LINCOLN — Timothy Haverkamp, who participated in the sadistic torture and murder of a fellow cult member in 1985 near Rulo, Neb., wants the state to release him from parole.
Haverkamp got out of prison in 2009 after serving 23 years of a sentence of 10 years to life. A model prisoner entrusted to work at the Governor's Mansion, he was released on lifetime parole.
Haverkamp, 51, of Lincoln, has asked the Nebraska Board of Pardons to grant him a commutation hearing. The board will consider his request during a Dec. 11 meeting at the State Capitol.
A commutation reduces the sentence for a crime. Unlike a pardon, it does not nullify a conviction.
Haverkamp faces a tough task to persuade a board that rarely commutes murder sentences. Consisting of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, the board has granted only two commutation hearings out of the 66 applications received since July 2012. The board has granted just three commutations for first-degree murder in the past 23 years.
Haverkamp, however, stands convicted of second-degree murder. If the board grants him a hearing, it could take one of three actions: Leave him on parole; commute his life sentence to a term of years, which would end his parole in the future; or discharge him from parole immediately.
Haverkamp took part in the horrors that played out nearly three decades ago at a southeast Nebraska hog farm occupied by about 25 members of a survivalist cult. Michael Ryan, a 37-year-old truck driver from Kansas, gathered the flock by espousing anti-government, anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideologies.
Ryan guided the commune by claiming that he spoke directly to God. Cult members stole farm equipment and other property to bankroll the purchase of drugs, firearms and ammunition in preparation for what Ryan promised would be the Battle of Armageddon.
But cult member James Thimm, 25, of Beatrice riled Ryan when he expressed doubt in the leader's teachings. Ryan's punishments grew progressively more violent and depraved, culminating with four days of torture in late April 1985.
Thimm was chained in a hog shed, where his torturers took turns lashing him with a cord and sodomizing him with a shovel handle. His legs and one arm were broken, the fingertips on one hand were shot and Ryan used a razor blade and pliers to remove a graft of skin from one of his legs.
Ryan eventually killed Thimm by stomping on his chest. After dumping the body in a grave, a 22-year-old Haverkamp shot Thimm in the head when Ryan ordered him to do so.
Ryan remains on death row after being convicted of first-degree murder at a jury trial in Douglas County. The other cult members have been released from confinement, and Haverkamp is the only one of those still on parole.
Haverkamp did not return messages seeking comment. In his commutation application, he chose not to elaborate where the form asked him to “tell your story of the crime.”
“As this crime has received a lot of publicity and is under appeal by Mike Ryan, I would discuss this with you in person,” Haverkamp wrote.
A psychiatrist who testified at Haverkamp's 1986 sentencing hearing said he presented “the classic picture of the sort of young person who gets involved in cults and follows charismatic cult leaders.” The doctor further testified that Haverkamp's fear of Ryan played a role in his actions.
At his parole hearing 23 years later, Haverkamp expressed remorse for Thimm's death but laid most of the blame on the cult leader.
“I don't think anybody could have foreseen what happened there,” he said. “Once you're in that environment, it becomes like a psychological trap. You can't get away from that influence.”
He received psychological counseling in prison, and his record of good behavior qualified him for a work-release job at the Governor's Mansion, where, among other tasks, he gave public tours.
Haverkamp has spent the past four years working as a welder and using some of his free time to help build houses for the less fortunate, said his father, Al Haverkamp of Baileyville, Kan.
He's also a churchgoer who counsels other ex-convicts adjusting to life on the outside, his father said.
“I know it would never happen again,” Al Haverkamp said. “He was real young then.”
A check of court records turned up no charges filed against Haverkamp since his 2009 parole, which requires him to adhere to a set of conditions.
A parole officer is assigned to supervise Haverkamp and is supposed to verify that he complies with the conditions, which can include such things as keeping a job and remaining in the state unless he obtains permission to leave.
Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said records related to a parolee's behavior or level of supervision are not public. But supervision is based on risk and can be adjusted as needed, she said.
Initially charged with first-degree murder, Haverkamp was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offense after he agreed to testify for the prosecution at the trials of Ryan and his 15-year-old son, Dennis. At the time, prosecutors said testimony from Haverkamp and the other accomplices was crucial to the convictions.
In addition to Thimm's death, the cult leader was convicted of second-degree murder for killing Luke Stice, the 5-year-old son of a cult member. The boy, who had been repeatedly abused by cult members, died from a head injury after Ryan pushed him into a bookcase.
Doug Merz of Falls City, one of two attorneys who prosecuted the Rulo case, declined to comment on Haverkamp's commutation request.
Thimm's sister, however, said she would favor granting Haverkamp's commutation request.
Miriam Kelle of Beatrice, who advocates against the death penalty, said she has had conversations with Haverkamp and is convinced that he's no longer a threat to public safety.
“He's very sad for what his role has been and is unable to really forgive himself,” she said. “I've told him you've really got to let go of that.”