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."
Ronnie discussed his impending execution. He hopes he will be able to control his emotions; otherwise, he said he might need a sedative. He said he might need the warden or me to read his final statement for him. I told him my goal is to have him so prepared for his last day that he will look at it as a great adventure, not merely the end of a long incarceration and a tough life. We read the last chapter of 3rd Nephi in the Book of Mormon, where it talks about repentance and forgiveness. "Man, that is powerful stuff," Ronnie said. "Read it to me again." I read it again and then we talked about how the atonement of Christ can be applied to all men. I told him that if we try to limit the power of the Savior and the Atonement, we are taking a very serious position that will be difficult to defend at some point.
I finally got in to see Ronnie at 6:30 p.m. I asked Ronnie about the Otterstrom killing. "Oh, that was awful," he said. "Otterstrom was a big guy, and I could tell by the way he carried himself that he was the real deal. Otterstrom came over and told me to leave. I told him I was there to collect some money. I didn't like the way he was talking down to me. I was young, cocky and wiry back then, and I was well armed, with two pistols. Mel started toward me, and I pulled my gun. I expected him to stop, but he didn't. He rushed me and grabbed my gun hand and raised it in the air. I was able to bring my left fist up, like an upper cut, and caught him under the chin. He went down and I pointed the gun at him and told him not to try anything like that again. I demanded his wallet and he gave it to me. While I was looking in the wallet, he kicked me between the legs so hard that it raised me off the ground. I was able to keep control of the gun and told him again not to be so stupid. I told him, "Now I'm going to rob the bar, too." I told him to get over to the till and open it. He walked on his knees to the till, but he wasn't about to give up. He was a tough, brave man. He made another move at me, and I pushed the muzzle of the weapon into his face and as I slammed it into him, it went off. I really didn't plan to pull the trigger. The other times we scuffled I could have shot him, but I didn't. He lay on his back, and I looked down at him and said, "Are you OK, pal?" He didn't answer. I nudged him with my foot and saw the blood."
All of this led to a discussion of pre-mortal life, repentance, the resurrection and the Atonement. We spent an hour or so reading about these things in the Book of Mormon and Bible. We had talked about these things many times the previous 13 years. He has given a great deal of thought to these principles and feels that he has done everything he can to repent. He understands that he cannot make restitution for his crimes, and that is one reason he is so focused on the youth facility.
Ronnie said he has spent many hours trying to recall all of the sins that he has committed and repenting to God silently and vocally. He said he feels good that he has had a bishop to "open up to." He gave me permission to use my notes and our conversations in any way I think might be of value to someone.
Ronnie told me one of his dreams. He was walking into a dark room and opened a door on the far wall and saw Mel Otterstrom lying on a bed. The room was very bright, and Mel was dressed in white and the bedding was white. Mel didn't move or speak, and Ronnie was not sure if Mel was dead or asleep but the room was full of peace and comfort. Ronnie said he hoped the dream meant Mel had forgiven him.
Ronnie also described a dream in which he was driving a Cadillac convertible with several friends and Burdell. They were all laughing. Ronnie hoped the peaceful feeling in this dream was another indication of some sort of forgiveness.
As I stood up to leave for the night, Ronnie said, "I'll see you next week right? I love you, man." I said, "I love you, too, Ronnie."
When I arrived tonight, Ronnie was upset and agitated. Corrections officials continually ask if there is anything he needs but always ignore his requests, which included new shoes, colored pencils for drawing, an additional hour out of his cell, additional phone time to take care of his personal and legal matters, and a CD player with audio versions of the scriptures. He has had no write-ups for 10 years and feels he is being treated more harshly than necessary.
Ronnie has decided to have his last meal on Tuesday evening so he can fast on Wednesday and Thursday, the day of his execution. He explained that he wants to have a cleansed body, and so he will have only liquids. Besides, he said, "Isn't fasting something that (the church) teaches?" I told him it was, and that I would be fasting on Thursday as well.
The warden came by earlier to ask what he wanted for his last meal. Ronnie said steak, lobster tail, apple pie and vanilla ice cream. He told the warden that one of the officers had volunteered to grill for him in the yard, but the warden said he would have no input in the choice of a cook. He also requested the clothing he will wear to his execution — a long-sleeved maroon dress shirt and black slacks — but he was told he will wear a dark blue jumpsuit instead.
"If they aren't going to give me anything, why do they keep asking?" he said.
I told Ronnie he should shave his wispy white goatee; that it didn't improve his looks. He laughed and said he would do it if I would shave off what remains of the hair on my head.
I met with Ronnie tonight. He said he had talked to prison officials about the cremation of his body and what witnesses will attend his execution. He can't decide if he wants family there that night, or even if he wants them to claim the body. He asked if I would be willing to claim the body and take care of the cremation. I told him I would, if it comes to that. He asked me if I would be there for him during the hours leading up to the execution, and if I would be there as a witness. I agreed to this; however, he is not sure if he wants to put this responsibility on my shoulders. "I don't want to put anyone through it," he said.
Ronnie said prison officials had called the families of his victims to see if they wanted a chance to meet with him. Ronnie hopes they will do this. Only one person has responded positively (I will not mention any names here). Ronnie is excited for the opportunity.
We read about King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon regarding "the change" that needs to take place in one's heart.
I wrapped up tonight's meeting by telling Ronnie something I had been withholding from him. "Ronnie, before I leave, I want to tell you something," I began. "I was in the 19th Special Forces with Mel Otterstrom. I have never mentioned it before because I didn't want it to affect your feelings in talking to me about anything you wanted to say. But now that we are getting close to that day, I just wanted you to know." Ronnie was shocked. "How could you ever spend time with me knowing what I did to Mel?" he asked.
I told him, "I remember very well when the event took place. In Special Forces, there is a tight bond. But when I was called to serve as bishop at the prison, I knew my calling was to serve all of the inmates, not just the ones who made me comfortable. It has also been a blessing in my life to help me learn the principle of forgiveness."
Ronnie thanked me and said he hoped that this experience would help someone else. I shook his hand and told him I would return next week.
The Third District Court denied Ronnie's request for a stay of execution. I have a call in to the warden to ask about visiting more often as the day draws near.
The warden called. He said I will be allowed to stay with Ronnie until 9 o'clock the night of the execution. He also told me that Ronnie wants his family to pick up the body, but Ronnie is not going to allow them to view the execution. Ronnie told him he is still vacillating on whether he wants me in the witness room. I will talk to Ronnie about it tonight.
When I arrived to visit Ronnie I learned that he had refused to put on a jumpsuit to come to the visit. The jumpsuit is required, but the rule hadn't been enforced lately. I asked the officers to ask him to please put on the jumpsuit for just a few minutes because I needed to talk to him. He told the sergeant to tell me he wasn't coming.
The Utah Supreme Court denied Ronnie's appeal.
I met with Ronnie. He apologized for not showing up last week. He is anxious about the commutation hearing tomorrow. He wants to apologize, but has heard the families don't want to hear it. He also worries about showing emotion. If he expresses regrets, people will think he is just trying to gain sympathy; if he doesn't express regret, he will be seen as cold and uncaring. "If the families get any relief out of facing me and unleashing hate, anger or pain at me, I understand and hope that it helps them find peace."
Ronnie has changed his mind again. He wants the state to claim his body and have it cremated, then give the ashes to his daughter, Brandy. He also wants no one at the execution. He got tears in his eyes. "Dan," he said, "I could really use you being there, but I love you too much to put you through it."
I told him that I will ask the warden to arrange for more frequent visits. He has already told me that I am supposed to be out of the prison by 9 o'clock on Thursday night, but that we will play it by ear. Ronnie said he would like to play chess or something that night to keep his mind occupied. I told him I would request a chessboard.
I asked Ronnie if he was still comfortable with his choice of a firing squad. He said he was. The newspapers don't seem to understand his decision. Ronnie thinks the firing squad is quicker and less painful than the lethal injection and less likely to have something go wrong.
I noticed that he had shaved his little goatee. He said that he was looking in the mirror the other day and said something like, "It is a little stupid looking."
He shook my hand and told me how much our time together helps. Counseling with him has been an all-consuming effort that has taken priority in my life. But having him say it has been helpful makes it worthwhile.
The Board has denied clemency. The vote was 5-0. I feel anxiety building up. The warden called. Starting tomorrow I can visit Ronnie from 4 p.m. until whenever the administration needs him or we are bored with each other.
The son of one of Ronnie's victims called me today – let's call him Mike. Prison officials arranged for Mike to visit Ronnie face to face yesterday, and Ronnie gave him my phone number. Mike wanted to know about my relationship with Ronnie and how I felt about his confessions, repentance and sorrow. During their visit the previous day, Ronnie told Mike that he had tried to contact Mike's family years earlier to apologize. Mike asked me if this was true. I said it was true, and that I had been told by a family member that they wanted no contact with Ronnie. Mike told me that he had doubted Ronnie's story, but now that I had confirmed it, he had to rethink his feelings.
"Oh, how I wish they would have let me know," he said.
He is understandably skeptical of some things Ronnie told him. We agreed that over time Ronnie may have told himself some version of events that, even if untrue, he might very well believe. We'll never know for sure. I assured this young man that I think Ronnie is sincere, at least in his regret.
While I was visiting Ronnie this afternoon, a prison official came by and said he had arranged another conversation between Mike and Ronnie, this time by phone. Ronnie was left alone so he could talk in private. The conversation lasted about 20 minutes. When I returned to the visiting booth, Ronnie was higher than a kite. He said that Mike had talked about several issues and at the close of the conversation he told Ronnie, "I accept your apology and I forgive you." Ronnie was very emotional as he expressed how grateful he was for that opportunity and how kind and gracious it was of Mike to make this extreme effort.
A short time later, the warden brought in Ronnie's last meal: a steak, two lobster tails, a large slice of Marie Callender apple pie and a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. As Ronnie ate, his eyes lit up. He said the taste and flavor were overpowering. He teased the warden that the pie was cold, so the warden asked an officer to heat it in a microwave. Along with a couple of corrections officials, I stayed and talked and laughed with Ronnie while he finished his meal. Afterward, we talked for a few minutes about the arrangements for tomorrow.
Ronnie presented white handkerchiefs to the officials. On each handkerchief he had drawn in red a traditional, Valentine-like heart with four bullet holes in it. There were drops of blood coming from the bullet holes and written in black letters under the heart was the statement: "Live by the Gun Die by the Gun." He had signed and dated them. He requested that they remind the youth that living a life the way Ronnie lived his can affect their lives the way it affected his.
The officials thanked Ronnie for the gift and one of them told him he was going to put it in his office. Then he said, "Ronnie, I want you to know that I personally selected each member of the firing squad. They are sober men who are taking this assignment very seriously and with the correct spirit." Ronnie thanked him and told him he hoped the men would not suffer any emotional problems because of the assignment.
After the officials left, Ronnie said how much it meant to him that these two men had treated him so respectfully.
"I am not happy about dying, but I am ready," he said. "I don't plan to be a problem for anyone that night."
He has asked them to let him walk barefoot across the lawn when he is moved to the holding cell. "It has been 25 years since I have felt the cool grass beneath my feet," he said. "People may think that I haven't missed much being in here, but little things like this are an example of the small things I have missed."
He said he has asked the inmates in his section to be quiet and respectful when he is moved to the holding cell and up to the execution. There have been times when the inmates have acted out during an execution.
Ronnie has a visit scheduled tomorrow with his brother, daughter, son and maybe his granddaughter. It will be the last time they see him.
I had only a short visit with Ronnie because his family was coming, but he asked me to stay until they arrived. We discussed the possibility of my giving him a priesthood blessing in which I lay my hands on his head and offer up a prayer. We had discussed it several times over the years. I told him that we would need to do it tonight because once he gets in the holding cell there will be a solid door. As I reached through the bars and placed my hands on his head, Ronnie looked up at me with a smile and said, "I don't suppose you can bless me out of here, can you?" Among other things, I blessed him with peace and comfort in the coming hours. As I removed my hands, he turned to me and grabbed both of my hands. "Thank you, Dan," he said. "Thank you for the patience and love you have shown me over all these years."
Ronnie's family arrived, so I left for the evening. I met Ronnie's family in the check-in area. They were sad and emotional. I gave them each a hug and told them they had to be strong in this situation. This is Ronnie's last visit with them; they needed to make it a pleasant one for all of them.
As I was leaving, several officers expressed appreciation for my visits with Ronnie. Some of them have known Ronnie for 25 years; this is a difficult time for them, as well.
When I got to my car, I had voicemails from two TV stations, a newspaper and a radio station. I had previously agreed to talk to the Deseret News and (KSL's) Doug Wright when this was over. That is all I will do. I don't need or want publicity.
When I tried to tell my wife later about the experience of giving Ronnie a blessing, I got so emotional I could hardly finish describing it. All of my daughters have called today to express their concern and support. I am a blessed man.
I headed to prison for my last visit with Ronnie. I have been fasting today and hope I will be inspired to know the things that need to be said and done. As I approached the prison, there was heavy security. There was a large crowd already gathered across the freeway from the prison and a number of media vehicles. At the check-in I was led to holding cell No. 3. It was about 7 p.m. There were about seven officers gathered there monitoring Ronnie. He was lying on his bunk. When he saw me he stood and smiled. He had been watching a DVD.
"Did you get to walk barefoot through the grass?" I asked.
"Oh, man, that was great!" he said. "I walked all the way down here barefoot. Even with the arthritis it was unreal."
Ronnie was doing fine and commented again on how well everyone had treated him. I asked where our chessboard was. One of the officers appeared with one, but Ronnie said, "You know, I think I would rather just talk."
Ronnie's attorneys came by to say goodbye. A prison official came in and offered Ronnie a couple of DVDs – "Avatar" and "Invictus."
"If I come out of this alive, I want to come work for you," Ronnie told the official. "I could give you some ideas on how to run this place. First thing you need is some younger guys." The official replied, "If you come out of this alive, you've got a job."
A short time later, Ronnie asked for something to calm his nerves, and he was given a mild sedative. He didn't want to go to the chamber looking panicked. By 9:45, Ronnie was obviously sleepy and wanted to lie down in spite of the events that would shortly come. I asked if he wanted me to stay. "No," he said, "you can go." I spent the next 10 minutes reviewing things with Ronnie, asking if he had any questions about the principles and ideas we had discussed. He asked me to pray for him and to tell anyone who might ask, "I am so sorry for the tragedies I have caused."
He thanked me again for our friendship and the kindness and patience he had felt. "I love you, man. I'll see you later." I said, "I love you, too, Ronnie, and I will see you later."
As I walked out of the prison at about 10:30, it occurred to me that this was the closing of a major chapter in my life. It was a relief in some ways because it was stressful, but sad too because there was something going on there that I felt honored to be a part of. Ronnie was one of many I worked with. He was the culmination of my work there.
As I reached my car, I received a call from the guys in our band. It was Thursday night – our practice night. They wanted me to join them at Denny's. I wanted to go home, but they were persistent. That's where I was during the execution. We could have gone home sooner, but we waited. When midnight came, one of the guys asked, "Do you think it's happened?" I told him, "It will probably take them a few minutes to do everything." As I pulled the car out on the freeway to go home, I turned on the radio. They reported that Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad at 12:17 a.m., Friday, June 18, 2010. I sat up in bed talking to my wife about it late into the night.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company