The death of Melvyn Otterstrom proved to be too much for his parents, John and Florence. Family members say neither was the same after their only son was shot.
His father couldn't form a proper sentence for days after he received news of his son's death. His mother suffered from multiple sclerosis and had resisted being in a wheelchair until the sorrow broke her. According to niece Jenny Sedgwick, both deteriorated physically and died less than seven years after the slaying.
But the thing that haunted Florence Otterstrom in the last years of her life was a memory she couldn't shake of a man with red curly hair who came to her son's funeral and tried to convince her that he was one of her son's friends.
"Ronnie Lee Gardner came to the funeral," Sedgwick said.
"He knelt down in front of my grandma and tried to convince her that he was Melvyn's friend from Scouting, but she didn't know who he was. Grandma kept saying, 'No, I don't remember your name, I don't remember you,' and when he left, she said: 'That man had the most evil eyes. I don't know who he was, but he wasn't a friend of Melvyn's.' "
Sedgwick said they lived in a small community and her grandmother would have known who Melvyn's friends were. When Florence Otterstrom saw Gardner's photo in the news, she immediately identified him as the man she had spoken with at the funeral. She attended one of Gardner's hearings a few months later but never went back, saying she couldn't stand to be near him.
"This is the thing that bothers me, that no one knows he's that evil," Sedgwick said. "He murders their son and then tries to convince them that he's their friend … and all the time he's got a smirk on his face because he thinks he's so clever."
Though Gardner was on the lam for almost a month after Otterstrom was killed, making it possible for him to have attended the funeral, the family has struggled to confirm the story. Regardless, it has stuck with them.
"It was real to us," Sedgwick said. "It was real to me. And until the day Grandma died, it bothered her."