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Michael Ryan: A sadistic killer who showed no mercy

Michael Ryan: A sadistic killer who showed no mercy

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RULO -- Two principles guided the lives of Yahweh's followers on the farm north of Rulo in the mid-1980s: Obey God's commands, and prepare for the Battle of Armageddon.

They believed the Battle of the Wheat Fields was coming, so they stockpiled ammunition, automatic weapons and enough food to fill a 20- by 35-foot room on a secluded farm in the Missouri River valley north of Rulo.

Neighbors often heard gunfire echoing from the property.

"Sometimes you'd swear the National Guard was up there because of all the shooting," one neighbor said after lawmen raided the farm in 1985.

Presiding over the handful of followers and family members was Michael Ryan, the man who called himself their King.

He convinced them he was a former CIA agent. He claimed he was telepathic, that he shared his body with Michael the Archangel, that he spoke to Yahweh through the right arms of other believers.

When asked at trial, Ryan said he knew murder was "against your law."

"I go by the laws of Yahweh," he said. "That's how I live my life."

* * *

Michael Ryan was sentenced to die in Nebraska's electric chair for the April 29, 1985, murder of James Thimm.

In 2008, senators voted to change the state's method of execution to lethal injection.

"It is hard … to conceive of a more senseless and brutal murder," then-state Supreme Court Justice John T. Grant wrote in a 1989 opinion upholding Ryan's death sentence. "We … find that (his) death sentence is justified when compared to all other homicide cases."

Ryan was one of 11 inmates on Nebraska's death row when he died Sunday at the Tecumseh prison.

In the opinion, Justice Grant outlined Thimm's murder in graphic detail.

In early 1985, Ryan believed that Thimm, 26, and Luke Stice, the 5-year-old son of fellow cult member Rick Stice, had expressed doubts about Yahweh.

For that, Thimm and Rick Stice -- once a "high priest" on the farm -- were called slaves, and little Luke a dog.

Ryan ordered Thimm to have anal sex with Rick Stice, and for Rick and Luke Stice to perform oral sex on each other.

Other members, including the boy's father, testified at trial that Ryan shot Luke in the arm, used his mouth as an ashtray, threatened to skin him alive, put a gun in his mouth and threatened to shoot him, tied a whip around his neck and lifted him off the ground and ordered the other members to roll him around in the snow wearing nothing but his underwear.

They said Ryan spit in Luke's mouth and made him eat his meals off the floor.

Luke Stice died after Ryan shoved him into a cabinet, witnesses said, and Ryan ordered Thimm and the boy's father to bury him in an unmarked grave.

Rick Stice fled the farm about two weeks later, after Ryan made him have sex with a goat, Justice Grant noted in his description of the case.

Life only got worse for James Thimm, who had been left untreated after Michael Ryan's 15-year-old son, Dennis, accidentally shot him in the face with a .22-caliber rifle.

Over the next few weeks, Thimm spent most nights chained to a post on the porch of a mobile home on the farm.

"(He) was fed small birds the men shot, and was also forced to copulate with a goat," Grant wrote in the 1989 opinion.

By the end of April, he'd lost weight, grown sickly and looked "like an old man," another group member, John David Andreas, testified.

Days before Thimm's death, the group cooked a wild turkey, which came out extremely dry. Ryan accused Thimm of trying to poison cult members by putting household cleanser on it and forced him to eat it. Thimm didn't get sick, but his punishment didn't stop.

He was chained up in a hog shed the night of April 27. The next day, Ryan and his son Dennis, Andreas, and Timothy and James Haverkamp brutally sodomized Thimm with a shovel handle, then with a pick handle.

"After Thimm screamed a couple of times, (Ryan) kicked Thimm in the head and had furnace tape put over Thimm's mouth so that the men would not have to hear Thimm's cries," Grant wrote.

That afternoon and the next morning, they whipped him dozens of times.

They shot off all of the fingers on his left hand.

Michael Ryan cut Thimm's leg with a razor, then used a pair of pliers to peel the skin away.

Dennis Ryan and Timothy Haverkamp used a board to break his legs.

Wearing cowboy boots, Michael Ryan stomped on Thimm's chest, the men said.

At some point, Thimm was shot in the head and died.

More than three months later, investigators unearthed his body and that of Luke Stice from graves on the farm.

"Yahweh didn't want him on the farm and his death was the only way to get him off," Michael Ryan later testified.

* * *

Michael Ryan's attorneys used the insanity defense at trial, and five psychologists and psychiatrists testified that he was mentally ill.

Dr. William Logan of Topeka, Kansas, said Ryan was schizophrenic and that he disliked his mother, Alice. He said Ryan's infant brother had choked to death while under his care, and his mother blamed him.

A former Sarpy County jail cellmate testified that he often overheard Ryan ask questions and pray in one voice, then answer in another.

But Dr. Emmett Kenney of Omaha testified that sadistic tendencies, not mental illness, drove Michael and Dennis Ryan to torture and kill.

Attorneys for Dennis Ryan, who was convicted of second-degree murder in Thimm's death, put the onus on James Wickstrom, an evangelizing white supremacist whom Michael Ryan met in the early 1980s at a Bible lecture in Hiawatha, Kansas.

The younger Ryan later told a reporter that Wickstrom "planted the seed" in his father, a down-on-his-luck former laborer and truck driver.

"He planted it in my dad and then he helped it grow."

That seed -- belief in a vengeful, white supremacist God, belief that the end of days was coming -- enabled Michael Ryan's sadism, prosecutors argued at trial.

"This was a very, very self-serving religion," then-Otoe County Attorney Randall Rehmeier said. "God was giving the sanctioning, the rubber-stamping, of what the people at the farm wanted to do, what Michael Ryan wanted to do."

* * * 

Residents of the rural compound north of Rulo spoke to Yahweh using what they called the "arm test."

One person would hold out his or her arm, and another would ask a question then apply pressure to the arm. If the arm stayed up, Yahweh's answer was yes. If it fell, the answer was no.

Ryan learned the test from Wickstrom.

"Michael Ryan's actions were performed by his own accord," Wickstrom wrote in response to questions from the Journal Star before a scheduled 2012 execution date for Ryan. "Regarding the murderous actions that he committed against the people of which he was charged, the DEATH PENALTY that was given by the Court for such outrageous crimes is also in total accordance with the Laws of YAHWEH the Christ.

"I will not ask for mercy on his soul from the Almighty, because Michael Ryan did not give or show any mercy to those that he himself murdered."

Reach Zach Pluhacek at 402-473-7234 or


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James Thimm, 26, tortured and killed by Michael Ryan and his followers.

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