes.
The Parnells said they pressed him to work harder. "We always told him,'we have our jobs and you have yours. Your job is school. We'll take [care] of everything else, you just do your job at school."
They said he loves video games and planned to go to college to study gaming design.
Jett was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a young boy, but refused to take medication, including Ritalin, because it made him sick, they said. They said he had never taken antidepressants or mood-stabilizing drugs.
'I've Done Something Wrong'
On Jan. 13, 2008, the crisis deepened. Robyn noticed that her debit card was missing and went online and discovered that $300 had been withdrawn without her knowledge. The same day, Richard realized that three of his guns were missing.
Jett had been at an all-day mock trial competition at school but had failed to come home.
They received a call from him late that evening and said he was clearly agitated.
"I'll be home in the morning," they said he told them. "I've done something wrong and I'm trying to make it right."
The next day he told his father that he'd owed some gambling debts to "some street kids" and that "that's where the money [and the guns] went." The teen vowed to his father that he would "fix things" and said he'd made arrangements to get the money and the guns back.
Richard sensed trouble and put his foot down.
"No you are not," he told his son firmly. "I'm the injured party here. I'm out my property. This is over right now. When you get involved with people like that, you never, ever win. I told him 'we're going to leave this whole thing alone and walk away.'"
Jett reluctantly agreed and the Parnells thought the episode was behind them. But they said they began to monitor their son more closely.
'Like a Bad Movie'
Then last Monday, police officers showed up unexpectedly at the Parnell home. Robyn and Jett were there alone. Robyn said the chaotic scene that ensued was "like a bad movie."
"There was a knock at the door and the police were standing there outside. I told Jacob to come down and hold the dog," Robyn said. "I opened the door and they said, 'Is Jacob here? We need to talk to you.'"
"I kept saying, 'Is my husband OK? Is my husband OK?'"
"We need to come in," an officer told her.
"Is my husband OK?"
"Yes, your husband's OK," she recalled them saying.
"Three of them came at me and two came towards Jacob. They started backing me into the living room and separating Jacob into the kitchen area."
Police were gathered in the backyard as well, she said. "What is going on?" Robyn demanded to know. "I was hysterical."
"They told me there was a murder-for-hire plot that Jacob had done with this man they had in custody. I was in utter shock."
Robyn recalled the encounter. "They asked me, 'do you have a security system?' 'Yes.' 'A Jaguar?' 'Yes.' 'Were you missing some money out of your checking account last month?' 'Yes.'"
Robyn said each successive question was a like a body blow.
"Do you have missing guns?"
She says she collapsed in tears, overwhelmed as one cop after another flooded into her home. They led her son away without his shoes.
"He couldn't find his shoes and there was a pair of mine sitting by the door and he was trying to get his feet into them, and I was saying, 'honey, those are my shoes.' And they took him away," she said, her voice cracking.
"They wouldn't even let me say goodbye."
"My husband wasn't home and they were taking my boy away and they were just saying, 'You have to believe this. This is real. He tried to kill you. You're in danger.' They didn't know who else Jacob may have hired to finish the job. I was just sitting there going, 'are you kidding me?'"
Since the arrest, the Parnells have not been able to talk to their son, in part because they are victims of the alleged plot and their son has apparently been restricted from contacting them. They are scheduled to meet with him at the jail today. They have contacted a defense attorney to represent their son.
Throughout an interview that lasted several hours, the Parnells never expressed doubt that their love for their son was mutual, and yet displayed few signs that they were the kind of naive parents who were more out of touch with their child than they may have realized.
"What crushed me was when the policeman I talked to said, 'did he call you?'" Richard said, referring to his son.
"And I said 'no, could he have?' And the policeman said 'yes.' That crushed me. I was a basket case. I couldn't go to work that night. I called my boss and I couldn't even put a sentence together."
But they said they later learned he had, in fact, tried to reach them.
"We haven't been able to speak to him, but he got a message to us through a family friend," Robyn said. "He said he tried to call but that both our cell phones and home phone were blocked."
"But he said 'mom and dad things are not the way they say they are.
"And I love you very much.'"