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."
His parents were divorced by the time he was 18 months old, and his father had already started another family. Ronnie has a half-sister, Bonnie, who is six months younger than he is. His mother remarried, a man named Bill Lucas, who was incarcerated in 1968 in Wyoming.
Gardner was still in grade school when his mother told him Dan Gardner didn't believe he was his biological father. Dan and Ronnie had a tumultuous relationship that was punctuated by physical violence.
When Ronnie was 10, he and his older brother, Randy Gardner, stole some cowboy boots and were arrested. They were taken to a juvenile detention center, and Dan Gardner was called. When he arrived, he talked with officials before deciding to leave Ronnie in lock-up but take Randy home. Ronnie Gardner expressed extreme distress about that situation in one evaluation, but then in his 1999 deposition, he said he was just unruly and his father was likely frustrated.
Gardner's tendency to move from a happy, even charming young man to a terrifying, enraged child prompted his mother and father to commit him to the Utah State Hospital when he was 11 years old.
While his mother was looking for help controlling her youngest child, doctors at the hospital found his home life so dysfunctional they thought the undersized boy would be better off living in a mental institution.
"His parents had essentially given up on him," Haney said. "They put him in a mental hospital, and he didn't have a mental illness.
"It was a terrifying place," Haney said. "There were children who were psychotic, children who exhibited bizarre behavior. He was physically small, immature."
One doctor said the fifth-grader had the bone structure of a 5-year-old.
"I was scrawny," Gardner said of himself. Older boys immediately began picking on him. That's how it was in lock-up facilities. A pecking order was established. Fighting earned respect. This was a system, a social structure Gardner understood and bought into.
So Gardner made a place for himself. He fought to keep the bullies at bay. He fought to establish some respect for himself. He fought when he felt threatened and almost always when he didn't get what he wanted.
It was what he'd been doing for as long as he can remember, and it would be his way of interacting with the world until, he says, about five years ago.
"As soon as I went into lock-up, I changed, and that's why I was able to fit in so well," he said Thursday.
Gardner admired and respected Lucas, who used the boys as lookouts during burglaries.
"This is one of the few adult male role models who took an interest in him, and instead of providing Ronnie with guidance … he introduced him more deeply into criminal behavior," Haney said. "He actually took pride in the fact that Ronnie Gardner might understand how to set up a burglary or commit a robbery."
Much the way some fathers would teach their sons to "fish or play baseball, Bill Lucas was proud of how he taught Ronnie criminality," Haney said.
And while authorities knew his parents were neglectful and sometimes abusive, they kept returning the hard-to-handle boy to that same environment.
"Observations were made," Haney said. "Nothing was fixed. … Ronnie's life was chaotic in a way that's virtually impossible to describe."
Some of Gardner's desire to keep moving had to do with the trouble he caused.
"By 11, he'd been in detention 12 times and he'd lived in a series of institutions," Haney said. "He no longer felt comfortable at home. He didn't feel comfortable in institutions, either. Really, he felt like he had no place in the world."
So he ran from authority any chance he got, and he railed against a world he feared.
"He developed very destructive behaviors," Haney said. That included a volatile temper — "as a way of keeping a dangerous and unpredictable world at bay."
Sadly, Gardner's decision to fight back at a world only created more victims — many of whom had no connection to him or his family.
Once Ronnie was released from the state hospital, he returned to his mother's house. He almost immediately began getting into trouble again.
He was incarcerated at the State Industrial School on and off for several years as his criminal behavior and drug addiction worsened. While he was in custody at the school, a man who had befriended his older brother Randy began visiting him. Randy was essentially living with the man, named Jack, and Jack allowed Ronnie to stay with them when he was on the run. When Gardner was released at age 14, Jack was allowed to be Gardner's foster parent despite observations by a social worker that there were men dressed like women during the home visit.
As it turned out, Gardner said, the man performed sex acts on both boys during their time with him.
"I thought life like that was normal," Gardner explained to the board of pardons. He tried to explain the relationship in his 1999 deposition.
"At the time I was still dumb enough not to even realize that it was a bad thing," he said of the sexual abuse. Jack's kindness caused Gardner to endure the situation — at least for a while.
"Jack was a good man, and he tried to help us out. … I just couldn't be helped," Gardner said in 1999. "I was too wild at that point. … I tried to go to school. I couldn't fit into school because I had missed so much school."
"And so I just left," he continued. "That's what I've always done since I was a little kid."
It is during that time that Gardner met Debra Bischoff and they had a daughter when he was just 16. Gardner bounced between living on the streets and the State Industrial School until 1979. His second child, a son, was born in 1980.
But having his own children couldn't convince Gardner to give up his criminal ways. He was convicted of robbery that same year and was sentenced to prison. Prison just intensified Gardner's anger and dislike of being locked up.
Not even a year into his sentence, he and another inmate successfully escaped maximum security units on April 19, 1981. While out, he went after a man he believed had raped Bischoff.
"I did go down with the intention of killing him," Gardner said.
Gardner stabbed the man at his sister-in-law's home before getting into a shootout with John Mitchell at Mitchell's apartment. Gardner was shot in the neck during that confrontation and was arrested trying to hide in a truck shortly after the incident. He was 20 years old.
Just seven months later, in December 1981, he ran from the very visiting room where the board of pardons heard his plea for commutation Thursday. He scaled one set of razor-topped fences before an officer shot him with a shotgun and took him back into custody.
Gardner's violent temper contrasted sharply with his pleasant demeanor. Some reported that he only turned on the charm to get what he wanted. He knew the officers by name and talked with them about their lives. Then in 1984, when they attempted to move him from his cell, he attacked them with a screwdriver. His trouble behind bars culminated with his involvement in a prison riot in 1984 in which he head-butted an officer and had to be subdued with a stun gun.
On Aug. 6, 1984, he escaped from University Hospital by assaulting a transportation officer and taking his gun. As the dazed officer tried to oblige the frantic prisoner's demands to unlock the shackles, Gardner leaned down and made sure he worked as fast as possible to free him.
Gardner said, "I guess you know if that doctor comes back, I'll have to kill you both," officer Don Leavitt testified later.
In the parking lot, he ran into Mike Lynch, a medical student. Gardner pointed the gun at his back and ordered him to give him a ride.
"I don't want to kill you, but I have nothing to lose," Lynch quoted Gardner as saying. He took Lynch's clothes and motorcycle and was on the run for nearly three months.
On Oct. 9, Gardner walked into the Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City where Melvyn Otterstrom, 37, was working a second job.
Gardner told the pardons board he was there to collect money for a friend when he and Otterstrom got into an argument. After Otterstrom closed the bar, the two fought.
It was then, Gardner said, that he decided to rob the bar. He contended, once again, that Otterstrom struggled and "the gun went off" in his face. But the medical examiner and police said there was no evidence of a struggle. Instead, they believe Otterstrom was shot while lying on his back — the gun pressed against his nose.
"He gained less than $100," said Otterstrom's cousin, Craig Watson, at Thursday's hearing. "There were no signs of struggle. He just placed the gun against Melvyn's face and blew his head off."
Gardner wasn't arrested in Otterstrom's murder until November. Family members told the Deseret News that Gardner even attended Otterstrom's funeral, pretending to be a childhood friend (see related story).
While awaiting trial, he was sent back to the Utah State Prison. It was there, in his maximum-security cell, that he hatched a plan to escape from the courthouse.
On April 2, 1985, he was walking into the old 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City about 8:45 a.m. when a woman either pressed a gun into his hands or he retrieved a gun that she had taped to a drinking fountain. Those details vary, depending on whom you ask. Immediately, an officer yelled, "Run! He's got a gun!"
While one officer ran out of the building, another opened fire on Gardner, hitting him in the shoulder. He ducked into a records room, where he reportedly said, "They hit me! They got me! I've been hit bad!"
Gardner pointed the gun at attorney Bob Macri, who stood next to his friend and colleague Michael Burdell. Macri testified that he thought it was an April Fools' joke as Gardner first pointed the gun at him and then moved it to Burdell.
As Macri ducked and ran out, Gardner shot Burdell in the eye, killing him.
"As I went out the door, the gun went off," Macri testified in 1985. "I left screaming, 'Police! Help! Murder!' I lost control at that point, I think."
While Gardner continued to insist that some details of that day were hazy, he did have to pull back the hammer on the revolver to shoot Burdell. He fired twice at the lawyer, who was in the basement doing pro-bono work for his church.
Gardner ran out of that room and into Salt Lake County sheriff's bailiff Nick Kirk. Kirk had heard about the shooting and ran down five flights of stairs to "protect his judge" — James Sawaya. When Gardner saw him, he shot him in the stomach, sending Kirk to the floor. He walked past him and into the stairwell Kirk had just exited. He then ascended to the second floor of the courthouse. He aimed the gun at a man filling a candy machine and asked for a ride. As the two navigated the hallway leading to the doors, the man jumped out an open window, leaving Gardner bloodied and alone with one bullet remaining in his gun.
Gardner surrendered to police on the lawn of the courthouse after dropping the gun and yelling that he was unarmed.
When questioned by board of pardons member Don Blanchard about whether he felt threatened, Gardner admitted none of his victims posed a real threat to his safety.
"I didn't have to kill anybody," he said. "No one done anything to deserve what happened."
The jury deliberated for less than three hours to find Gardner guilty after a three-week trial. It took the same jury 51/2 hours to decide that he should die for killing Burdell and wounding Kirk. Gardner chose the firing squad as the method of execution.
With his death sentence hanging over him, Gardner's violence continued in prison. While out of his cell with other inmates in 1994, he stabbed Richard "Fats" Thomas.
"He made a threat to me," Gardner said. "I did something he thought was disrespectful."
He thought they would fight to settle the matter because "it's what you do in prison," Gardner said matter-of-factly.
In Thursday's hearing, the death row inmate said that not only have his actions changed but so has his thinking. It began in 1999 with several psychological evaluations that served as a form of psychotherapy that he says helped him gain insight into the damage he's done.27 comments on this story
"I didn't want to change," he said, choking back emotion. "I fought it for a long time. But I've finally accepted it. That's the good thing about change. You have to really look at the damage that was done."
Gardner now accepts the horrifying details of what was done to him, something he has downplayed at times. He also has come to grips with how he destroyed the lives of families and people he will never know.
"I am embarrassed," he said of his past. "I am ashamed of it. When I look back … it shocked me."
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