Remorse and regret
It’s not easy to look in the mirror and be completely honest with oneself, but Steven Anderson did.
It took an incredible amount of soul-searching to understand what drove him to commit a double murder and to accept responsibility for his actions on Sept. 29, 1983, he says, but Anderson, formerly known as Steven Jenkins, was able to do that.
With Sunday marking the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, Anderson willingly reflected back on the past three decades and also shared his hope for the future.
“I’m feeling very grateful for the opportunity to possibly return to society in a couple of years, but I can’t forget the fact that I took two people’s lives and destroyed two families,” Anderson said. “I have a debt that can never be repaid. But I do have a lot of remorse for the harm I caused.”
Now 48 years old, Anderson is preparing for life outside prison walls after being put on a path toward parole by the Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections in March. Currently working through transitional phases, Anderson is expected to be released in about two years. The probability is one that Tom Fabel, the lead prosecutor in the Jenkins case, is pleased with. In an ironic twist, Fabel has become one of Anderson’s biggest advocates.
“The story of Steven Anderson, as far as I’m concerned, is an important one,” Fabel said. “It’s one of redemption and retribution. He’s transformed his life, and I feel good about the opportunity that Steven is going to be given, because he deserves it.”
Rehabilitation and redemption in prison did not come easily for Anderson, however. The process has taken years to digest and understand, but gradually, Anderson began the healing process.
“Steven rose up out of the ashes of a tragedy,” Fabel said.
PRELUDE TO MURDER
When he was 18 years old, Anderson followed his father, James Jenkins, down a dark road of despair. That path eventually led the pair to commit a double homicide near the small farming community of Ruthton on that dreary September morning 30 years ago.
Times were tough back then, especially for farmers, but Jenkins, however, was reportedly not much of a farmer. Though he was said to be a hard worker, Jenkins failed at nearly everything he did, including his dairy cow operation and his marriage to Darlene (Taveirne).
While he dreamed of making a living off the land, Jenkins, who was known to have a quick temper and be financially unstable, could never quite turn those dreams into reality. In 1980, after his marriage fell apart and he got behind on mortgage payments, Jenkins’ 10-acre farm was foreclosed on by Rudy Blythe, then-president of the Buffalo Ridge State Bank in Ruthton.
Hatred for Blythe brewed inside an irrational Jenkins for the next few years, but it was his only son, Steven, who took the brunt of that anger.
“Jim tried to control everybody in his life,” Taveirne said. “He was a control freak. And if he couldn’t control you, like he couldn’t control my life, then he just took it out on Steve. Steve just couldn’t do anything right for him.”
Taveirne said that her son desperately sought his father’s approval, but he never got it.
“He was brainwashed since he was little,” she said. “Steve either did something the way his dad said or he’d suffer the consequences. And you do what you do to survive.”
As a mother, Taveirne said she will likely always carry the guilt of not being able to prevent the tragedy.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what a father does to his child, they still love him,” Taveirne said. “There’s something about it you can’t understand. They don’t want to see it, I guess. Maybe I was in some type of denial, too, but I never thought it would come to something like this.”
For three years, the Jenkins farm-place sat empty. When a prospective buyer called on Sept. 28, 1983, asking to inspect the property the following morning, Blythe willingly agreed, hoping he could recoup some of his losses on the failed investment. But when he and Toby Thulin, the bank’s chief loan officer, arrived at the farm, they were shot and killed.
It was Jenkins who had made the premeditated call and the one who had lured the bankers to their death.
AFTER THE MURDERS
Throughout the Lincoln County trial, which received national attention, Anderson and his defense team tried to insist that it had been Jenkins who had pulled the trigger, but the evidence indicated that it had been Anderson. Jenkins, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound three days after the murders – the same day as Anderson turned himself in to Texas authorities – had terrible eyesight and other health issues attributed to diabetes.
Despite being convicted of first- and second-degree murder, Anderson denied his role as the shooter for 17 years. For the first few years, he said, he felt justified because he still believed what his dad had told him, that Blythe was the cause of all of their troubles.
“I thought they were manipulating the case, but when I realized it was my dad who was one manipulating me, all my justifications were gone,” Anderson said. “Then, I didn’t want to think about it because I felt guilty. I murdered two men for the lies my dad told me. I had deprived four kids of their fathers and other people of their brothers, sons and husbands. And I had not just deeply affected the families, but also colleagues and entire communities. People didn’t even feel safe in their own homes.”
TO PRISON LIFE
As days turned into months and months into years, Anderson said he not only found comfort in working with his hands, doing carpentry and upholstery work also allowed him to occupy his mind. He spent 14 doing upholstery work, four years doing cabinet making and four years managing off-set printing.
“Whatever job I had, and I had a number of vocational jobs and some where I would teach other people that job, I would throw myself into it,” Anderson said. “It became a mental escape for me. It gave me something to focus on.”
AFTER HIS ADMISSION
In 2000, after publicly admitting his role as the actual shooter, Anderson said he was finally able to being the healing process.
“It forced me to look at my relationship with my dad and realize why I did what I did,” he said. “It took a long time to just realize how that affected me, that someone you’re supposed to love took advantage of you.”
Admitting that his father had abused his power and influence as a parent was a difficult thing to do, Anderson said.
“It took a lot of soul-searching and there are still some things that I can’t answer,” Anderson said. “My dad would have to. I know now I was looking for my dad’s love and for a normal relationship with him.”
Taveirne, who has been a constant source of support for Anderson, said she saw her son change after he broke his silence and confessed his role in the murders.
“I felt that there was a tremendous load off of his shoulders, that he finally came out and said it,” Taveirne said. “It wasn’t easy for him to do. But I don’t think you can really heal wholly until you get honest. And he wanted the families to know and to give them some kind of closure.”
The plight of the victims’ families still weighs heavily on Anderson and probably always will, he said.
“I am sorry for what I did,” Anderson said. “It’s just difficult to express remorse because I’m prohibited from having contact with the victims’ family. And I wouldn’t want to intrude in their lives. I have no idea what that would do to them, what kind of wounds that would re-open.”
Visiting Anderson in prison wasn’t easy either, Taveirne said, but it was something she did regularly.
“He’s been at Oak Park, St. Cloud, Moose Lake, Faribault and now Lino Lakes,” she said. “I’ve been to all of them many, many times. Visits are tough, but I go because he’s my son. I love him.”
Besides the feelings of helplessness, Taveirne said she would feel sad about not being able to do “normal things like ordinary people do.”
“There’s no touching and you can’t have a meal together like normal people do,” Taveirne said. “And when your time is up, you just have to walk away.”
While appreciative of his supporters, Anderson knew it was on him to better himself. Through a multitude of rehabilitation programs, he did, and prison officials noticed. Despite the notice and regular encouragement about parole release in the near future, Anderson was denied parole the past 10 years – at four parole hearings.
“Each time, being told you’d have to continue what you’re doing, it’s devastating to the soul,” Anderson said.
Advocates for Anderson eventually reached out to Fabel, who led a successful campaign to get Anderson on the path to parole.
“Steven had really fulfilled all of the expectations that I had of him (as a prosecutor in his trial) and I think, all the expectations of the Corrections Department of him as well,” Fabel said.
Since 2009, Fabel and Anderson have developed a unique friendship.
“He’s really a decent guy,” Anderson said. “For so many years, I thought of him in an adversarial position. To even think that, after all these years, he could possibly be an advocate for me, it’s wild. But I think we have a really good relationship now.”
Anderson believes that the change within him allowed him to recognize that Fabel was just doing his job.
“I realized that he wasn’t at fault,” Anderson said. “I was at fault. I had put myself in this position.”
Now in the process of being paroled, Anderson is gradually being de-institutionalized, Fabel said. After 30 years of having a regimented schedule and environment, it takes times, he said.
“It’s a Rip VanWinkle kind of situation, where the world has changed in a thousand ways,” Fabel said. “Just think of everything that has changed over the course of 30 years. It’s hard to imagine.”
Anderson is cautiously anticipating his freedom, noting that he “just wants to feel like a normal human being again.”
“You are deprived of so many things in prison that you don’t know what you’re missing,” he said.
During the first 14 years of his sentence, Anderson said he was never allowed outside at dark. Once he was transferred to Faribault prison, he was able to view the night sky again.
“It was the first time I’d seen the moon and stars in 14 years,” Anderson said. “It was a weird feeling. You don’t realize you were missing that because you push things like that out of your mind. They’re too painful to think about.”
As he’s moved to minimum security facilities, Anderson has been granted more opportunities to re-connect with the outside world.
“Right now, with STS (Sentencing to Service), I go out into the community to build houses,” he said. “I enjoy that. It’s a good experience to go out into the community, plus I’m learning, too. I hope to combine some of those skills (carpentry, upholstery, print production) and utilize them when I get out.”
Fabel said Anderson’s abilities should ensure employment in the future.
Though difficult, Anderson has also become a speaker for out-reach programs, first at the prison facility and more recently out in the community.
“It’s hard to know if the teenagers are listening, but it’s kind of a nice feeling knowing there’s a chance you might be helping somebody else, so they don’t go down the same path,” he said. “It’s tough to get up there and tell your story, but if it helps just one person, it’s worth it.”
Taveirne is extremely proud of her son for reaching out to others.
“He’s worked so hard at bettering himself and now he’s doing good things for these young people,” she said. “Lives are being turned around.”
But even as he prepares for a future outside prison walls, Anderson cannot forget the victims and their families. Years ago, he did write from his heart in letter to the families, but those letters are thought to still be the property of the Corrections Department.
“I’ve read the letters and they are beautifully-written expressions of grief, sorrow and remorse, but under the guidelines, offenders are strictly prohibited from initiating contact with the victims,” Fabel said. “As far as I know, the victims have not received them. They’ve have to explicitly ask for them.”
Many years back, Anderson did meet face-to-face with one of the widows, but he recalls that it was “too soon.”
“I still wasn’t able to admit what I did,” he said.
But Anderson is leaving the door open, hoping that someday, the families will come to him for answers if they need them.
“I would be willing to meet with them, but I wouldn’t be the one to approach them because I’m prohibited from doing that,” Anderson said. “They would have to initiate it or make the request.”
The Independent’s attempts at contacting relatives of the victims for this series were unsuccessful.