Ronnie Lee Gardner execution: Brother, daughter allowed 1 last hug through prison bars
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
UTAH STATE PRISON — Randy Gardner reached through the bars of a maximum-security cell and shook his little brother's hand.
Then he kissed him goodbye.
"I haven't touched him in 27 years," Randy said of his younger brother, Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed by firing squad shortly after midnight for the murder of attorney Michael Burdell in 1985.
Randy met with his brother, who was two years younger than him, Wednesday evening after Ronnie Lee met with his children and a granddaughter.
"We were able to hug and kiss," an emotional Brandie Gardner told the Deseret News Thursday. She was just 3 years old when her dad was sentenced to die. "He said he loved me and that he was sorry. He has a lot of remorse for what he's done."
Randy said his brother was haunted by the men he killed and the pain their families suffered as a result of his actions. Ronnie Lee shot Melvyn John Otterstrom to death in 1984 while robbing the Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City. He was appearing in court on those murder charges on April 2, 1985, when he obtained a gun smuggled to him by a female friend as part of a planned escape attempt. He shot and killed Burdell and then shot sheriff's bailiff Nick Kirk, who was unarmed. While Kirk survived the shooting, he suffered tremendous pain and his lifestyle was altered by the injuries that plagued his life until his death 11 years later.
Randy said Ronnie was particularly bothered by the pain he'd caused Jason Otterstrom, who was 3 years old when his father was murdered.
"He's just always been really, really concerned about that kid," Randy told the Deseret News.
After Ronnie Lee Gardner's commutation hearing with the Board of Pardons last week, Otterstrom went to the prison and met with the man who took his father's life.
"They spent about 45 minutes talking," Randy said. "A few days later, Jason called and told him he forgave him."
Ronnie Lee told Jason that he loved him, and Randy believes his brother wasn't just sorry about the pain he's caused, but felt genuine love for all of the families shattered by his actions.
Which is why about eight years ago, Ronnie Lee began researching organic gardening in hopes of building a place that might be a haven to troubled children like him.
"He wants us to continue working to build the farm," said Randy of Back to Basics, the organic farm that the Gardner family now hopes to build on 160 acres in Box Elder County. Ronnie Lee asked his family Wednesday night not to let his dream die, even if he did.
"I think that's what's kept Ronnie alive," Randy said. "He said to me, 'I just can't believe how many people I hurt.' "
That includes his brother, his children and his friends, as well as the loved ones of his victims.
Ronnie Lee's ability to change and begin something that might help others struggling to find their way is what Brandie will remember most about her father.
"Just his heart," she said, wiping away tears. "How much he wants to help other kids like him. I think it would be a great thing. And being able to change, especially being in an institution. Not everyone can do that."
Brandie said her mother moved to Idaho after the sensational trial and death sentence in the mid-'80s.
"I've always had a relationship with him," she said.
During the summers, she and her brother would make the trip to Utah with their mom and visit Ronnie Lee.
"I remember being really little, and I remember playing with other kids on a playground," she said.
Despite feeling bad that she didn't have the kind of dad who could come to her school functions or give her a hug on a daily basis, she overcame any resentment she had toward him or the situation by talking with him.
"I wrote him a letter and told him how I felt," she said. The two later discussed it and have been very close ever since. His belongings were given to Brandie Wednesday night, at her father's request.
His body will be donated to science.
"He didn't want us to see his dead body," said Randy. He also didn't want his family to watch the execution, although he was allowed to have his own witnesses present.
"He don't want that to be our last image," Randy said. "He don't want us to have nightmares and bad dreams."
Asked what kind of father he was, Brandie fights back tears.
"Me and my dad butt heads," she said, "but he has a good heart."
And he offered the typical fatherly advice.
"He tells me to stay out of trouble," she said. "He tells me to stay away from drugs and alcohol, that they're bad. He told me to stay in school. And 'listen to your mom'. "
Brandie said having to grow up in the shadow of her father's crimes hasn't been easy, but her father's love and personality made it easier.
"I wasn't ashamed of who he was," she said. "He told me he was very proud of who I've become, and that he wants me to continue on with my life."
Gardner's former sister-in-law and friend, Debbie, asked that the Deseret News not use her last name, but wanted people to understand that while the crimes were horrible, the man was not.
"We hated what Ronnie had done," she said. "But we loved Ronnie. … When someone you love kills someone else, it crushes your heart. We carried that burden with us."
Still, she said standing by Ronnie Lee was the only option for those who knew him best.
"It's easy to reach out to people that are nice normal people," she said. "I've never known the bad side of Ronnie. I've only known the positive side of Ronnie. He encourages me, counsels me, helps me — and he's never once forgotten my birthday."
She believes the culture in prison made him more callous.
"When Ronnie first went to prison, it was either you're going to be a survivor or you're going to be a victim," she said. "And he was a survivor."
When she struggled with how much people hated Gardner, he advised her to find a way to love them.
"He told me, 'Hate just breeds hatred,' " she said. ' "If the people I love, love me, then I'm OK.' "
His parting words to her as she cried about his impending execution were, "Don't mourn my death — celebrate my freedom."
And freedom, Randy said with a smile, is something his brother had always wanted.
Contributing: Aaron Falk
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