The weight of guilt: Executed killer Ronnie Lee Gardner's remorse

Before he was executed, a killer expressed remorse

Published: Sunday, July 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Donna Nu gives a statement during Ronnie Lee Gardner's commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper in June of last year. Nu was the fiancé of Michael Burdell, one of Gardner's victims.

Associated Press

Part 1 of a two-part series about notorious murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner and the gradual change of heart he experienced in the last years of his life as he reached out to Dan Bradshaw, a Salt Lake banker who served as an LDS prison bishop. Bradshaw told his story to Deseret News writer Doug Robinson because he felt that it contained a valuable message about people's ability to examine themselves and make changes in their lives, even a hard case such as Gardner.

SALT LAKE CITY — Dan Bradshaw, who is a Salt Lake banker in his day job, has a story to tell. It's a story about murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, but it's also a story about discovering a conscience, about wasted life and regret and the weight of guilt, a story about a change of heart, and a story about walking in the grass in bare feet.

It's also a story about an unlikely connection between Gardner and Bradshaw that endured for years until Gardner's execution by firing squad last summer.

One of Bradshaw's friends – a mutual acquaintance – was telling me all of this one day last winter, hoping to arrange a meeting between Bradshaw and me. We were introduced over lunch at the Hotel Monaco a few weeks later. Bradshaw, who is 63, was wearing a white shirt and tie and looked the part of a prosperous banker, although I would learn later that there is much more to him. He has a pleasant face topped by thinning hair and a warm but firm manner that makes it easy to understand how a wary, hard case like Gardner would trust and confide in him. He possesses the hard-won wisdom, common sense and perspective of a man who has spent hundreds of hours listening to criminals bare their souls. For the next hour Bradshaw told me his story as my food grew cold.

From 1994 to 2002 he served as an LDS Church bishop assigned to the Utah State Prison. Bradshaw gradually became acquainted with Gardner, one of Utah's most notorious and hardened criminals. He spent 30 of his 49 years in prison, not counting his many years in the juvenile corrections system. He lived more than half his life – 25 years – on death row for murder. He was angry, violent and remorseless. Then came a remarkable transformation that began in the last years of his life when he reached out to Bradshaw and opened up to him in discussions about religion, life, family, childhood and death. Gardner began to soften and change, and long after Bradshaw was released as bishop, Gardner continued to lean on him right up to the final hours before his execution.

The way Bradshaw tells it, Gardner grew to a realization of the wrongs he had committed. Near the end, Gardner reached out to the families of his victims, and, in one remarkable moment, one of those family members agreed to meet him face to face and afterward offered his forgiveness.

As I listened to Bradshaw's story, I began to worry how it might be received by the public. Any story about Gardner might be perceived as glorifying the killer or empathizing with him, especially by the families of his victims; Bradshaw was keenly aware of these challenges and mentioned them repeatedly. In no way did he want to offend the victims' loved ones or mitigate Gardner's crimes. By the age of 24, Gardner had shot and killed two men -- Melvyn Otterstrom in a Salt Lake bar and, a few weeks later, attorney Mike Burdell in the Salt Lake courthouse during a botched escape attempt. Gardner committed just about every crime you can name. He was hardly a changed man behind bars. During the first 15 or so years of his imprisonment, he was trouble; nobody liked him, not even the other inmates. He once stabbed an inmate repeatedly and was so volatile and troublesome in his early prison years that he was housed in a different area apart from the other death row inmates and wasn't allowed to associate with them outside of his cell. Even the other inmates didn't want to include him in their card games and wanted nothing to do with him.

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