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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

When Bradshaw relayed this information to Gardner, he swore and dismissed the idea. But when Bradshaw arrived for a visit two weeks later, Gardner told him that he had complied with the inmate's request, and the rest of the information was delivered to him.

Bradshaw and Gardner began to meet frequently and continued to do so for the next six years. Their conversations wandered into religion, politics, the corrections system, family, gardening, ranching, farming, and Gardner's aspiration of working with wayward kids. He knew he would never be a free man, but Gardner dreamed of another life anyway. At one point, Bradshaw asked Gardner how he felt about his victims and their families. "Too bad; wrong place, wrong time," he said. Bradshaw was struck by his callousness.

During one visit in the late '90s, Gardner surprised Bradshaw with another request. He said he had heard that the son of one of his victims was struggling with anger and school. He asked Bradshaw to contact the family to ask if they wanted him to meet the kid and let him vent on Gardner. Bradshaw contacted a family member, but she told him the family wanted nothing to do with Gardner. When Bradshaw relayed the response to Gardner, he said he understood the family's feelings.

"What impressed me was Ronnie's new-found interest in his victims," says Bradshaw. "He had previously expressed no concern for them or their families."

DIFFERENT PATHS

Bradshaw visited Gardner twice a month or more, sometimes weekly. They seemed an unlikely pair. Bradshaw is a picture of stability, a middle-aged banker, married to the same woman for 42 years, the father of four daughters, a bishop for his area LDS ward.

Gardner's life was a domestic disaster. He moved frequently, living in various locations in the Salt Lake Valley, but primarily in the Granite High area. His siblings testified that their father, Dan, was abusive and abandoned the family early, and their mother Ruth preferred the party life to the home front. Ronnie was sniffing glue by his 6th birthday. He never held a job, never married, fathered two children by his 19th birthday, landed in prison at the age of 19 and spent the rest of his life there except for the times he escaped. He seemed to embody menace, mayhem and anger. Who could forget the front-page newspaper photo of a bloodied Gardner on his knees on the lawn of the Salt Lake courthouse shortly after he shot the lawyer, Burdell.

And yet there were uncanny connections between the bishop and the killer. They both had difficult, impoverished childhoods, with troubled, alcoholic fathers who couldn't hold jobs. Both came from large families who were raised for a time by the mother, although in Ronnie's case that didn't last long. Both moved frequently. Both spent part of their boyhoods living in the same area of Salt Lake City at different times — they discovered that they had even worked for the same car lot. They were both interested in ranching. They both teamed with their brothers to commit petty crimes as boys and seemed destined for a troubled adulthood. Both had been exposed to prison to some degree — Bradshaw's brother served a prison sentence and of course Gardner knew nothing but incarceration. Both Bradshaw and Gardner had their roots in the LDS Church, although Gardner rarely had much use for it. Then there was this irony: Bradshaw had served in the army's special forces unit with Otterstrom, although he didn't tell the killer this until three weeks before his execution.

Bradshaw is a man of many talents and interests, and this greatly interested Gardner and led to many discussions. Bradshaw was a cowboy poet for a time, reading at cowboy poetry gatherings around the West and selling some 10,000 books of his poems. He owns a ranch in Southern Utah where he raises longhorn cattle. For the past few years he has played drums in a rock band with his high school pals. Gardner liked to talk about the bishop's poems and the band's music. He wanted to be a cowboy rancher and often inquired about Bradshaw's ranch.

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