Victim pleads for Rolf Kaestel release; Beebe still says no

Rolf Kaestel

Rolf Kaestel in an ADC file photo

Gov. Mike Beebe will not issue a last-minute pardon for Rolf Kaestel, who has served 33 years of a life for a $264 robbery, despite two parole boards’ recommendations that Kaestel be released and pleas on Kaestel’s behalf from the man he robbed.

Kaestel robbed Senor Bob’s Taco Hut in Fort Smith in 1981, armed with a toy water pistol. Dennis Schluterman, who was manning the place, handed over the cash. He said Kaestel never threatened him.

In short order, a Fort Smith jury sentenced Kaestel to life in prison. Last year Kaestel petitioned Beebe for a pardon.

Schluterman, who said he’d been “shocked” to learn that Kaestel was still in prison decades after the robbery, made an emotional video on his behalf. That went to the governor with Kaestel’s appeal.

Also before the governor were recommendations for Kaestel’s release from parole boards in Arkansas and Utah, where Kaestel has been imprisoned for the past 15 years. But Beebe took no action on Kaestel’s petition in 2013 and his office reiterated this week that he will not reconsider that decision.

Referring to pardons, deputy spokesman Stacey Hall wrote in an email, “When we have issued them, most of them have been to address sentencing actions that seemed excessive… The governor felt that Rolf’s situation did not warrant taking action.”

Schluterman, who had held out hope, took news of the governor’s response “with a heavy heart.” He wrote: “Rolf Kaestel made a big mistake and he’s paid for it with his life.  A fundamental principle to our justice system is that the punishment should fit the crime.  Here that has not been the case.”

Schluterman is familiar with Kaestel’s criminal record before the Fort Smith robbery. By age 30, Kaestel had racked up a string of thefts, though none violent. Last August, Colby Frazier of the Salt Lake City Weekly, outlined that background well in an article titled “Invisible Man”.

The paper had taken an interest in why Arkansas officials were paying $28,000 a year to imprison Kaestel in Utah, where he has been held since 1999. Frazier wrote that Kaestel, who’s now 63, had been moved under an interstate agreement because of “noncompliance with the Arkansas system.” Yet, Frazier reported, “Explanations of what this means, and what Kaestel may have done to earn his noncompliance status, do not exist.”

Kelly Duda, a Little Rock filmmaker, believes that part of Arkansas’s problem with Kaestel—and part of the reason he won’t be released—stems from Kaestel’s willingness to speak on-camera for Duda’s documentary Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, about the practice that existed from 1967 to 1994 of selling prisoners’ plasma. The film explores the spread of hepatitis C through that much-criticized but long-running program.

Duda, who filmed Schluterman’s appeal, also supports Kaestel’s release. Contacted for this article, he wrote: “You’ve got to ask yourself at this point is it retributive justice that’s taking place here or revenge?  And at a certain point has an injustice occurred? I believe that it has.

“If Mr. Kaestel had pulled out his water pistol and squirted Mr. Shluterman in the face with it, he still wouldn’t have deserved a life without parole sentence. Looking back on it from a 2014 perspective, that’s just ridiculous.  The man has given up more than 33 years of his life behind bars for $264.”

I share the concern that Kaestel is being punished because of his contacts with media about episodes embarrassing to the Arkansas Department of Correction. My own correspondence with Kaestel dates back to 1992, when he was describing perceived security risks in the prisons.

On Oct. 3, 1999, inmate Kenneth Williams escaped from the Cummins Unit and, later that day, killed a man who lived in Grady, 16 miles away. Five days later, on Oct. 8, Kaestel sent me a letter in which he outlined explanations for the escape that contradicted those offered by prison department officials. Before that year was out, Kaestel was moved to Utah.

In a recent letter to Gov. Beebe, I too supported Kaestel’s bid for parole. We see now that he is determined to let Kaestel’s $264-life-sentence stand, though he has not said why.

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