We, the Comrades of Unit 1012 will remember 15-year-old Heather Guerrero on February 8 and 11 every year. She will be one of The 82 murdered children of Unit 1012, where we will not forget her.
Anthony and Irene Guerrero poses for a portrait with a photograph of their daughter Heather Guerrero in the backyard of their Gering, Nebraska.
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OUR-PART SERIES: DAY 3
Death penalty in Nebraska: Victims’ relatives grapple with capital punishment; some favor it, some are opposed
Pain is still raw 13 years after their daughter's death
Nebraskans will vote Nov. 8 on whether the state should repeal or maintain a law that eliminated the death penalty in the state. It’s a serious matter of life and death. But for the families whose loved ones were taken brutally by murder, the death penalty becomes even more real, and even more intimate.
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GERING, Neb. — Feb. 11, 2003, is a date Anthony and Irene Guerrero can never forget.
It was the day their 15-year-old daughter, Heather, was abducted while delivering the morning newspaper, driven to an abandoned shack, raped and shot dead by a 24-year-old man.
Every day the Guerreros drive by the corner where their daughter was abducted, a half-block from their home.
Every night in the backyard a lawn ornament in the shape of an angel, with the letters “H.G.,” is illuminated in purple light — their daughter’s favorite color.
Every so often Anthony runs into the father of the man who killed Heather. The family still lives in their neighborhood.
“We’re not hateful, ugly people. We just want justice for what he did,” Irene Guerrero said. “He is still living and breathing and eating ... and my Heather was taken too early.”
Nebraskans will vote Nov. 8 on whether the state should repeal or maintain a law that eliminated the death penalty in the state.
It’s a serious matter of life and death. But for the families whose loved ones were taken brutally by murder, the death penalty becomes even more real, and even more intimate.
Besides confronting the horrible loss of a loved one, such families must deal directly with the matter of whether someone should die. It’s an issue that divides victims’ families, and forces them to search their souls and beliefs.
Such families are usually asked by prosecutors if they want the death penalty pursued. Then comes a long string of court hearings and then two trials, the first to determine guilt and a second to determine if a death sentence is warranted by weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the crime.
Before a sentence is imposed, family members get the opportunity to take the stand to testify about their loss and confront the person who committed the murder.
It is an emotionally trying time, said a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor who has worked with victims’ families.
“These are people who have been deeply, deeply traumatized, whether they had been in close proximity (to the murder) or not,” said Ari Kohen, who served eight years on the board of directors of Journey of Hope, a group that works with families of murder victims and opposes the death penalty.
Joanie Brugger, director of the victim-witness unit in Madison County, where five people were shot and killed inside a Norfolk bank in 2002, said her approach with families is to be nonjudgmental, “whatever a family wants.”
But, she said, the families of murder victims she deals with in her northeastern Nebraska county often ask if the death penalty will be sought, and are disappointed if it is not.
In the case of the Norfolk bank murders, the family of only one of the five victims questioned the need to pursue a death sentence. Brugger said she can understand.
“If you had a loved one who was killed or killed brutally, (death) seems to be the most fitting punishment,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of families quote the Ten Commandments, ‘thou shall not kill,’ but the Bible also says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ ”
Kohen said he’s dealt with families that oppose the death penalty as well as with families that support it. He said he’s seen a difference: Families that want an execution seem more frustrated by the long and slow-moving judicial process.
He said the families that oppose the death penalty and have an “attitude of forgiveness” seem to have a more positive outlook.
His faith guides a brother’s stanceThe brother of Janet Mesner, one of two women stabbed to death in a Quaker meetinghouse in Lincoln in 1980, said he opposed capital punishment both before and after the slayings.
Capital punishment is not only morally wrong, but it won’t give his family closure, said Mesner’s brother, Kurt Mesner, who farms near Grand Island.
“It’s senseless to take another life. It serves no purpose,” he said.
Mesner said he bases his opinion on his Quaker upbringing. His faith teaches that people can be forgiven and that God decides a person’s fate.
Mesner’s family knew his sister’s murderer, Randolph Reeves. He was a member of the Omaha Tribe who was adopted as an infant by farming neighbors of the Mesners in Central City, Nebraska.
On the night of the murders Reeves had been drinking heavily and had ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug.
Kurt Mesner, like his late parents, has spoken out against the death penalty. He said Reeves, then 23, had lost his senses when he sexually assaulted and then stabbed to death Janet Mesner inside the Quaker meetinghouse. Another woman, Victoria Lamm, was killed when she went to investigate.
“He didn’t intend to murder Janet,” her brother said. “He was high on drugs. He didn’t know what he’d done.”
Mesner said a sister doesn’t share his views. And members of Lamm’s family have spoken in support of the death penalty.
Reeves came within 42 hours of being executed in 1999. After a series of court rulings, he was ordered to be resentenced. The prosecutor in the case, then-Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey, decided against seeking the death penalty. Reeves, 60, died in May at the Nebraska State Penitentiary after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Lacey, at the time, said the case had dragged on too long and he worried that it could go on another 20 years. Not seeking the death penalty, the prosecutor said at the time, would “put an end to all the suffering in this case.”
Mesner, whose parents both died in 2011, said the ruling was a great relief to him. Capital punishment is revenge, he said, and he doesn’t want revenge.
“It is years and years of appeals, and having to read in the newspaper all the gory details every time there is an appeal,” Mesner said. “If a person is executed, it provides no closure. It’s many years wasted.”
A photograph of Heather Guerrero, is seen in a case filled with mementos at the Guerrero family home in Gering, Neb.
BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERAL
‘It’s never over,’ says victim’s fatherIn Gering, in the shadow of the towering Scotts Bluff, Anthony and Irene Guerrero live in a suburban housing development that looks like those in any good-size city in Nebraska. They can identify with the long wait and the frustrations with the legal system.
“It’s never over,” said Anthony, 49, who works for an economic development office in Scottsbluff.
“You don’t get your peace,” said Elise Guerrero, Heather’s oldest sister.
But unlike the Mesners, the Guerreros have reached an entirely different conclusion about the death penalty.
They, too, are religious — members of an Assemblies of God church in Gering, a church that has mixed views on capital punishment.
The Guerreros said they’ve considered alternative punishments, been confronted about their views, and even watched an anti-death penalty film at their church, but have always supported capital punishment.
“Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished for what he did,” said Irene Guerrero, a 50-year-old social worker. “God may be the one who ultimately will be the judge, but I want him to pay for what he did.”
The Guerreros lived through every parent’s worst nightmare.
They received a phone call that their child was missing. Anthony usually accompanied the couple’s bright-eyed daughter on her early-morning paper route, but on that day he didn’t.
When Heather didn’t show up for school, friends and relatives rushed to the Guerrero home. Search parties were hastily dispatched. A horrible waiting game began.
Thirty hours after Heather disappeared, her body was found in an abandoned farmhouse about 15 miles from the family’s home. She had been sexually assaulted and shot.
Jeffrey Hessler, a neighbor who worked as a security officer, was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to die. He was also found guilty of raping another local girl six months before Heather’s murder.
Anthony Guerrero — whose license plate on his pickup reads “Heather G” — said he was taught by his father that if “you get into trouble, you’ve got to accept the punishment you get.”
Their daughter, the couple later learned, had been shot after she refused to promise that she wouldn’t tell anyone about being raped.
“Why should he be forgiven?” asked Irene Guerrero. “He didn’t give her a chance.”
Dealing with their daughter’s death has been an ongoing struggle. Irene said there are days she cries at work. Heather’s teenage brother still has nightmares about his sister’s murder. Another daughter moved away from Gering because people kept reminding her “you look just like Heather.”
When the Guerreros need some “therapy,” they jump on Anthony’s motorcycle and ride into the hills.
“It’s a constant ache in my mind,” Irene Guerrero said. “I know I’m going to be OK, but my two youngest (children) aren’t as strong, and we have Jeffrey Hessler to thank for that.”
The Guerreros, unlike some other families of murder victims, have not been involved in the campaign to restore the death penalty, nor have they testified at public hearings in support of capital punishment. No one has asked them, they said.
When they learned that the death penalty had been repealed, they were shocked. With new DNA technology, they said, there is a decreased chance that an innocent person could be executed. An execution is justice, they feel.
Even though Nebraska and other states have struggled to obtain the lethal injection drugs to carry out executions, the Guerreros believe some means will be found.
“Bullets don’t cost that much,” Anthony Guerrero said.
“Neither does a rope,” his wife said.
If the day comes for Hessler’s execution, Irene Guerrero said, “I can say ‘That’s for Heather.’ ”
Mom a proponent of penalty, though it brings no closureSusan Walden did not attend the 1996 execution of the man who abducted and killed her 12-year-old son, Christopher.
Instead, she read about it in a newspaper, as she and her husband retreated to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to escape the spectacle and attention.
“I didn’t see that (witnessing the execution) would serve a purpose,” Walden said from her home in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Why would I want to spend money to come back to Nebraska to lay eyes on a guy I never wanted to see in the first place?”
The 68-year-old retiree is a staunch supporter of the death penalty, even more solidly now than at the time her son was killed.
On a cold December day in 1983, as her son Christopher walked to school, an Offutt airman named John Joubert forced the boy into his car at knifepoint.
The slaying came just over three months after another youth, 13-year-old Danny Joe Eberle, was abducted, bound and stabbed to death.
When Joubert died in the electric chair for both boys’ slayings, Walden said it provided no comfort or closure.
“It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t bring Christopher back,” she said. “I do think it’s a deterrent. But as for closure, there isn’t any for me, although I know he (Joubert) wouldn’t hurt anyone again, that another family will never have to go through this again.”
Life has not been kind to Walden since the death of her only son.
After the slaying, Christopher’s father, Steve, sought and received a transfer from the Air Force to Virginia. Susan Walden said the couple needed to get away, even though people in Nebraska had been supportive.
The mother said she blamed herself for her son’s death: She and her husband had warned Christopher about strangers, given the earlier slaying, but had allowed him to walk to school.
Walden said she saw her son turn the corner up the street, and, even though he wasn’t with the neighbor he usually walked with, “it didn’t occur to me that something bad would happen.”
“It was cold, it was snowy. It didn’t seem that far to walk,” she said. “The last thing I told him was not ‘I love you’ but ‘Wear your hat.’”
She said in recent years she has battled depression, and her husband has had multiple health problems, which Walden blames in part on the murder of their son. She and her husband live apart but remain on friendly terms. Her mother recently died, leaving her without any immediate family.
“It’s a constant adjustment, and a constant struggle,” Walden said. “Now that I am by myself, it makes it harder.”
People who don’t intend to kill, or who kill in the spur of the moment, maybe don’t deserve the death penalty, she said. But Joubert was a child predator, Walden said; he fantasized about killing.
Spending a lifetime in prison wasn’t going to change that.
“These kinds of people need to be put away, and not for life,” she said. “Why should the taxpayers put up with these kinds of people? It blew our family apart.”
Kin of a Garcia victim says: ‘Speed this thing up’Brad Waite sat through all the hearings, all of the trial, in the case of the man who slaughtered his sister.
In fact, Brad Waite kept a count, telling anyone that it was exactly 1,200 days between Anthony Garcia’s 2013 arrest and his conviction Wednesday.
Waite wiped away tears as he saw the crime-scene and autopsy photos of his sister, 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman, killed for nothing else than being in the wrong house at the wrong time: The 18 wounds climbing her neck like the teeth of a zipper, from a half-inch-wide to the 3-inch-wide C-shaped fatal plunge of a butcher’s knife.
Likewise Waite saw the photos of Thomas Hunter, 11, and the eight probing marks on his tiny neck, along with a knife going in one side of his neck and out the other.
Mary Brumback was basically butchered, her left thumb nearly severed. And even after shooting Dr. Roger Brumback, Garcia poked away at Roger’s neck while he lay dying, prosecutors say.
A coroner’s physician testified that Garcia’s pokes and prods were likely used to control his victims by inflicting fear. And then Garcia — the former pathology resident bent on revenge after his firing from Creighton University in 2001 — made sure to sever their jugular veins and carotid arteries.
Waite said he worked his “butt off” to circulate petitions to restore the death penalty after the Legislature repealed it.
“And that was before I reviewed any of those photos,” he said. “I defy anyone who has seen these photos to say there shouldn’t be a death penalty. He didn’t just kill them; he tortured them.”
Waite’s only misgiving: the time it takes Nebraska to execute a convicted killer. One condemned killer has been on death row for 36 years. That needs to be fixed, he said.
So Waite is well aware that if a three-judge panel were to sentence Garcia to death, his next countdown likely will go much longer than 1,200 days.
“We need to take after Texas and speed this thing up,” Waite said. “Death by lethal injection is way too easy, way too nice, for this guy.”
System doesn’t allow families to grieve and move onMore than a decade ago Miriam Kelle worked for a short time as a nurse at the Tecumseh State Prison.
It was there that she saw, in passing, the man who was sentenced to die for the torture slaying of her brother, James Thimm, in 1985 at a Rulo, Nebraska, farm that served as the headquarters of a religious cult.
In prison, Michael Ryan, the cult’s leader, was surrounded by bars, security fences and guards. There wasn’t any way he could hurt corrections staff or escape death row and hurt anyone else, Kelle said.
“The county attorney told our family that we had to go with the death penalty to keep other people safe,” she said. “But 30 years later, Mr. Ryan died on death row, so the death penalty really didn’t do anything except to prolong the pain and retraumatize our family.
“Every time there was an appeal we had to think about it again,” Kelle said. “It’s, like, ‘Who’s winning here?’ It was like I was serving a death sentence like Ryan.”
Kelle, 59, now a nurse at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, has been active in her opposition to capital punishment, testifying at the State Capitol, working with victims’ families and writing opinion pieces.
The system, she said, doesn’t allow relatives to grieve and move on.
Instead, they read again and again about the person who murdered their loved one, reliving the horror. The victim and the victim’s family are forgotten.
“They’re just hanging onto the death penalty in hopes it makes things better” by bringing the family closure, Kelle said. “And it may not happen, and you may not feel better if an execution does occur.”
The pain her brother suffered, over three days of torture at the hands of cult members, will never be undone, she said.
So, Kelle said, she has decided to work for “something better.” She doesn’t want other families to go through the pain of endless appeals and false hope.
“It’s cruel,” she said. “The amount of retraumatization is too much. It’s not good for you.”
Her opinion is based in part on her Mennonite faith: that God should be the judge, that violence is not the answer, that people can be forgiven.
“It was 30 years ago,” Kelle said of her brother’s murder. “You bury the hatchet and move on. It doesn’t do any good to keep that anger going.”
Ryan died of cancer last year in prison before he could be executed. Kelle said it was a relief that her family didn’t have to live through the trauma any longer.
“The mood toward the death penalty is changing,” she said. “Even though we have it, it doesn’t work. People are starting to understand that.”
She’s a tireless advocate for restoring capital punishmentVivian Tuttle figures she has driven more than 9,000 miles in support of the death penalty since the State Legislature repealed capital punishment in 2015.
She went door to door in her hometown of Ewing, Nebraska, collecting signatures to get the issue on the November ballot. She has walked in parades, spoken at press conferences and talked to state lawmakers.
It’s all because of a belief that justice requires death for the man who shot and killed her 37-year-old daughter, Evonne Tuttle, inside a Norfolk bank in 2002.
“I can still see that (bank surveillance) film,” the 75-year-old mother said.
“That doesn’t go away,” Vivian Tuttle said. “I don’t think people realize the pain you have in your heart and chest when you lose a child.”
Evonne was the middle child of Vivian Tuttle’s three children. Evonne was a single mother, raising her children by herself. On the day she was murdered, Sept. 26, 2002, she had traveled to Norfolk to cash a $64 check at her bank.
As she waited at the counter, three black-clad men, led by Jose Sandoval, walked into the U.S. Bank. They shot and killed five people. Within 50 seconds they were gone. No money was taken.
The three gunmen, Sandoval, Jorge Galindo and Erick Vela, all are on Nebraska’s death row. In Norfolk, the murders are referred to as “our 9/11.” Everyone in the community of 24,000 knew someone who was touched by the slayings.
“When you kill five people, then definitely you deserve the death penalty,” Tuttle said. “It was a heinous crime. My daughter didn’t go in there to harm them.”
Evonne’s youngest daughter, now 17, still lives in fear, Tuttle said.
“We have to have the doors locked,” Tuttle said. “That’s not going to change until the death penalty is carried out.”
Tuttle is a religious person. A Bible sits on a table in her living room. Her clock chimes out religious songs like “Jesus Loves Me” on the hour.
When it comes to the death penalty, she said, it’s in state law, it is used rarely, and there’s no one on the state’s death row currently who could be considered innocent.
“I’ve talked to the governor and he assures me (the death penalty) will be carried out,” she said. “And we won’t have to wait 30 to 40 years.”
A schoolteacher for 35 years, Tuttle was never one to stay on the sidelines. She testified on behalf of educators at the State Capitol prior to her activism in support of the death penalty. She volunteered to teach Sunday school, teaches square dancing at a local nursing home, and still wields her chain saw when there’s a fallen limb to be cut apart.
“You can step back and wait for someone else to do things and then complain about it afterward. I’m just not that kind of person,” Tuttle said.
She was outside the legislative chamber when lawmakers voted to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of the death penalty repeal. Tuttle said she was angry that the Legislature did not approve an amendment to allow state voters to decide the fate of capital punishment. So she got active, and started gathering signatures for the petition drive that permitted the vote.
“If we’re going to keep our country safe, we need to have crimes that have to have the death penalty,” Tuttle said.
Compiled by World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Todd Cooper