After murders, a show of faith

Conviction: Since the 1980 deaths of Janet Mesner and Victoria Lamm, a Quaker meeting has embraced forgiveness and fought to keep a man from being executed.

January 16, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

On a Sunday morning in March 1980, the members of the Society of Friends in rural Central City, Neb., gathered in the tiny Quaker meetinghouse to face a test of their commitment to pacifism.

The day before, Randy Reeves, son of a family belonging to that Quaker meeting, brutally stabbed to death two women: Janet Mesner, whose family members also were members of the congregation, and her visiting friend, Victoria Lamm.

That Sunday morning, two roses were placed in the meetinghouse sanctuary. One was for Janet Mesner. The other was for Randy Reeves. They had been placed there by Janet Mesner's grandmother.

FOR THE RECORD - The name of Ronald E. Mattson, executive secretary of the Stony Run Friends Meeting in North Baltimore, was misspelled in an article in yesterday's editions.

That spirit of forgiveness has endured through the nearly 19 years of trials and appeals, as Reeves' execution has drawn nearer. The case has mobilized Quakers across the country, who wrote many of the more than 1,000 letters the governor's office has received opposing the execution.

Now 42, Reeves was scheduled to die in the electric chair Thursday, but the execution was stayed late Tuesday by the Nebraska Supreme Court so it can hear arguments in an appeal.

And nobody was happier than Ken and Mildred Mesner, Janet's parents.

The Mesners, retired farmers in their 70s, have vocally and vigorously fought Reeves' execution at every step of the process. Their uncompromising opposition to the death penalty is rooted in their Quaker faith, which Ken was born into and Mildred embraced when they married.

"According to our understanding of Jesus, it's wrong to kill," Ken Mesner said. "He didn't say it was all right for governments to kill and not for people. He said it was wrong to kill."

The husband and daughter of Victoria Lamm, the second victim, also oppose Reeves' execution, although they are not Quakers. Gus Lamm and his 21-year-old daughter, Audrey, appeared at the state Board of Pardons on Monday to support Reeves' unsuccessful plea for clemency. Other relatives of Victoria Lamm, including her father and brother, support executing Reeves. That such stalwart moral conviction -- with the families of murder victims opposing a killer's execution -- is coming out of Central City, a farming community of about 3,000, does not surprise those who know the Quaker community there.

Ron Matson, executive secretary of the Stony Run Friends Meeting in North Baltimore, served briefly in the 1970s as a pastor in Central City. He describes the community as "a rural, center-pivot irrigation, corn-growing area." But the congregation had a strong commitment to social action, at one point in the late 1970s raising $25,000 to pay for a Washington lobbyist on Native American interests.

The murders and Reeves' conviction and pending execution have tested the meeting's firmly held Quaker belief that faith must be put into action in the world.

"Probably the chief tenet of the religious concept of the Society of Friends is there is some of God in every person," Matson said. "We do not have the right to destroy that."

So, what could have torn apart the Central City friends meeting, which averages about 20 members on a typical Sunday, has instead brought it closer together, say the Mesners and the Reeves.

"We're a small group of people. Part of who we are is to be there for each other in a time of need," said Don Reeves, Randy's father. The Reeves adopted Randy, a Native American who is a member of the Omaha tribe, when he was 3 1/2 years old.

After the murders, "we had instant and constant support from Janet's family. And it's been that way without a break for 19 years," Reeves said.

Janet Mesner and Randy Reeves had known each other since they were children. Randy had never been in serious trouble before, and had never shown violent tendencies. A motive for the killings, which Reeves admitted to but said he could not remember clearly, was never established.

"This incident is just completely different from anything in his life, both our experience and the experience of anyone who knew him," Don Reeves said. Some have theorized Randy Reeves may have been expressing anger over his adoption and his alienation from his Native American culture, "but that at best is a very thin case," his father said. "For us, it's a mystery and it will probably remain so."

The facts are not contested. Reeves, then 23, had been drinking all day on Friday, March 28, when he and some friends went to a party in Lincoln, about 100 miles from Central City. He continued drinking and ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug used in some Native American religious rituals.

Early Saturday morning, he asked a friend to drop him at an intersection in Lincoln. He walked a few blocks to the Quaker meetinghouse, where his childhood friend Janet Mesner, 30, was caretaker. Friday night, Mesner had had visitors from Oregon, Victoria Lamm, 28, and her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Audrey.

About 3: 45 a.m. Saturday, Mesner called police and said she had been stabbed. Mesner, who had been sexually assaulted, later died at the hospital, but not before identifying her attacker. Victoria Lamm was also killed, but Audrey was not harmed.

On the day Reeves went on trial in 1981 for the murder of Ken Mesner's daughter, Mesner was not in the courtroom. Instead, he was testifying before a Nebraska legislative judiciary committee in support of efforts to repeal the state's death penalty.

Since then, the Mesners' efforts to stop Reeves' execution have not flagged. And they say they bear no ill will toward Randy.

"I guess people wonder why we're not angry," Ken Mesner said. "We were overcome with grief. Anger was just not a part of our feelings at that time, or since.

"It's just a sad thing, for us and for his family, too."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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