Editor's note: The following story contains language and material that might not be suited for children.
"I don't have to answer people on this earth. They can put me in this chair over here and fry me. I ain't answering to them. I'll answer to Yahweh when I get there and if I've been wrong then I have an eternity for hell."
Michael Ryan, 1989
Michael Ryan had been on Nebraska's death row for just over three years when he defiantly told a reporter that it didn't matter to him that he was guilty of murder, sentenced to death.
He was responsible for the torture and death of a 26-year-old man and a five-year-old boy on a farm near Rulo, Neb.
"I know I haven't done anything in his eyes wrong, because man's laws are the laws of Satan."
Nebraska prison officials had been ordered to execute Ryan today, March 6. It would have been the first execution in the state's history that involved a lethal dose of drugs. That process was to replace the electric chair, last used in 1997.
However, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a stay of execution based an on appeal in Richardson County court. Ryan's attorney, Jerry Soucie, is arguing that his client can't be executed by lethal injection because he was originally sentenced to die by electric chair.
Journalist Rod Colvin was there at the beginning. He met with the condemned man at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1989, a few years after he was convicted, while researching a book about the bizarre circumstances that lead Ryan to become, in the words of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, "one of the most brutal murderers in the history of the state."
Colvin, who first covered the story for radio station WOW in Omaha, finds the story still fascinates people everywhere.
"I think the fact that it happened in such a small, conservative community on a farm, the bread basket of the nation," Colvin said. "Plus, there were such heinous, heinous crimes."
Ryan, an unemployed truck driver with little education, spent much of his life in Kansas. By 1980, he had come to hate the United States government and started attending meetings of an extreme political movement called the Posse Comitatus. Its rural membership spiked during the farm economy crisis of the 1980s.
"I was really a latecomer to the whole thing, and the Posse part of it I didn't go with," Ryan said.
He told Colvin during their interview that he identified less with the group's politics and more with their strong anti-Jewish beliefs. He began to develop his own interpretation of Old Testament Biblical references. It was a homemade religion built on a belief held by certain extremist groups: the Israelites referenced in the Bible were not Jewish, but the Anglo-Saxon Caucasians who descended from Abel, the second-born son of Adam and Eve. In other words, white people were the "chosen people." He used an ancient Biblical term, Yahweh, to name his god.
"I went with what I believed in Yahweh. I still do and I'll die doing that. He brought us all together," Ryan told Colvin.
He pulled together a group of like-minded people who believed the battle of Armageddon was near. At its peak, there were up to 12 adults and ten children.
For his book, Colvin interviewed many of the members of what came to be described as a cult. He's convinced Ryan "had them believing that he had a direct connection with God and could communicate with God, and they all looked up to him and became part of this groupthink."
Ryan, along with his wife and three children, moved to the farm outside of Rulo, owned by one of his followers. They began stockpiling dozens of weapons and hundreds of pounds of food while waiting for the unnamed enemy to attack, as promised in the Book of Revelation.
"There were the classic factors at play there that lead into this cult mentality," according to experts in mind control interviewed by Colvin. "These people believe The Battle of Armageddon was upon us. We've got to band together, because it's us against them.'"
Ryan sometimes referred to himself as "king," and members of the group obeyed orders without question, according to trial testimony summarized in the Nebraska Supreme Court review of the case. The Chief Justice wrote:
"The group also believed that Ryan possessed the spirits of archangels and that the infant of a female group member who became pregnant while at the farm was divinely conceived. Ryan claimed to hear Yahweh' speak directly to him and allegedly saw visions in the sky. He further claimed to know what other group members were thinking and to be able to predict things which later came true."
Ryan ordered some of the men to steal farm machinery and other goods, and then sell it all to collect more money for supplies. Men and children were sexually abused. Everything Ryan did, he told Colvin, was justified by his communication with Yahweh.
"It was a good time," Ryan said during his interview. "The last eight years of my life been the best of my life, since I found out about Yahweh, and tried to live the way he showed me."
People in Richardson County noticed when their neighbor posted a large "Keep Out" sign on the gate and men armed with AK-47 automatic weapons would patrol the fence line. Those who lived with Ryan told Colvin "he became drunk on his own power."
One night, the owner of the farm, Rick Stice, ran away. When he returned voluntarily a week later Ryan lashed out. He had Stice chained to the front porch. Sometimes he would beat Stice himself and other times he had the others do it for him. Ryan took out his anger on Stice's son, five-year-old Luke. The boy apparently defied the cult leader.
According to witness statements, Ryan violently slammed the boy into a piece of furniture, knocking the child unconscious. "It did not kill him immediately," Colvin said, "and Ryan instructed them to put him in a bed and pray for him."
No one called a doctor and the little boy died. Luke Stice was buried on the farm property.
A few weeks later, Ryan turned his anger on another resident of the farm whom he accused of being a non-believer. The cult leader ordered three of the men, including Ryan's own teenaged son, to administer beatings to 26-year-old James Thimm. In the original Nebraska Supreme Court ruling upholding Ryan's death sentence, the court summarized the events:
"Thimm was taken to a hog confinement building, where, over a period of 2 days, the men took turns sexually assaulting with a shovel handle until his bowel ruptured, whipping Thimm on his back and abdomen, and shooting off the fingertips of Thimm's left hand. Thimm was chained or tied with baling wire during much of this time. Michael Ryan also broke Thimm's arm, permitted Dennis Ryan to break Thimm's left leg, and directed Timothy Haverkamp in breaking Thimm's right leg. Michael Ryan then demonstrated to Timothy Haverkamp and Dennis Ryan how to skin a human being by using a razor blade and a pair of pliers to skin part of Thimm's leg. Ultimately, Michael Ryan stomped on Thimm's chest, breaking several of his ribs, and Thimm died on April 29, 1985. Thimm's body was placed inside a sleeping bag and buried in an unmarked grave on the farm.
On June 25, 1985, David Andreas and James Haverkamp, two other residents of the farm, were arrested for stealing more farm machinery. While in jail, those two men told police about what had taken place on the Rulo farm. Later that summer the farm was searched by a team of law enforcement officers, and the bodies of 5-year-old Luke Stice and Thimm were exhumed."
Michael Ryan pled "no contest" to the murder of Luke Stice. A jury found him guilty for the murder of James Thimm. Ryan seemed unapologetic when he spoke with Colvin two decades ago.
"People say two people died out there, well big f*****g deal," Ryan said. "Go back to the Old Testament. Moses wiped out a whole g** d****d family, babies and all. Now that's pretty g** d****d hard way to go, but he got rid of them."
Ryan's son Dennis was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of Thimm. Timothy Haverkamp pled guilty to second-degree murder. Andreas and James Haverkamp pled guilty to lesser charges. All three testified against Ryan at his trial.
Michael Ryan spent the first few years of his time on death row rewriting the Bible at the instructions of the god that only he could hear.