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

Before he was executed, a killer expressed remorse

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

"The crimes he committed were atrocious," says Bradshaw. "I believed he should die, and so did he. But my experience gave me a different opinion of Ronnie than when I first met him. There is always room for someone to take a look at his life and determine if he has it in himself to make a change. Whether someone thinks (Gardner) made a big enough change or is worth saving is beside the point. You never know how far it went until he got a chance to live in society. But he was a different guy when he was executed than the guy who pulled the trigger."

Bradshaw hopes that Gardner's story will offer a glimpse into the mind of a hardened criminal who finally experienced remorse. You might dismiss all this as death-bed repentance, and that is understandable. But Gardner's slow awakening began when he reached out to Bradshaw 16 years before his execution. For Bradshaw's part, forgiveness and forbearance were crucial because, unknown to Gardner, he had a personal connection to one of his victims.

SEEKING HELP

The kite arrived unexpectedly in Bradshaw's hands on a Sunday morning in 1996. A kite is the unofficial prison mail system – a note is slipped to a guard or an inmate who is delivering meals or running some errand around the prison, and it is passed to other guards or inmates until it reaches its intended audience. The kite said Gardner wanted to meet with Bishop Bradshaw. No one could believe it. Bradshaw had already been the prison bishop two years and had had only rare interactions with Gardner. The condemned man had made it clear that he wasn't interested in "preaching." Bradshaw reported to the maximum security area of the prison, dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and tie, and told the guards that Gardner wanted to visit with him. The guards laughed.

"I know," said Bradshaw, "I find it hard to believe myself, but please call down and ask."

Moments later, Bradshaw heard the guard curse into the phone. "Sonofa----, he does!" the guard said. A few minutes later, Gardner was brought to the visitor's booth, wearing a spit mask on his face and shackles on his hands and feet (Gardner had a history of spitting on guards and inmates). The mask and cuffs were removed and Gardner was left alone in the tiny room, which was about 4 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The two men were separated by bulletproof glass and spoke to each other through a speaker mounted in the partition while sitting on stainless steel stools. Over the years, the speaker's performance was spotty and sometimes the men had to speak loudly to hear one another. If they tired of sitting on the stools during their long discussions, they sat side by side on the steel desks that ran the width of the room on both sides of the glass partition, arms wrapped around their knees.

Gardner was shorter and thinner than Bradshaw had imagined, about 5-foot-7, 160 pounds. He seemed bigger and more menacing in newspaper photos. Gardner had a surprisingly pleasant voice and talked rapidly, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. His trademark bushy red hair was gone, replaced by a shaved head and a sparse goatee. He had a naturally pale complexion, but appeared to be healthy other than the arthritic stiffness in his shoulders and hands, which were stiff and sore and caused him to move gingerly at times.

"He was not particularly friendly," recalls Bradshaw. "He let me know that he had been checking me out, asking other inmates and officers about me, and he said he felt he could trust me."

Gardner had a request. He explained that his great-grandfather was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had fled to the Mormon colonies in Mexico during the persecution of the church in the 1890s. Gardner wanted the prison's Wasatch Unit — which has an award-winning family history center — to research his great-grandfather's side of his family. Although he had never been a member of the church, he was proud of his Mormon pioneer heritage and, too, for a man who had never had much of a family life, he was eager to embrace some sort of family connection.

Bradshaw took the information to the Wasatch unit and contacted the inmate who performed such research. A couple of weeks later, part of the information — a few family names, birthplaces and dates — was delivered to Bradshaw, but the rest was withheld. "Tell Ronnie he can have this part now and the rest of it when he has read the Book of Mormon through the Book of Mosiah," the inmate told Bradshaw. "Ronnie will understand he has to work for things; you don't get anything free."

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