Staff Editorial: Remember Erik and other victims

I will never forget the name Erik Ingebretsen even if someday I forget how to spell it. I also won’t forget the names Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell. 

I didn’t know Erik or the two boys who murdered him. I’m not sure our paths ever crossed outside the grocery stores in Colusa, back in the day when you could tip a teenager a buck or two to bag your groceries and load them into your car. 

Erik’s death was a horrific tragedy that took a tremendous toll on his family and our community. 

When Nathan Ramazzini, who is doing life without parole for Erik’s murder, took the witness stand last month in an effort to have his sentenced reduced under California’s new juvenile offender law, I didn’t see the boy that worked at the local store. Nor did I see a man hardened by 20 years in prison. 

Instead, I saw someone eerily similar to Gary Gilmore, a sociopath who sparked national debate over capital punishment more than 40 years ago in the same manner that today’s advocates for killers who committed their crimes as youths spark debate over rehabilitation and release. 

Gilmore had a long criminal history of disrespecting authority, violence, and armed robbery. Shortly after being released from prison, he shot Max “execution style” during a gas station robbery for no other reason than that he was pissed off that his girlfriend had just broken up with him. He killed Ben for the same reason during a motel robbery the following night. 

I didn’t know Max or Ben. I don’t think our paths ever crossed. They were students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, while I was a student at the University of Utah, in nearby Salt Lake City. 

Although their murders and the murder of Erik occurred 21 years apart, the two cases are very similar – emotionally, socially, and politically. In both cases, the killers were caught in a political tug-of-war between people with opposing ideologies on crime and punishment, while the victims and their families somehow got forgotten. 

Gilmore, 35, gained instant name recognition when he became the first person in the nation to be sentenced to death after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a decade-long moratorium on capital punishment in 1976. He became a global celebrity when he turned the world of his advocates upside down. Politicians, the media, and human rights advocates tried desperately to box Gilmore and other death row inmates into sympathetic characters with redeemable qualities, the same way they do today for murderers who killed while they were youths or were involved with other people in crimes that resulted in death. 

The ACLU had anticipated a long fight on behalf of more than 350 inmates in the U.S. on death row, but Gilmore refused to file an appeal, insisting instead that his execution by firing squad be carried out as quickly as possible.  

Gilmore’s philosophy on murder was to just “do it” and let the consequences be what they may. If his defenders expected him to feel remorse for the killings, they were disappointed, perhaps because they didn’t understand the nature of a sociopath. While cognizant that he should value the lives of other people, Gilmore made it clear that he didn’t. He didn’t value his own.  

When the Supreme Court refused to allow others to appeal the death sentence on his behalf, an unrepentant Gilmore was executed six months after Max and Ben’s murders. His last three words “let’s do it,” which he uttered just before he was shot to death, would become the inspiration of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It!” campaign, the company’s advertising agency would later confess. 

Lost in the publicity were Max, Ben, and their families. Few mentioned that Gilmore’s victims were upstanding young men who worked while attending graduate school. They were both married, and each had an infant at home. Also forgotten was that Ben’s wife, who was in the next room and heard the gunshots, held her dying husband’s head in her lap, or that she gave birth to their second child not long after his murder.  

More than 40 years after Gilmore’s execution, no argument on whether violent criminals can be rehabilitated and released back into society satisfies people with opposing political or religious beliefs. 

Certainly not all killers are sociopaths, just as not all sociopaths become killers. Certainly some killers with conduct or personality disorders, particularly the youngest, can learn to control their behavior and live relatively normal lives. Others could be ticking bombs awaiting another trigger. 

I do know we will see a parade of killers who committed their crimes as minors back in our courts (SB 9) asking for a shot at eventual parole. We will also see those who committed crimes under the age of 26 – and are eligible for parole – released. Also released will be felony murderers who participated with other people in crimes like robbery, burglary, kidnapping, arson, rape, carjacking, and mayhem, in which a death occurred.   

The new “accomplice liability” law (SB 1437), which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in September, goes into effect Jan. 1, and will be applied retroactively to offenders who were not the actual killers. 

Many may deserve a second chance. Others, who are simply too risky for society, will require skilled prosecutors and astute judges to keep them behind bars, as was the case with Erik’s killer. 

But wherever on the political spectrum you fall, when it comes to crime and punishment, it is important not to let the victims and their families get lost in the arguments or the news stories. 

Erik was 16 years old when he was brutally murdered. He was the loving son of Gerry and Valerie Ingebretsen, of Colusa, and older brother to Devin (Ingebretsen) Lombardi. He played sports, got good grades, was a member of Colusa High School’s Class of 1999, and would likely have gone on to college, gotten married, and raised a family of his own. 

He died on the evening of July 15, 1997, at the hands of two boys he once called friends. ■