SALT LAKE CITY — Over the years, Melvyn Otterstrom has become an almost mythic figure to those in his family who have had to carry on without him.
"He was the glue in our family," said niece Jenny Sedgwick. "Melvyn was security and safety to us, and when he was gone, it was, 'Now what?' He was safety; he would be there to help us if we needed him. Many times I've thought: 'If Melvyn was here, maybe that would be different.' "
"He made everything all right," added his sister and only sibling, Carolyn Crawford. "If Melvyn were around, everything would be fine."
But Otterstrom could never right all the wrongs. He could never pull out his trumpet and "play 'Moon River' to make you cry," as his life was stolen 25 years ago on an October night in 1984.
Otterstrom, a comptroller working for Utah Paper Box, was also working one night a week as a bartender at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City. In a robbery gone wrong, Ronnie Lee Gardner shot the man once in the face, leaving him to be discovered later by his wife, Kathy.
Otterstrom was the first murder attributed to Gardner. Gardner was in court facing charges for Otterstrom's death when he grabbed a gun that had been smuggled into the building. As he tried to escape, Gardner shot and killed defense attorney Michael Burdell and wounded court bailiff George "Nick" Kirk. He was sentenced to die and then went to work appealing the death sentence.
And, in the interim, Melvyn Otterstrom became "a bartender," "another man," a mere footnote.
"That is something that has hurt us all these years," Sedgwick said. "It's just kind of an injustice to portray him as just a bartender. He loved adventures, he loved mountain climbing, he was a businessman, and he took his job seriously."
Otterstrom was 37 years old when he died, a married father of one with a large, tight-knit extended family. An avid outdoorsman, he was a lover of life who enjoyed learning, hunting, cars and spending time with his family. He was "very outgoing, very friendly and funny, but could turn and be very serious," Crawford said.
An Eagle Scout, Otterstrom went on to join a Green Beret unit with the Utah National Guard before graduating with a degree in business administration and accounting at the University of Utah. His family describes Kathy as the "love of his life" with whom he had a son of whom he was extremely proud.
Jason Otterstrom, who was just 3 when his father was killed, is now engaged to be married and is pursuing a doctorate degree.
To Otterstrom's cousin, Craig Watson, Jason Otterstrom is an example of not letting challenges define your life — a marked contrast to what Gardner is arguing in his attempts to have his life spared.
"They keep talking about how Gardner struggled in his childhood, but we make our own bed and then we have to lie in it," Watson said. "You look at Jason, and you don't think he's struggled without a dad? He's getting a Ph.D, for hell's sake. There are a whole bunch of people who have had tough lives, and they didn't turn into murderers."
Gardner has become a plague on the family, an illness that won't abate. In a statement written to the Utah Board of Pardons, the family wrote: "Mr. Gardner is injected into our family like a deadly disease."
"Every time this comes up, it consumes our family," Sedgwick said.
The way the family sees it, Gardner is responsible for five deaths. Melvyn Otterstrom and Michael Burdell, yes, but also Kirk, who died eight years after he was shot from issues stemming from the stomach wound, and Melvyn Otterstrom's parents, John and Florence, who never recovered from their son's death.
As the years pass and Gardner resurfaces in the headlines, they have to remind the younger generations of who Melvyn was. They question how it can take so long to bring someone to justice. It becomes painfully frustrating for the family members, who want to put Gardner out of their minds.
"It bothers me it took so long," Crawford said. "It needs to be over and done. It just needs to end."
Sedgwick points out that Gardner killed Otterstrom after he had escaped from prison, and Burdell was killed during another escape. She feels society is not safe until Gardner is dead. Even then, his death will never return her beloved uncle, who "was kind of a big brother, kind of a father figure" to her.
"He was always there for us," she said. "Every time we get together as a family, I feel like we're painfully reminded that he's gone. It's like, the family is not complete. We just miss him all the time."
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