UTAH STATE PRISON — It started as a gathering of about 20 family and friends of Ronnie Lee Gardner and expanded to include almost 60 — including a number of those who merely came to support the family and demonstrate their opposition to the death penalty.
Clare Hogenauer, who said she has been against the death penalty since age 3, drove from New York to Utah to be present the night Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed. Hogenauer said she has traveled to seven executions, including an electrocution in Tennessee, because of the "different people, different circumstances."
Wearing a shirt reading "Fry onions, not people," she also carried a number of signs that furthered her cause. Hogenauer spoke of the number of people impacted by the death and said she wanted to be a witness to what happened.
"This goes beyond the brain now," she said. "I'm speaking from my soul and my heart to the family and the victims."
Gardner's family welcomed Hogenauer and also included others they didn't know in what Gardner's niece, Amie Campbell, called "a celebration of life." The family brought red and white balloons to represent both love and peace, which they released as soon as they heard that Gardner had died.
"They're for remembrance and celebration instead of mourning," Campbell said. "When his spirit gets to be freed, we'll free the balloons."
But on the farthest end of the public lot, two figures sat alone on a curb — Nick Kirk's daughter Barb Webb and granddaughter Mandi Hull. They had planned a vigil of their own but canceled it when they realized they would have to share space with Gardner's family. Kirk suffered gun wounds when Gardner went on a rampage in a Salt Lake court. His life was never the same, family members say.
"We sure as hell didn't want them thinking it was for them," Webb said. "It's horrible, just absolutely horrible. I don't know why they would do this to us."
Webb said she was frustrated with what she perceived as the self-centeredness of Gardner's family, as they only talked of their struggles and not those of the victims who endured the loss of their loved ones at Gardner's hand.
As the night progressed, about five people came and stood with Webb and her daughter, including Wayne Hunting, who said he made the drive to Draper because he wanted to make sure there was someone to be with the family of Gardner's victims. Hunting said he was frustrated by the disproportionate numbers of those who were there for Gardner.
"It's a sign of societal ills that there are this many people here to support a murderer," he said.
But while it might be seen as morbid to celebrate a death, Hunting said Gardner's death meant he would "never hurt another person after this."
But Hunting admitted that he also felt sympathy for Gardner's family.
"I feel bad for his daughter and his brother because they're victims, too," he said. "It's not their fault they're related to a defective human being."
VelDean Kirk, wife of the shooting victim, said her husband long believed that Gardner's death would never come, and she often wondered if her husband's shooter would outlive even her. But Kirk lived to see Gardner's death early Friday and said she found it to be strangely anticlimactic.
"It was not as hard as I thought it would be," said Kirk, who accepted an invitation to witness the execution. "I didn't start to cry or anything. All I could think of was how Nick would be happy to know (Gardner) paid the price."
While she felt a "little bit of shock" when she heard the guns fire and saw the bullets enter Gardner's chest, Kirk said she mostly just felt relief.
"I think we'll all start to heal now," she said. "I don't like to see anybody die, but I think he really deserved it. And I just feel sorry for his family. I'm really sorry for his family."
Family and friends of victim Michael Burdell, whose murder on the same day Kirk was wounded ultimately led to Gardner's death sentence, actively opposed Gardner's execution.
No one from Burdell's family attended the execution, and Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell Jr. called the execution a "nonevent" for him.
"I won't be following the events," he said before the execution. "Michael was always at peace. I want to remember him as such."
Craig Watson witnessed the execution on behalf of Melvyn Otterstrom's family. Watson said Otterstrom's son Jason had initially planned to witness the execution as well but decided to stay in a separate outbuilding at the prison with his mother and stepfather.
Watson said he was first struck by how the execution was carried out.
"It was extremely professional the way they carried out the execution and in the way they dealt with the victims' families," he said. "I've heard people say the firing squad seems so barbaric, but from what I saw, the firing squad is an absolutely humane way to execute somebody. It's so fast."
It wasn't until they lifted the hood from Gardner's head to confirm that he was dead that Watson reacted emotionally.
"Once I could see he was dead, it was just like an extremely peaceful feeling came over me," Watson said. "This is finally over. He paid his debt. It was a helluva debt, but he paid it."
Watson said little was spoken when he reunited with the Otterstrom family, though their mutual feelings were easy to see.
"The look on their faces looked just like I was feeling, just a feeling of relief," he said. "We are going to move forward now."
Family members of both Gardner and Kirk expressed disappointment in the way they heard of Gardner's death — through news media reports. But they also expressed relief upon hearing the news.
Webb found out Gardner was dead only when someone called and told her, holding the phone up so she could hear it on the television. When she heard the news, Webb's daughter said her mother "instantly cried."
"But (now) I don't have to hear his name all the time. I felt relief, such a relief — like 100 pounds was lifted off my chest," Webb said. "Maybe we can finally start healing."
Randy Gardner said the news of his brother's death brought relief.
"They ought to have told us differently, but we're just glad he's free," he said. "He's been locked up all his life, and now he's a free bird, like the song said."37 comments on this story
And as balloons — covered in messages such as "We will always miss and we will never forget, RIP" and "Smile now, always, forever" — floated above her, Ronnie Lee Gardner's daughter Brandie was too stunned to speak.
Her body wracked with sobs, she covered her face with her hands and clung to those around her, breaking only to turn up to the sky and shout, "I love you, Dad!"