Jun 1, 2015

Michael W. Ryan, 1948-2015

Michael W. Ryan, one-time leader of a racist religious group preparing for the end of the world, has died in a Nebraska prison. He was 66.

Ryan reportedly had brain cancer, though it is not known if that killed him.

He had been on death row since 1986, when he was convicted for torturing and murdering a 26-year-old man and a 5-year-old boy.

Ryan was last scheduled for execution in 2012. The sentence wasn't carried out because of problems obtaining sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs required for Nebraska's lethal injections. Nebraska's governor announced in mid May that the state had finally gotten sufficient quantities of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to resume executions. Nebraska legislators, however, voted to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty was discontinued days before Ryan died.

One of the arguments for ending the death penalty came from religious groups. Eight evangelical ministers, for example, said the state should give prisoners every chance to repentant. "No one is ever beyond redemption," the ministers wrote. "Yet the death penalty risks cutting short the process of redemption in the lives of those imprisoned."

Ryan was apparently unrepentant at his death, however.

He spent some of his time in prison re-writing the Bible, making corrections, he said, at God's instruction. Over the years, Ryan told journalists he rejected the legitimacy of Nebraska law. It wasn't Yahweh's law, he said.

"People say two people died out there, well big fucking deal," Ryan told a public radio reporter in 1989. "Go back to the Old Testament. Moses wiped out a whole god damned family, babies and all. Now that's pretty god damned hard way to go, but he got rid of them."

Before he was a religious leader who believed he received messages from Yahweh, Ryan drove a truck transporting livestock in Kansas.

In his early 30s, however, Ryan was injured and lost his job. By the time he was able to go back to work, the farm crisis made employment hard to find. Rising interest rates and falling food prices destroyed many previously profitable farms in the 1980s, wreaking havoc with the economy of rural America.

Ryan, searching for answers in this time of crisis, found the Christian Identity movement.

He heard James Wickstrom, then national director for a violent anti-tax group called Posse Comitatus, talk in Kansas in 1982. Wickstrom was criss-crossing America, preaching resistance to what he said was a Jewish conspiracy of world dominion. He networked various far-right groups and encouraged their preparation for an impending race war.

A former tool salesman from Michigan, Wickstrom was one of the main popularizers of Christian Identity, which teaches that the Israelites of the Bible are actually Aryan, not Jewish. Jews are believed to be sub-human, a race descended of Satan and Eve. These doctrines of white supremacy are combined with right wing conspiracy thinking and fear of government, as well as evangelical beliefs about the imminent end of human history and the battle of Armageddon.

Michael W. Ryan
Ryan thrilled to the message, and soon lead his own small group of racists preparing for the end of the world.

His son Dennis, who was 12 at the time, recalled that "We were supposed to kill all Satan's people. Dad was supposed to be the King of Israel, and I was the Prince. He was supposed to die before the New Jerusalem was brought down from Yahweh, and then I'd be the king."

At its height, the group consisted of about 12 adults and 10 children.

Ryan took the group to prepare for the end of the world in Nebraska in 1984. Rick Stice, one of Ryan's followers, had a hog farm in the tiny town of Rulo in the far Southeastern corner of the state. His wife had died and the farm had failed and been repossessed by the bank. Ryan's group bought it back and transformed it into a religious commune that Ryan ruled with absolute authority.

He claimed to hear directly from Yahweh and told his followers of apocalyptic visions he saw in the sky. The group believed Ryan was possessed by the spirit of an archangel and could read their thoughts.

He showed them what Yahweh wanted with an "arm test." Ryan would grab the shoulder and wrist of a follower's outstretched arm, and ask God a question. If the arm fell, the answer was yes. If it stayed at 45 degrees from the body, the answer was no.

With the test, Ryan convinced his group that they should steal thousands of dollars of farm equipment. They stockpiled weapons, and frequently watched tapes of Wickstrom's sermons and a VHS of Red Dawn, the 1984 film about a Soviet Union invasion of the American Midwest starring Patrick Swayze. With the test, Ryan convinced his followers he should take three of the women of the group as additional wives.

He also convinced them that some male members should be brutally punished.

Stice was chained to the porch of the house he had lost to the farm crisis like a dog.

After Stice fled the farm and then returned a week later, Ryan's attention turned to the man's son, 5-year-old Luke Stice. Ryan drenched the child with ice water and ordered him outside in March 1995. He beat the child and strangled him with a dog leash, calling him a mongrel and a seed of Satan. He broke the child's neck. Luke Stice died and was buried in a shallow grave on the property. His father helped bury the child and then fled the group for good.

Ryan's attention then turned to a 26-year-old follower, James Thimm.

Ryan convinced his group that Yahweh wanted them to torture Thimm. They chained the man up in what had been a hog barn. They sodomized him with a shovel handle, broke his arms, broke his legs, shot off his fingers with pistols, and skinned his legs with a razor blade and pliers.

After four days of torture in April 1995, Ryan stomped Thimm to death.

At the trial, Ryan's lawyers argued that he was insane, a diagnosis Ryan himself rejected.

"Do you think that you are crazy?" his lawyer asked him.
"No, I don't."
"Do you think you were crazy back when James Thimm was killed?"
"No," said Ryan. "I was doing what I felt we was told to do whether it was what I wanted or not."

A jury convicted him of Thimm's murder in 1986. Ryan pleaded no contest to the murder of Luke Stice in exchange for a reduced sentence. For the torture and death of the 26-year-old, he was sentenced to death.

Ryan spent the next three decades fighting to avoid the electric chair and then lethal injection. He appealed his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. According to his lawyers, Ryan spent as much time as possible in the prison's law library, even though he believed the law was evil.

"Man's laws are the laws of of Satan," Ryan once told a reporter. "I don't have to answer people on this earth ... I'll answer to Yahweh when I get there and if I've been wrong then I have an eternity for hell."

He died on May 24.