Crime and punishment for Ronnie Lee Gardner

Death sentence for killing a lawyer during escape attempt caps a life of abuse, violence

Published: Saturday, June 12 2010 9:03 p.m. MDT

A photo illustration shows the young Ronnie Lee Gardner and his victims Michael Burdell, left, Melvyn Otterstrom and George "Nick" Kirk.

Photo illustration, John Clark, Deseret News

The steel doors slammed shut behind the scrawny 11-year-old as he made his way to the dormitory in the Utah State Hospital that would be his home for nearly a year and a half.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was lonely, afraid and unsure why he was once again being locked up. But he wasn't going to let anyone know.

He'd been locked up before. He knew how these things worked.

"I've been locked up basically since I was 2 years old," he said Thursday while asking the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to spare his life. "When I came to prison in 1980, it was like home almost for me. Everybody I knew — my family, my friends from my neighborhood — was there. … It was very, very comfortable to me."

Despite his familiarity with institutions, Gardner has had what one psychologist called "a preoccupation with escape."

The 49-year-old father and grandfather is likely to be executed by firing squad just after midnight Thursday for the murder of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt in 1985. He admits he's run from every place where anyone has tried to "control" him. That includes the homes of his parents when he was a small child.

"I just didn't like to be confined," he said. "I would stay out for two or three days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. Because I never felt that I fit in. So it was easy for me to go live on the streets."

On the streets he used drugs and committed crimes, including burglary, robbery, assault and prostitution.

"Me and my sister Bonnie would run away, and I would go live at the hobo camp," he said in a 1999 deposition. "My sister didn't really like it. She would always go home because she was kind of afraid of that type of people."

Government officials first became aware of Gardner when he was found wandering the streets in a diaper. It was 1963, and the now notorious criminal was just a toddler.

"He came to the attention of authorities as a 2-year-old," said Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor who testified at Gardner's commutation hearing before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole Thursday.

When neighbors found the undernourished toddler wandering alone, they called police.

Child welfare workers found his home life to be so distressing, they filed a "failure to care" petition against his mother. It was a move that was extremely rare at that time.

"This was the dark ages of child welfare," Haney said. "I can't tell you how unusual this was."

For some reason, Gardner was left in the care of his mother, who had taken to wearing his step-father's belt around her neck as a visual warning to her children. Even though he was frequently punished with physical violence, Gardner said he refused to cry or conform.

Stubborn and willful, he grew up without structure or discipline and only went as far as fourth grade in school. He was sexually abused for the first time at age 5 by an older sister and her teenage friend. He was introduced to sniffing glue and huffing gas at age 6. He was addicted to drugs by the time he was 10 and was permitted by his parents not only to sniff glue but to drink alcohol as well.

"I never had no positive role models in my life," he said. "Not one."

By his own accounts, he was unruly, impulsive and defiant as a child.

"I was a nasty little bugger," he said Thursday.

The youngest of Ruth Gardner Lucas' seven children, Gardner was born Jan. 16, 1961. His mother asked hospital workers if they could sterilize her because "she couldn't handle any more children," Haney said, pointing out she understood the desperation of her situation. "She recognized it, but she was unable to overcome it."

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