Second in a two-part series about notorious murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner and the gradual change of heart he experienced in the final years of his life as he reached out to Dan Bradshaw, a Salt Lake City banker who served as an LDS prison bishop. Bradshaw told his story to Deseret News writer Doug Robinson because he thought it contained a valuable message about people's ability to examine themselves and make changes in their lives, even in a hard case such as Gardner's.
I met with Ronnie in what is called a "contact visit" booth where we were separated by bars instead of glass. I was able to shake his hand for the first time in the 16 years we have been meeting. He was pleased and so was I.
He brought a few computer copies of boyhood photos of him and his family. He said he ran away when he was 17 with a girl to California. He talked about robbing a coin store when he was 18, which resulted in his first prison sentence after a long history in the juvenile system. Ronnie worked his way up the inmate hierarchy. He was housed near Arthur Gary Bishop, an infamous pedophile who killed five young boys in 1983. Ronnie described how he took every chance to torment Bishop because he despised the crimes Bishop had committed. Ronnie would throw hot water, or hot oil or wax at Bishop through his cell. One day he invited Bishop to come to the cell door to talk. "If you got out, would you do it again?" he asked. Bishop answered, "Yes, I would. I'm a sick man." Ronnie asked if he had repented. Bishop said he thought he had done all he could. Ronnie respected Bishop for his honest answers and never again bothered him. He said that when Bishop dropped all his appeals and went quietly to the death chamber, Ronnie gained even more respect for him.
Ronnie also discussed his relationship with the "Hi-Fi Killers" — Dale Pierre and William Andrews. They had taken five hostages in an Ogden audio store and eventually killed three of them after a night of torture and rape in one of the state's most high-profile crimes ever. Ronnie thought Pierre, the older of the two, had a hold on Andrews. Andrews expressed his regrets to Ronnie many times. On the night of Andrews' execution, Andrews asked the other death-row inmates to forgo the tradition of causing a ruckus to disrupt the officers. Ronnie promised he would cause no problems and purposely slept through the entire event.
There seems to be a certain amount of respect among those on death row for owning up to your crime, expressing remorse and regret, going as calmly as possible to your end and preparing yourself and the rest of the men in your section for that final walk.
Ronnie talked about the courthouse killing. A female friend was supposed to place a small handgun under the drinking fountain where Ronnie had made a habit of stopping for a drink each time he came to court. He planned to use the gun to take one of the officers as a hostage and escape. When he got to the drinking fountain, the gun was not there. He saw his accomplice by the doorway; instead of a small handgun, she had a large, Western-style pistol. The girl handed Ronnie the gun, and one of the officers shouted, "Ronnie has a gun!"
Ronnie was shot between the neck and right shoulder and stumbled into a room. He was dazed and could barely hear or see clearly. Someone pushed open the door, and Ronnie saw Burdell and another man. Ronnie pulled the trigger. "If only the cops would have shot me again, and the girl, when they saw the gun, this thing would have been over and no one else would have been hurt," he said. Ronnie talked about seeing Burdell's father on video at his last hearing. The elder Burdell asked that the death penalty be commuted to life without parole.
"The man is 86 years old and is asking for mercy for me," Ronnie said. "I can't tell you how humbled I was by that man."
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