Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sentence commuted for Nebraska cult killer: “From the depths of hell to a life of great peace.”

Later this summer Timothy Haverkamp will be a free man. He’s been out of jail for five years, but not quite free.

In 1985 freedom of any kind seemed impossible.

How could Nebraska ever release someone who participated in the barbaric torture and murder of another man on the orders of a self-proclaimed prophet of god?
Haverkamp is sworn in before Board of Pardons. (Bill Kelly)
In the Nebraska State Capitol today the shy and soft-spoken convicted murderer convinced the traditionally hardline Board of Pardons he deserved their trust. One board member said Haverkamp had emerged “from the depths of hell…to a life of great peace.”

Haverkamp spent 24 years in prison for his role in the barbaric torture and murder of James Thimm. In 1985 both men lived with Michael Ryan and his small band of religious zealots and survivalists on a farm outside of Rulo, Nebraska. 
It was, arguably, the most sensational crime in the state since the Charles Starkweather murder spree in 1959.
No reasonable person wants to read the details of what Ryan and four of his followers did to Thimm. Summaries of the crime in court documents turn the stomach and can bring on tears. Every aspect of life on the Richardson County farm, dictated by the sadistic Ryan, justified by his twisted interpretation of the Bible in general and the Book of Revelation in particular.
Thimm earned the cult leader’s scorn for questioning his beliefs. Ryan orchestrated several days of torture for the man. Four other followers, including Haverkamp, did as they were told as Thimm was skinned alive, his limbs broken, and worse.
Police raided the compound and discovered the grave of another victim of Ryan’s. Five-year-old boy Luke Stice died after Ryan hit him in the head for talking back.
Haverkamp was convicted of second-degree murder. He joined others from the cult in testifying against Ryan. At the time only Ryan’s teenaged son Dennis continued to maintain that they were doing god’s work on behalf of his father. He too has since been released from prison.
Haverkamp got out of jail five years ago. Like anyone on parole he was required to regularly report to a parole officer, submit to drug tests, and stay out of any kind of trouble. By doing everything right, he earned the right to request ending even that routine. Commuting  his sentence would reduce the life sentence handed down by the Richardson District Court to roughly the time he already served in jail. Unlike a full pardon, the state would not nullify the original conviction. He will always remain a convicted felon.
Under oath Haverkamp told the board it had been over 30 years since “the incident” and during his time on parole he’s led a “productive, law-abiding life.” He spoke for less than thirty seconds.
Esther Casmer. the chair of the state’s Parole Board was asked to review the case by the Attorney General and report back to the Board of Pardons. She and the rest of her board gave unqualified support to commuting Haverkamp’ s sentence. She said there were “no hitches” in his parole. Casmer, who has reviewed the cases of hundreds of prisoners on parole, said Haverkamp’s “exemplary” post-release record was “not the norm.”
“He hasn’t even had a parking ticket,” she marveled when we spoke after the hearing.
No one spoke in opposition to the sentence reduction.
Answering questions from the board Haverkamp spoke of the “great support” he gets from family and his church. He has a steady job, often working six days a week and volunteering when possible for Habitat for Humanity. He fishes for relaxation. His aging parents live in Kansas and he’d like to be able to visit without first getting permission from a parole officer.
Governor Heineman previously warned Haverkamp that getting a sentence reduced on a murder conviction was almost unheard of under this board. All three members tend to take a hard line on law and order issues. Yet no reservations were heard at the hearing.
“All we’re really doing here is deciding whether he has to continue checking in with his parole officer every six months for the rest of his life,” said Attorney General Bruning. “It’s an unnecessary expense to the taxpayers” since he’s been successfully rehabilitated.
Haverkamp leaves the State Capitol. (Bill Kelly)
The vote was unanimous. Timothy Haverkamp earned his freedom. He left the Nebraska State Capitol Building playing cat and mouse with newspaper and television photographers, successfully ditching the pack without making a comment.
In 2009 at his parole hearing Esther Casmer reminded everyone in the room that laws to punish criminals are written to protect the community from people “we are afraid of, not those who we are angry with.”
Nebraska is still very much afraid of Michael Ryan. The man who convinced Haverkamp and the other others to savage another human being in the name of god remains on death row. The Nebraska Supreme Court recently rejected his latest effort to stop his execution. There is no word about when, or if, Nebraska will be able to carry out its first execution by lethal injection.