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For Nick Kirk, deputy shot in Ronnie Lee Gardner's escape attempt, attack 'took his life away'

KEARNS — April 2, 1985, was a typical day for VelDean Kirk, who was busy with secretarial duties on the ninth floor of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.

People were talking. Phones were ringing. Business as usual.

All that changed when commotion broke out in the courtyard below, which faced the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, and a chorus of sirens began screeching.

She and a co-worker peered out the window, struggling to obey a lock-down command for their building.

"There were a jillion ambulances and police cars," Kirk said. "We couldn't stand it anymore, so we walked down."

In the courtyard, Kirk heard someone had been shot. Salt Lake County Sheriff N.D. "Pete" Hayward and his chief deputy spotted her standing there. Both men froze, spoke hastily to each other, turned to detective Dick Judd and Judd began walking.

"He came toward me, and then I knew it was Nick," Kirk said.

George "Nick" Kirk, her husband of 36 years and father of their five children, had been shot by prisoner Ronnie Lee Gardner during an escape attempt.

Gardner's girlfriend had smuggled a gun to him in the courthouse. He shot and killed defense attorney Michael Burdell, then bolted out despite being shackled.

Gardner ran into Kirk, who was hurrying down the stairs ready to help and especially fearful for Judge James Sawaya, who was just arriving at work.

Gardner's bullet ripped through Kirk's stomach, intestines, bowels, hip and leg.

Nick Kirk survived the shooting and lived for nearly 11 more years. By not dying, however, in many ways, he became the forgotten victim.

But to hear his wife tell it, nothing was the same after that day.

"He was in constant pain," VelDean Kirk said. "He just never felt good. We didn't go fishing anymore because he couldn't get the boat in and out. He didn't bowl — he tried to, but he couldn't do it as well as he could before."

Kirk tried golfing, but could not walk the course and had trouble playing even with a golf cart. Over time, that faded.

Coaching his grandchildren's sports wore him out, so he stopped.

He also walked with a limp, which became an enormous embarrassment.

"It just took his life away," VelDean Kirk said.

Her husband soldiered on and tried to go back to work, despite repeated operations, chronic physical problems and emotional difficulties caused by the shooting. There also were financial and legal struggles as Kirk tried unsuccessfully to collect more than $40,000 for the mental trauma he suffered.

In the end, he got only $6,000 from the County Commission.

Nick Kirk died of a heart attack in 1995 at age 69, but his wife says he would be alive today if Gardner hadn't shot him.

This was not the life they had planned.

The former VelDean McAllister vividly remembers the young man she met while visiting a friend's house when she was 15.

He made quite an impression.

"It was his looks, mainly, at first," she admits, smiling at the memory.

She was in high school and he was a "body and fender man" doing auto repairs for a family-owned business as the relationship grew.

She was 17 when they married in Salt Lake City.

"My parents had a fit at first, but he won them over. They really started liking him," VelDean Kirk said.

Later, he joined what was termed the sheriff's office reserves, a volunteer group, and eventually became a court bailiff. He was particularly fond of Judge Sawaya, and the two socialized outside of work.

Through the years, the Kirks had five children: Barbara, Michael, Mary (who died last year), Debra (who died as a baby) and Tamara.

Nick Kirk made friends easily, doted on his wife and family and relished holidays — especially Halloween. In court, he was strict and expected everyone to act respectfully. Outside of court, he chatted with everyone and had coffee with reporters.

He was always active and loved the outdoors. Free time was spent fishing, hunting, boating, bowling — you name it.

"When we were done with work, we would jump in the camper and go on vacation," VelDean Kirk recalls.

There was a time when VelDean would rage when Gardner's name came up.

"I used to really hate him. Every time I would see his picture, I felt I could kill him with my bare hands," Kirk said.

One thing that especially galled her were reports that Gardner bragged to other inmates, saying, "I shot a cop!"

Kirk believes the death penalty is appropriate for Gardner, but she said she is now free of the anger she once felt.

"Maybe I've changed," said the white-haired woman while looking over family scrapbooks in the kitchen of a daughter's home.

"Now I just kind of feel sorry for him. It was his choice. I think he should pay for the crimes he has committed and, since he was given the death penalty, he should go through that. It's the right punishment for him. He's taken so many lives and screwed up so many lives."

Kirk has been invited to witness Gardner's execution by firing squad. She'll be there, but said she is not seeking revenge.

"I want closure on it," she said. "I think that's the only way I'll get it."

When her husband was alive, he supported Gardner being executed. "He had been in the courts long enough to know they need to pay for their crimes."

To this day, there is one thing about Gardner that perplexes VelDean.

"I would like to know why he shot Nick because he knew Nick," she said. "He'd been in court several times, and he knew Nick didn't have a gun."

In those days, public buildings were far less secure: Bailiffs did not have guns or even radios for communication.

Today, VelDean Kirk enjoys her family and focuses mainly on the good memories of her late husband, although regrets sometimes creep in.

"He loved life, even though he had health problems from the shooting. He loved the kids and grandkids," she said.

"There are 13 great-grandchildren, and he's missed out on 10. … If he were alive today, he probably would still be bowling with the judge. And me, too, naturally."


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