A changed man
Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series looking back at the double murder that occurred 30 years ago Sunday outside of Ruthton.
Steven Anderson, formerly Steven Jenkins, has spent nearly 30 years in prison after being convicted of first- and second-degree murder in the deaths of two Ruthton bankers on Sept. 29, 1983.
Advocates, including the man who helped put Anderson behind bars for the murders of Deems “Toby” Thulin and Rudy Blythe, are now convinced Anderson is ready to leave the prison system after bettering himself the past three decades.
At the urging of Lincoln County Attorney Michael Cable, Deputy Attorney General Thomas Fabel became the lead prosecutor in the case against Anderson. Fabel not only presented the case to the grand jury, but he also had primary trial responsibilities during the court proceedings that took place the following spring. He recalls the case as “very emotional.”
“Obviously, it was tragic on all sides,” Fabel said. “It was tragic from the deaths of two good citizens and both of whom left widows and children behind and that obviously, is very, very sad, and sad from the perspective of a family that had gone through dysfunction and the involvement of a father and son in murder.”
Fabel noted that while it was always clear to the prosecution that Anderson’s 46-year-old father, James Jenkins, had a vendetta against Blythe and that he had distorted the truth to his son, the evidence revealed that the teenager, considered a sharp shooter with a passion for guns, had actually been the one to do the shooting.
“It was all circumstantial evidence, but based on that evidence, the jury did conclude that Steven was, in fact, the shooter,” Fabel said.
Ironically, Fabel has become one of Anderson’s biggest advocates the past few years, having gotten involved at the request of Anderson’s family and friends. Anderson was eligible for parole after 18-and-a-half years, Fabel said, noting that he was surprised Anderson was still in prison in 2009.
“After having been told very clearly for a number of years that he was certainly on the path and in all likelihood would be moved toward parole in 2009, Steven was turned down again in 2009,” Fabel said. “It was a crushing blow to him and his family. At the time, I was actually a prosecutor in Hennepin County, but I said I’d look into it.”
Fabel requested he be allowed to access Anderson’s file and after getting approval, he scoured the file, finding that Anderson had been a model prisoner. Fabel also found Anderson had been given extremely high grades in employment situations and from counselors and psychologists.
“The psychologists clearly indicated that Steven was no threat to anyone, so I thought their request looked genuine,” Fabel said.
Fabel said Anderson had taken advantage of every opportunity that existed in the correctional system, both in terms of vocational training and also going through numerous programs, group sessions, sessions with psychologists and a variety of writing exercises.
“Steven has become a very skilled carpenter and upholsterer,” Fabel said. “He’s also developed unbelievable insight into both his misconduct and why all that happened, and he’s also developed a very, very strong sense of remorse over the grief that he’s caused. He’s expressed that in writing on a number of occasions.”
The next step was meeting with Anderson, which Fabel admitted was “interesting.”
“It was the first time that I’d seen Steven since he walked out the courtroom door with a life sentence,” Fabel said. “I was a prosecuting attorney until we met face-to-face in Moose Lake State Prison.”
Though somewhat awkward and stressful at first, additional meetings allowed the unlikely pair to develop a sense of friendship.
“I became convinced that he absolutely should obtain parole opportunity at the next hearing, which was this past spring,” he said.
Fabel has not only expressed his own transformation by becoming an advocate for Anderson, he also contacted other officials who had been involved in the 1984 trial.
“I started talking to others about the fact that I thought there was a real injustice going on here, that he had been kept in prison longer than he should have been and that by all criteria, he should be given the opportunity for parole,” Fabel said. “Several others agreed with me.”
Fabel and Cable co-authored a letter to Tom Roy, the current Minnesota commissioner of corrections, as did former Attorney General Warren Spannaus, former Public Safety Commissioner Paul Tschida and several other advocates.
“I shared with all of them the facts that I’d developed, and all of them agreed with me, that this was the right thing to do,” Fabel said. “And in March, Tom Roy, who I believe is a very decent, fair and honest man, granted the petition and has begun Steven on the way to parole release.”
Anderson is currently being held at Lino Lakes, a minimum security facility, and goes out with a work crew to build houses during the day. He is expected to be released in two years.
The transformation that reportedly has taken place in Anderson has been gradual. While court testimony concluded the elder Jenkins could not have shot Thulin and Blythe because of his poor eyesight and other health issues brought on by diabetes, Anderson, who was barely 18 when the murders occurred, continued to deny his role in the murders for 17 years.
In 2000, however, Anderson admitted publicly that he was actually the one who shot and killed the two bankers. Since then, he has reportedly turned his life around, making an extraordinary transformation in the eyes of many.
“Before he admitted it, Steven had this sense of loyalty to his father and the sense that what his father was wanting him to do was the right thing,” Fabel said. “But he finally figured out that it just wasn’t true, that his father had been deluded, that his father had lied to him and that his father had led him astray. And Steven, over the years, has made a remarkable transformation, having gone from a young man who was completely under the domination of a hateful, spiteful, dysfunctional father, into what I regard today as a responsible, intelligent adult who has every ability in the world to be a functioning and contributing citizen.”
When Fabel first started meeting with Anderson, he said he didn’t think Anderson would want to talk about the events that took place 30 years ago. He was wrong.
“Steven insisted on it,” Fabel said. “He told me in very great detail about everything. He thoroughly admitted everything that happened. So he accepts it, he understands it, he doesn’t run from it, and he wanted me to hear it from him.”
Fabel also noted that Anderson now fully understands the relationship he had with his father.
“He understands now about his father’s behavior and that his father influenced him, how he had essentially been deceived and taken under his control,” Fabel said. “The surprising thing is that he’s not bitter about it. I haven’t encountered bitterness with Steven at all.”
Once the truth came out, Anderson was able to deal with those issues, including the feelings of remorse, Fabel said.
“He’s always said, ‘Yes, there were these bad influences, and it was a horrible thing, but the bottom line is that I killed two men. I can’t reverse that. All I can do is let everybody know that from the bottom of my heart, I’m grieved about that. If there was any way to reverse it, I would. But it is what it is.'”
Though skeptical when he first heard about Anderson’s admission of guilt 13 years ago, Fabel has since become convinced that Anderson is sincere about accepting responsibility for his actions.
“When you deal in the life of the law, both as a prosecutor and other situations like I have for over 40 years, you can kind of tell the difference between a phony and something real,” Fabel said. “Well, this guy is real.”
A good many people have expressed concerns about Anderson still being incarcerated. Some are shocked he was still in prison.
“I figured he must have gotten in trouble a little bit in prison,” said LeRoy Burch, who was mayor of Ruthton when the crime occurred. “I assumed that was why he wasn’t out.”
Fabel said he believed Anderson should have been released 10 years ago, especially after finding out that Anderson had been a model prisoner. Had Anderson’s attorney encouraged him to take the plea agreement offered by the prosecution back in 1984, Anderson would almost certainly been paroled 10 years ago, Fabel said.
“Those of us who understood the system knew that he’d be eligible after 18-and-a-half years,” Fabel said. “Not very many people got out after 18-and-a-half years, but almost always, people were released on parole, if they behaved themselves in prison, after 22 or 23 years.”
Fabel noted that there were a number of factors that have contributed to Anderson’s parole rejection, including changes in the correctional environment coming out of the legislation and in the law itself. Though the changes would not technically affect Anderson since he is subject to sentencing guidelines from 1984, Fabel believes it may have played a role anyway.
“Back when Steven was convicted, a person was eligible for parole, in a first-degree murder conviction, after 18 years, six months,” he said. “Over the years, legislation changed that. They kept ramping that up higher and higher and though it would not technically affect him, certainly it had an influence upon the people who were running the correctional system.”
The commissioner of corrections currently holds the power in regard to the parole of inmates convicted of first-degree murder in Minnesota. In most other states, separate parole boards take on that responsibility. Fabel said he favored the use of parole boards, noting that he felt it was too much power for one person to hold.
For many years, it appeared that high-ranking officials across the country began to err on the side of caution. In Minnesota, the 2003 kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender, who had recently been released from a Minnesota prison, led to extensive management reform.
Fabel also said he believed people were highly-conscious of the Willie Horton/Michael Dukakis story.
“Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts and he released a guy under his watch by the name of Willie Horton who recommitted an offense, and the Republican candidate for president strung that one around Michael Dukakis’ neck,” Fabel said.
Despite some flaws, Fabel said he is very supportive of Minnesota’s rehabilitation programs, especially for young offenders. He agrees with the 2012 ruling that the United States Supreme Court handed down in Miller v. Alabama, which abolished life sentences without parole for juveniles.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to take a youthful offender and sentence them to life without parole,” Fabel said.
Fabel said the case got into a lot of social science issues and reasoned that youthful offenders were particularly susceptible for bad influences and have a higher degree of potential when it comes to being rehabilitated as opposed to someone who commits an offense when they are 30 or 40.
“For those reasons, as a society, we shouldn’t slam the door for all time on people that age automatically,” Fabel said. “We should at least give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve gone through a measure of rehabilitation so that they can safely be returned to society.”
While Anderson was 18 at the time of his crime, Fabel said he doesn’t see any difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old. Sentencing should not be a one-size-fits-all system either, he said.
“When they offend at a very young age there’s the opportunity, if we give them that opportunity, to become rehabilitated,” Fabel said. “And Steven has done that in remarkable fashion. In my mind, Steven is the poster child for that proposition that the Supreme Court embraced in Miller v. Alabama, and I’d like to see more of that, quite frankly.”