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

Before he was executed, a killer expressed remorse

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 5:52 p.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) 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.

Dan Bradshaw, a local banker, served as bishop to executed convict Ronnie Lee Gardner while Gardner was on death row. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Dan Bradshaw, a local banker, served as bishop to executed convict Ronnie Lee Gardner while Gardner was on death row. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

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.

Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted murderer, grew to realize the wrongs he committed and reached out to his victims' families in his final years.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives) Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted murderer, grew to realize the wrongs he committed and reached out to his victims' families in his final years. (Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives)

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.

Dan Bradshaw, who met frequently with convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, sits at his desk at the Bank of Utah on 2300 South and Redwood Road, where he's the vice president.   (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Dan Bradshaw, who met frequently with convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, sits at his desk at the Bank of Utah on 2300 South and Redwood Road, where he's the vice president. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

"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.

Brandie Gardner, the daughter of Ronnie Lee Gardner, speaks about her last meeting with her father in June of last year.    (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Brandie Gardner, the daughter of Ronnie Lee Gardner, speaks about her last meeting with her father in June of last year. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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."

Convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, center, sits with defense lawyer Andrew Parnes during one of his court appearances at the Matheson Courthouse in 2010. (Associated Press) Convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, center, sits with defense lawyer Andrew Parnes during one of his court appearances at the Matheson Courthouse in 2010. (Associated Press)

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.

Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted murderer. March 1986.  (Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives) Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted murderer. March 1986. (Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives)

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.

Deputy Donald Garner escorts accused killer Ronnie Lee Gardner.  Oct. 8, 1985. O. Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News Archives (Submission date: 04/19/2010) (Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News Archives) Deputy Donald Garner escorts accused killer Ronnie Lee Gardner. Oct. 8, 1985. O. Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News Archives (Submission date: 04/19/2010) (Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News Archives)

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."

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.

FILE - In this Thursday, June 10, 2010 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner listens to proceedings during his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Gardner died in a barrage of bullets early Friday as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years. He was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m.  (Trent Nelson, Associated Press) FILE - In this Thursday, June 10, 2010 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner listens to proceedings during his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Gardner died in a barrage of bullets early Friday as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years. He was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m. (Trent Nelson, Associated Press)

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.

Attorney Michael Burdell, 36, was shot and killed during Ronnie Lee Gardner?s botched escape attempt.  Photo courtesy of Burdell family (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Attorney Michael Burdell, 36, was shot and killed during Ronnie Lee Gardner?s botched escape attempt. Photo courtesy of Burdell family (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

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.

After Bradshaw was released as prison bishop in 2002, the meetings with Gardner grew less frequent. The church called Bradshaw to serve as assistant director of corrections for the Salt Lake Area. This required him to visit corrections facilities throughout the valley, and whenever he was at the state facility he made a point of visiting Gardner. After Bradshaw was released from that position in 2007, the visits stopped completely, although he received an occasional letter or a collect call from Gardner.

On March 27, 2010, two weeks before a hearing to have Gardner's execution warrant signed, the killer's brother, Randy, called Bradshaw to tell him that Gardner wanted to meet with his old confidant. When Bradshaw showed up at the prison as requested, Gardner told him, "It looks like this (execution) is going to happen. You're the only person I feel comfortable with. Would you be willing to come out and spend time with me until I'm executed?"

Bradshaw agreed to visit as much as prison officials would allow. Bradshaw was so moved by the remarkable changes that he witnessed in Gardner that he felt compelled to record these visits, but that proved difficult. Prison officials forbade him from recording his conversations with Gardner while inside the prison, whether it was with pen and paper or a recording device, so as soon as Bradshaw returned to his car after each visit he wrote everything he could remember in a notebook while sitting in the prison parking lot. Gardner got caught up in the project, as well. There were times he would repeat something several times to help Bradshaw remember. "Did you get it?" he would say. Gardner was eager to talk publicly about incarceration, his change of heart and so forth, which is why he tried to arrange interviews with the Deseret News and Larry King, but both were denied by prison officials. Bradshaw's notes would be his only voice.

During this time, Gardner and his attorney asked Bradshaw to appear at a commutation hearing to have his sentence changed from death to life in prison; they wanted him to testify about the changes Gardner had made. Bradshaw felt obligated to consult with LDS Church leaders first and was advised against voluntary testimony; the church, which strives to maintain neutrality in these matters, had concerns his testimony might be interpreted as an official church position. This weighed heavily on Bradshaw, and he felt relieved when the vote came back from the Board of Pardons 5-0 against clemency; his testimony likely wouldn't have mattered.

The following are some of the observations Bradshaw recorded following his visits with Gardner leading up to his execution:

APRIL 9, 2010

I met with Ronnie for two hours, and he seemed happy to see me. We talked about the longhorn cows I raise, and he asked me to send some pictures of some of our cows. He loves to dream about being on a horse, working with livestock and the earth.

Ronnie also told me that he was asking for resumes on those individuals who are going to be his executioners either by lethal injection or by firing squad. He would like to make sure that those pulling the triggers or pushing the plunger can handle it. "This ain't no joke," he told me. "I've been on the other side of the gun, and I know what they are going to have to live with." He also told me, "I don't want to die, but I'm not afraid to die."

We talked a few more minutes about life after death and what LDS beliefs are on this subject. Ronnie hopes for an understanding God and a chance to meet with his victims.

APRIL 17

I visited with Ronnie for an hour and a half. While I was in the waiting room, I met the mother of an inmate housed next to Ronnie. Her son suffers from mental illness and drug addiction and has been in protective custody for 3 ½ years because of something he saw in the Gunnison facility. She told me that since Ronnie has been talking to him he is more sensitive to her. She can talk to her son without him losing control when she gives him advice. When I finally got in to see Ronnie, the same woman came by the visiting booth and thanked Ronnie personally. After she closed the door, I told Ronnie, "The opinion that people have of a crazed killer would be damaged if they knew of the change that had taken place in him."

"Well, they do call it the Department of Corrections, you know," Ronnie replied.

We talked about how similar our lives were when we were younger. When I was a young boy, I was caught stealing; I was moving in that direction. Ronnie and I decided the difference was that I had developed some good friends when we moved from Idaho to Salt Lake who never gave up on me and had a real positive influence – they're the guys who are in our band now. Even when I was out doing things I shouldn't do, they would come by and get me to come to church with them the next morning. And my grandparents were very good to me. Ronnie told me, "I never had any of that except for an officer or two when I was younger who tried to give me direction and a family at a little corner market."

Sometimes it almost scares me how similar some of our paths were; it was the people in my life who made a difference. Ronnie and I discussed it often. If Ronnie had had any of the people in his life that I had in mine, things might have been different for him.

I asked Ronnie what he will say when he is asked if he has any final words before the execution. He said he would like to apologize to his victims, their families, those who are made to participate in the execution and anyone who has been adversely affected by his actions. He said that over the last 10 years he has realized what a different life he could have had and how dramatically his behavior has hurt so many. He reminded me of a conversation we had years earlier when he told me he had come to understand that his actions would affect generations to come. It haunted him that the victims' families and his own will be altered for generations because of what he has done.

Ronnie said he had been physically abused by his father and had never felt wanted, but he didn't want to say much about it. He said his stepfather Bill was a great guy but a crook. He also mentioned a guy named Jack who had tried to take care of him but had also sexually abused him and turned him to prostitution. I don't excuse Ronnie's behavior, but I wonder how different things might have been for everyone if he had made just one good decision or had one great mentor.

As I was getting up to leave, Ronnie asked if I would get him scriptures on tape so he could listen to them. The arthritis in his hands is so bad that it is difficult for him to hold a book.

He asked me to consider spending the last 30 hours of his life with him, which is about how long he expects to be in the holding cell before the execution. I told him two hours is about all I could handle. "Maybe we could get John Wayne movies and pizza," he said. I said I could handle 30 hours of that. I told him that if he ever had a chance to make the apologies he said he wants to offer, I would be proud of him as a man.

APRIL 23

The news just reported that the judge will sign the death warrant. The execution is set for June 18. Ronnie has chosen to die by firing squad.

Coming tomorrow: Dan Bradshaw's personal account of Ronnie Lee Gardner's final days and the regret and remorse that haunted Gardner up to his execution.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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