On the brink of a new life: Convicted in cult killing, Timothy Haverkamp wins commutation

World-Herald Bureau, Nebraska/, MAY 21, 2014

By Joe Duggan

Lincoln -- Timothy Haverkamp, who took part in one of the most shocking murders in Nebraska history, raised his right hand Tuesday and swore to tell the truth.

Then he told the state’s top three elected officials that he’s ready to be a truly free man. Minutes later, the Nebraska Board of Pardons voted unanimously to grant him a rare commutation, meaning Haverkamp will be released from a lifetime of state supervision this summer.

Secretary of State John Gale tried to reconcile the softly spoken 52-year-old man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt with the 22-year-old religious cult member caught up in torture and death on a hog farm near the southeast Nebraska village of Rulo.

“You’ve really kind of come from the depths of hell in a cult relationship with a lot of real horror and violence to a life of great stability and great peace, it seems,” said Gale, a member of the Pardons Board.

Haverkamp is the fourth of five men convicted of the 1985 slaying of James Thimm to be released from parole. Cult leader Michael Ryan, 65, remains on Nebraska’s death row.

The day marked a dramatic turnaround for a man given a sentence of 10 years to life for second-degree murder. The Pardons Board, which also includes Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning, has granted only four commutations for murder in the past 23 years.

Haverkamp served 23 years as a model prisoner, which included eight years on a work detail at the Governor’s Mansion. He has spent the past five years on parole, living and working as a metal fabricator in Lincoln.

The board reduced his sentence to a term of 10 years to 58 years. The change means Haverkamp will most likely be released from parole by September, which allows him to leave the state without having to obtain permission. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not forgive a conviction.

After the hearing, when asked how it felt to win the commutation, Haverkamp said, “I’ll see when I get the papers.” He otherwise declined comment.

No letters of opposition were sent to the board. The governor asked several times if anyone in the hearing audience wanted to come forward with an objection. No one did.

So the governor asked Haverkamp if he was fully prepared to re-enter society.

“I feel like I’ve already re-entered society,” he said.

Haverkamp said he works six days a week, attends church and relies on the support of family and friends. He has obtained degrees from two community colleges and has counseled other ex-convicts on adjusting to life on the outside.

He said he has done everything that officials in and outside of prison have asked of him. He said he plans to remain in Lincoln for a time but wants to be released from parole so he can more easily attend to the needs of his elderly parents in Kansas.

Esther Casmer, chairwoman of the Nebraska Board of Parole, verified that Haverkamp has fulfilled every parole obligation without so much as a traffic offense. He also earned the right to meet with his parole officer just once every six months.

“It is not the norm,” she said. “It is an exception.”

What happened on that hog farm nearly 30 years ago wasn’t normal, either.

Ryan, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, assembled a group of about two dozen members to prepare for what he promised would be the Battle of Armageddon. Cult members stole farm equipment and other property to purchase drugs, guns and ammunition.

Haverkamp joined four others in the torture and slaying of Thimm, 25, of Beatrice, who had fallen out of favor with their leader. Over four days, Thimm was chained in a hog shed where he was beaten, whipped, partially skinned and sodomized with a shovel handle. The cult leader killed him by stomping on his chest.

Ryan also was convicted of killing Luke Stice, 5, the son of one of his followers.

Haverkamp was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against Ryan.

A message left with Miriam Kelle, Thimm’s sister, wasn’t immediately returned. But late last year, she told The World-Herald she supported commutation for Haverkamp.

The attorney general, who has worked in recent years to carry out Ryan’s execution, said there is a clear difference between the cult leader and his followers.

“Tim Haverkamp was a young man who was scared of being hurt if he didn’t do what he was told,” Bruning said. “Michael Ryan is someone who deserves the death penalty, and eventually justice will be served.”

Key figures in the torture and slaying of James Thimm

  • Michael Ryan, 65: Cult leader convicted by jury of first-degree murder for torture, death of follower Thimm. Pleaded no contest to second-degree murder for the death of Luke Stice, 5, a cult member’s son. On death row, where he is contesting his execution by lethal injection.
  • Timothy Haverkamp, 52: Participated in the torture of fellow cult member James Thimm, 25. Haverkamp also fired a bullet into Thimm’s head, although he testified that it was after Michael Ryan had stomped Thimm to death. He was released in 2009 after serving 23 years in prison. On Tuesday, the Nebraska Board of Pardons granted him a commutation, meaning he will probably be released from state supervision by September.
  • Dennis Ryan, 44: Son of cult leader, participated in Thimm’s torture. Sentenced to life for second-degree murder, but conviction was reversed. Pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault. Released in 1997 after serving 11 years.
  • James Haverkamp, 55: Cousin of Timothy, pleaded guilty to assault, theft and carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to one to 26 years. Participated in Thimm’s torture. Released in 1998 after serving 13 years.
  • John David Andreas, 60: Pleaded guilty to assault, theft and carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to one to 26 years. Participated in Thimm’s torture. Released in 1998 after serving 13 years.

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