Shortly before he was executed Tuesday night, death row inmate Donald Moeller muttered words that sounded to me and the other media witness, Associated Press writer Kristi Eaton, like, “Hear my fan club?” but which the Department of Corrections initially reported as “they’re my fan club?”
It turns out what Moeller was responding to was the sound of inmates cheering at the time of his execution – their voices moving through the prison vents and pipes.
Tina Curl, the mother of Moeller’s murder victim, 9-year-old Becky O’Connell, said she was told by penitentiary officials that the inmates started cheering at the 10 o’clock hour at the start of Moeller’s execution.
“That’s the last thing Moeller heard … all those inmates cheering,” Curl said Wednesday morning. “That makes me feel pretty damn good.”
Corrections spokesman Michael Winder confirmed the cheering, saying penitentiary officials believe it likely was coming from the prison’s nearby East Hall.
Curl said she was told that Warden Doug Weber asked Moeller about a half hour before his execution whether he planned to make a statement.
“He apparently said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ ” Curl said. “He said, ‘I don’t think I can convey to them how sorry I am. It would probably do more harm than good. I’d rather not say anything.’ ”
Donald Moeller, the child rapist and killer who was the disheveled face of South Dakota’s death row for two decades, joked with prison officials Tuesday night, moments before they ended his life.
Strapped to an execution table and wearing a beard and long, gray hair, the 60-year-old Moeller was asked if he had any last words.
“No, sir,” he said, then added an apparent reference to those gathered to witness the execution: “They’re my fan club?”
Tina Curl, the mother of Moeller’s victim, 9-year-old Becky O’Connell, said afterward that the killer was “a lowlife, right to the end.”
The lethal injection process was started at 10:01 and Moeller stopped breathing within a couple minutes. He was declared dead at 10:24 p.m.
Moeller’s death closes the book on one of the most heinous crimes in state history.
Becky O’Connell was by herself on a trip to the convenience store the evening of May 8, 1990, when she disappeared. The next day, two men found her naked body in a wooded area near Lake Alvin and the Iowa border. She had been raped and sodomized, with knife wounds throughout her upper body, arms and hands. A cut to her jugular vein likely ended her life.
Moeller was arrested in Washington nine months later, having fled after volunteering samples of his blood, fingernail and hair to Sioux Falls investigators. The DNA evidence would become the key to his murder convictions, both in 1992 and again in 1997, after the Supreme Court granted him a second trial, ruling jurors heard evidence they should not have.
O’Connell’s mother solicited donations to finance her drive from her Lake Luzerne, N.Y., home to Sioux Falls. Her husband, Dave Curl, who was O’Connell’s stepfather, read a statement to reporters at the South Dakota State Penitentiary after the execution.
“Finally, justice for Becky. He will no longer take another breath or hurt another child,” he said.
He said Moeller’s execution does not bring his family closure, but they are relieved that they will no longer hear about the more than $1.5 million spent to prosecute and house Moeller in prison.
“Whether right or wrong, we will hate that son of a bitch until the day we die,” he said. “We despise that so-called man.”
During the news conference, Tina Curl showed photographs of Becky at age 9 and of her grave site today. She also displayed an age-enhanced image of what her daughter might have looked like today, drawn by Det. Phil Toft, who has served as the Sioux Falls Police Department’s sketch artist.
“They did a beautiful job,” Tina Curl said afterward. “The kid has my nose.”
Department of Corrections spokesman Michael Winder said Moeller ate an evening meal of scrambled eggs, link sausage, tater tots and drip coffee. He was taken from his holding cell at 9:38 p.m. and the intravenous lines were in his arms by 9:49.
Media witnesses said the execution itself was quick and apparently painless.
“Within a minute or two, I heard no breathing. I didn’t see his chest go up and down,” said Steve Young, a reporter for the Argus Leader. Around 10:12, Moeller’s face grew ashen and purple. “If this man was in pain, I didn’t see it. In a manner of minutes, he was gone. He laid on that table and went away forever.”
After several months on the loose, two murder trials and 21 years of appeals, Moeller said through his lawyer in July that he now accepted the consequences of his actions. He said the same to a federal judge earlier this month as he asked to end the process of appeals challenging the humanity of the drug that would end his life.
“If the rape and murder of Rebecca O’Connell does not deserve the death penalty, then I guess nothing does,” he told U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol on Oct. 4.
His execution was the second this month and the fifth in a century for the state of South Dakota. Three others remain on death row.
As they did with Eric Robert two weeks earlier, corrections officials ended Moeller’s life using a large dose of pentobarbital, the same fast-working barbiturate commonly used to euthanize animals. The state stopped using a series of execution drugs in recent years because of a shortage.
The use of that drug was the focus of Moeller’s most recent appeal, which he decided to end in July.
A stepsister, Donna Nichols, intervened on his behalf to keep the appeal going, but Moeller was resolute that he was ready to die and Piersol closed the case.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard saw no reason to delay the execution.
“After more than 20 years, Donald Moeller finally admitted to killing young Becky O’Connell. He accepted his fate and dismissed attorneys who continued to oppose his execution. I take no pleasure in his death, but there are those who are so vile that executions are warranted,” the governor said in a written statement.
Cora Martin, who was married to Moeller’s stepbrother at the time of the crime, attended a prayer vigil Tuesday outside the penitentiary, holding a sign that read “Peace B with you, Don.”
She said no other family members were at the prison Tuesday, but Moeller had written letters to several of them.
Despite his recent admissions, Martin still doesn’t believe her former brother-in-law committed the crimes. She concedes Moeller and his brothers had a hard life with an alcoholic, abusive mother, but she never saw the penchant for violence she’s read about in the media.
“He never did anything to make me afraid,” Martin said.
Martin is close with Agnes Becker, the woman who married Moeller’s stepfather and has kept closest contact with him during his years on death row. Becker hadn’t spoken with Moeller on the phone by 5 p.m. Tuesday, she said.
“(Agnes) says she’s doing all right tonight, but who knows how she’ll feel (Wednesday),” she said.
The execution left Tina Curl with unanswered questions.
"The only thing I wanted from him was for him to tell me what he did to Beck, how he got her. But I guess, I get the last word after all, instead of Moeller,” Curl said. “She didn’t deserve what happened to her. She was right full of life and that dirtbag took it out of her for his own sick satisfaction.”
Reporters Josh Verges, John Hult and David Montgomery contributed to this story.
When Dave Curl took the podium after the execution of his step-daughter’s murderer, Donald Moeller, he didn’t mince words.
"Finally, justice for Becky," Curl said. "After 22 years and five months and 23 days from the day of May 8, 1990, when Donald Moeller murdered our daughter Becky, he is dead. He will no longer take another breath or hurt another child."
The Curls didn’t shy from making their disgust with Moeller known.
"Everyone keeps telling us to make this about Becky. There is no Becky because of Don Moeller," Curl said. "Whether right or wrong, we will hate that son of a bitch until the day we die. May he rot in hell."
Tina Curl, Becky’s mother, said her only regret was Moeller never told her details of Becky’s death.
She called his final words, “Are they my fan club?” despicable.
"He’s a low-life, right to the end," Tina Curl said.
Dave Curl criticized the years of delays between Becky’s murder and Moeller’s execution.
"We’re tired of hearing about … what it cost the state of South Dakota. It cost us a daughter, our health at times, our marriage," he said. "It would not have cost the state all that money if they had cut down on all the appeals, all the unnecessary lawyers, and all the damn years of housing his worthless ass. When DNA matched, he should have been gone then."
Tina Curl emotionally described Becky as fun-loving and energetic.
"She didn’t deserve what happened to her. She was right full of life and that dirtbag took it out of her for his own sick satisfaction," Tina Curl said. "(Becky was) full of piss and vinegar, Had one hell of a sense of humor. The stuff she’d do to her cat, dress it up, make it play house with her. Dumb stuff!"
Tomorrow, the Curls will visit the scene of Becky’s murder, and play the guitar for her.
After they visit Dave Curl’s mother’s grave in Hot Springs, they plan on leaving South Dakota and hope never to come back.
"We want nothing more to do with the state. Nothing really against the state of South Dakota, just — I don’t want to be here," Tina Curl said.
Tina Curl holds a portrait of her daughter, Becky O’Connell during a press conference following the execution of Donald Moeller tonight at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, Oct 30, 2012.
Under a cold October sky, two groups with very different views on capital punishment silently stood awaiting Donald Moeller’s death.
On one side of the driveway, near the Jameson Annex of the State Penitentiary, members of a coaltion led by the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, Pax Christi and South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty sang songs, spoke of peace and prayed for Donald Moeller, whose life ended tonight after decades of appeals.
Gloved hands gripped glowing candles, and songs like “We Will Overcome” brought clouds of visible breath under gently flapping State of South Dakota and United States flags.
“This is the second time in two weeks that the state of South Dakota has killed a man, and I think it’s important for our neighbors in the world to know that though the state may kill, they may not kill in our name, in the name of all South Dakotans,” said Tom Emanuel, executive director of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center.
About 50-70 people came on the night of Eric Robert’s execution a few weeks ago to peacefully oppose the death penalty, Emanuel said. He expected there to be slightly less tonight because of the cold.
He said it’s disheartening that the state has killed two people in such a short period of time, but said it puts a lot of public focus on the issue of capital punishment.
“Some good can come in that, insofar as raising public debate about it,” he said.
Eighty-six year old Rodney Gist stood in peaceful protest for Elijah Page’s execution in 2007. He was at the State Penitentiary a few weeks ago for the execution of Eric Robert with those opposed to the death penalty. Tuesday, he stands among those protesting the death penalty on the eve of Donald Moeller’s execution.
A World War II veteran and retired Methodist pastor, Gist said he had a difficult time going to war knowing he was going to kill people. After a nine-month stint guarding and getting to know Japanese prisoners of war, his anti-killing philosophy was solidified.
“If I had known them before I went to war, I would have never been able to pull the trigger,” he said.
The belief that killing is wrong stays with him, and he believes strongly that the death penalty in South Dakota should be abolished.
“There isn’t any logical reason to keep doing this, except to get even and be malicious,” he said.
Roger Elgersma stood outside of the South Dakota State Penitentiary earlier in the day Tuesday, before the vigils began, holding a cardboard sign that said “Rot in Prison,” which he used to protest the death penalty, because he said it shows those who are in favor of capital punishment that it is not his intention to let perpetrators off the hook for their crimes.
Elgersma believes it’s more of a punishment to spend life in prison than to be executed.
“The inmates are starting to think so too,” he said, referring to Robert, who was executed earlier this month for killing prison guard R.J. Johnson in 2011.
Donald Moeller should die in prison, but not when the state says so, he said.
Sioux Falls Councilman Kermit Staggers also attended the vigil of those opposed to the death penalty.
“I’ve always been against the death penalty since the seventh grade. I remember at that time the Birdman of Alcatraz was executed. I remember riding my bike to school thinking what a beautiful day it is, but there’s going to be somebody executed on this day. From that time on, I’ve always had these feelings against capital punishment,” he said.
“But also at the same time I understand why people are in favor of it. Because the concern that some people who commit murder get out of prison in a very short time and I don’t like that either. When people commit a horrendous crime like what has happened to Becky, they should be in jail for the rest of their lives. There’s always the possibility that they could actually repent what they have done. If they don’t, being in prison for the rest of their life is nothing easy to do either.”
On the other side of the driveway, supporters of Becky O’Connell’s family, Moeller’s victim so many years ago, stood huddled together, some wrapped in blankets.
“We’re here to support the death penalty, support the family that has been affected by that man,” said Tonya Reyelts-Doese, of Sioux Falls.
She grew up down the street from Becky O’Connell and her mother Tina Curl, and was 14 when O’Connell went missing. Though she wasn’t close with O’Connell, she said it was an extremely sad time, especially for her mother, who was friends with Tina Curl.
Tuesday, she stood with her daughters, one of whom is 14, the same age she was when O’Connell was murdered.
While she hopes Tuesday’s exeuction will provide some closure to O’Connell’s family and friends, she said it shouldn’t have taken this long to carry out justice for an innocent 9-year-old girl.
“I don’t think they should get a decision (on whether or not to appeal),” she said. “Becky didn’t get a decision, she was a helpless 9-year-old that played at a park that we all played at. She did the same things that we did, rode her bike, laughed, played at recess, she didn’t have a choice to go with that man. That man had a choice to do what he did, and he did it, and he shouldn’t have a choice to live or die.”
Becky O’Connell disappeared on a spring day in 1990.
Donald Moeller died tonight for raping and killing her.
Between were 22 years that made Moeller a byword in a city whose residents grew sick of the story and disagreed till the end on what was the best response.
On his last day a few gathered in protest and a few honked their horns to salute the state carrying out the ultimate penalty. But city residents by and large went about their business and offered a remedy they all could agree on — silence.
Jared Bauer, 20, spent the day mowing lawns with Andrew Gunderson and Mike Liesinger for a local turf business. He was not troubled in the least by the state picking the day and time that a man should die.
“He did the crime. He’s got to go down,” Bauer said.
Todd Boote, 32, woke up early, met with friends to pray and read Psalms, then went to work.
“It’s an average Tuesday,” he said. He never thought about Moeller till the name came up at a midmorning coffee break.
Morgan DePerno, 19, an Augustana College student from Harrisburg, spoke with passion about the conundrum of capital punishment.
“Everything you do has a consequence, but to me death is such a harsh penalty,” she said. But she had a three-hour genetics lab, had homework to do and was off to her afternoon job on campus. She was sorry to say that Moeller’s final hours were a non-issue to her.
Moeller’s death makes three executions in five years and two in two weeks at the South Dakota State Penitentiary on the north side of Sioux Falls. His case jarred the city like no other. He harmed a child. He fled 1,500 miles, was arrested, returned to the state, was convicted, sentenced to death, had the sentence overturned, was convicted again and sentenced again to death. He denied his guilt for 22 years until this month when he told a judge that he deserved to die. When last-minute appeals to stop his execution fizzled, a weary city was resigned to see him go.
St. Joseph Cathedral was the scene of a late-night vigil in 2007 before Elijah Page was executed. On Tuesday, a midday Mass drew 75 people. The Rev. Thomas Fitzpatrick spoke of mercy and help for families in grief, but he did not mention Moeller. He did tell his listeners that charity is life’s most unusual gift because after giving it away, “we still possess it.” It’s a gift “that changes the world and changes history.”
Heidi Solem, 47, said afterward that was she was heartbroken for Becky O’Connell’s family and was yearning for mercy as Moeller lived out his last hours.
“I struggle with that. … Yes, we want to see justice, but we also want to see a person find forgiveness,” Solem said.
Kathie Heim also was at Mass, then on her way to the VA Hospital to visit her father. She’s lived in Sioux Falls since the late 1970s and remembers well the fear of 1990, when a 9-year-old girl was missing, found murdered, and the killer was at large. “What he did was awful and he needs to pay the price, but I don’t think we should take another life,” Heim said.
Jim Bleth, 72, a retired teacher and onetime encyclopedia salesman, spent his morning at the gym, trying to burn his usual 275 to 300 calories on an elliptical machine. He’s got 10 brothers and sisters and four children.
“I don’t believe in executions,” he said. “But what’s the other choice? Taxpayers pay while he remains in the cell.”
Jan Kreither, office manager at St. Therese Catholic Church, remembers Moeller’s deeds as the city’s first shocking crime after she moved here from Kansas City in the mid-’80s. She said Tuesday morning that the day would be ordinary, but with a question hanging in the air.
“You always think about the death penalty and is it right or wrong,” she said. “This one’s a tough one. In this case it’s Donald Moeller and that poor little 9-year-old girl.”
Reasoning people land on both sides of the issue, said Ron Sisk, academic dean at Sioux Falls Seminary. The tension between justice and mercy overlays the tension of a state’s responsibility to protect with an individual’s need to forgive.
“The honest answer is I’m pretty conflicted about this,” Sisk said. “I see both sides. I feel for the families of the victims. And yet, I personally have a hard time with the idea of the state taking someone’s life on my behalf.”
Sisk has lived in Sioux Falls for 10 years. He said longtime residents who remember Becky O’Connell and remember how Moeller’s deeds came to light have a much-deeper emotional tie to the crime, the trail of justice and now the punishment.
“These events call us to look at again at our values and ask ourselves does this reflect the kind of society I want to live in and want my children to grow up in?” he said.
Some have not had the luxury of such reflection.
Reid McNeill, 28, stood Tuesday night on the street corner at Russell and Main, the site of Omar’s Market, where Becky O’Connell was last seen in 1990. McNeill said he knew her from his school days as a child. She was a little older and often loaned him lunch money if he was short.
He was distressed to see a sign in the door at Omar’s saying the market had closed in September after 77 years of business. And then he was puzzled. His family moved away in the late 1980s, when he was very young. He moved back into town and returned to his neighborhood three weeks ago. He lost track of his friend, although he had heard about Donald Moeller. “He’s the guy dying tonight,” O’Neill said. But he didn’t know until Tuesday night that Becky O’Connell was the one who died at his hand.