Families, strangers commemorate Gardner's death differently

Published: Friday, June 18 2010 2:39 p.m. MDT

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.

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