Article originally published in Omaha Magazine May/June 2015 issue.
I hadn’t talked to Dennis Ryan in more than two years when I called him in early March.
In that earlier discussion in late 2012—15 years after his release from prison for torturing and killing James Thimm near Rulo, Neb.—we talked about the usual, catching-up stuff.
Same this time. His wife is well, his son is doing well in school. Dennis said he is making the best money of his life as a long-haul truck driver. He joked that the days on the road were actually strengthening his marriage: “You know what they say: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” He said he is becoming a serious audiobook junky. He particularly enjoys John Grisham books. Bronson Pinchot is his favorite narrator.
“Wasn’t he in some squirrelly ‘80s show?” I asked.
“Sure. But just listen to him,” Dennis said, sounding a bit miffed as if I had insulted a friend. “He’s the best out there at bringing the characters to life.”
Amid all the catching up, I almost forgot the main reason I had called: I wanted to know his thoughts on his dad’s failing health.
“What’s wrong with him?” He asked.
“You haven’t heard?”
“I don’t hear anything about him,” he said. “No connection. Don’t want one. Last I heard from him he told me I was going to hell.”
“He’s dying of brain cancer,” I told him, realizing as the words came out that I was informing a man that his father was dying. “Just got announced in some Legislature debate on the death penalty. Your dad probably has a couple months left.”
There was a brief pause.
“So he’s finally going to die,” Dennis responded, his tone cold and steady. “Best for everybody. Good riddance. Flush him down the toilet for all I care.”
Michael Ryan and his son, Dennis, were both convicted in 1985 for the murder of James Thimm on a farm near Rulo. The story of the Ryans’ bizarre doomsday cult made national news and has remained one of the most notorious crimes in Nebraska history.
Michael was sentenced to die for the murder (He also pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in the killing of 5-year-old Luke Stice). Dennis, only 15 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence many both inside and outside the criminal justice system believed was far too severe for a teen who had been thoroughly brainwashed by his father.
At the small cult’s secluded compound on a high bluff above the Missouri River, Michael taught Dennis to fire automatic weapons and kill with his hands. Dennis had to be ruthless, he father explained, because Dennis would soon be leading the elect few against the forces of evil during the coming battle of Armageddon.
In 1997, due to a legal technicality, Dennis was released after 12 years in prison. For the last 18 years, he has lived a quiet life with his wife of 17 years and high-school-aged son in south-central Kansas. Dennis, who has lived in Kansas near his mother and brother since his release, has been a long-haul truck driver for the last five years for a company based in Nebraska.
His father has remained on death row for 30 years. In early March, Thimm’s sister announced that she had learned that Michael Ryan has terminal brain cancer, a diagnosis State Sen. Ernie Chambers repeated during a state legislative debate on the death penalty.
Although a prison spokesman told me he was not allowed to comment on the medical condition of inmates, two other sources have confirmed that Ryan likely has only a few months to live.
In 1997, while working for the Omaha World-Herald, I called Dennis’ attorney, Tim Nelsen, asking if there was any chance Dennis would talk to me.
I hoped to follow him on-and-off through the first year after his release. My rationale: What is freedom like for a man who spent his childhood in a doomsday cult and his formative and early adult years in prison? How would he adjust to being dropped into the real world at age 27?
I tried to play a homeboy card: I grew up in Falls City, nine miles from Rulo, I told Nelsen. I was a senior in high school when Dennis was being tried in the courthouse a few blocks down from my home.
Dennis agreed to talk to me. He suggested we meet at a lake in northeast Kansas. He had fished at the lake as a kid. He had always dreamed of going back there. I brought my tent and other camping gear. We talked and fished late into the night.
He was 27, but, having spent his childhood under his father’s thumb and the rest of his life in prison, he was coming into freedom with the fresh energy and idealism of a college freshman just unbound from home. He wanted to go to college and major in psychology. He wanted to help at-risk kids from troubled homes. He figured he knew something about troubled upbringings.
He was starting to learn, though, that universities were not interested in 27-year-olds with prison GEDs and murder convictions. And he didn’t have any money. He just needed to get a job working for anyone who would take him.
He was awkward with women; some men were scared of him. He knew many people looked down on him. Potential employers weren’t thrilled about hiring a convicted felon, let alone a man who had tortured a man to death. He was struggling with frustration and anger, emotions he knew could destroy him if he couldn’t stay calm and focused on his goals.
He said he might be willing to partially forgive Michael if he would apologize to those he had harmed and take responsibility for his actions.
Instead, the last time Dennis had contact with his father, Michael blamed him for “not completing the circle.” Michael said that Dennis’ loss of faith and testimony against his father in 1985 were the reasons Michael’s end-of-days prophesies had not materialized. Michael even convinced Dennis’ grandmother that Dennis was the reason Michael was on death row. “She called me a snitch,” Dennis told me.
At that time, Dennis was still, in a few instances, sympathetic to Michael. He said his father had a tough childhood. Michael, he pointed out, had been brainwashed himself by the rabid teachings of James Wickstrom, a radical Christian identity minister and white supremacist.
Later, as we sat by our campfire, Dennis scared me for the first time. He was talking with his usual intensity about his mindset during his three years at the farm north of Rulo, a time he thought he was the son of God, a time during which he was willing to partially skin a man and thrust a shovel handle up the man’s rectum at his father’s bidding. In the dancing firelight, Dennis’ strong features took on a menace I wasn’t sure was wholly unintended. In a deep, booming, agitated voice he told me what it feels like to think you’re a god.
“I felt powerful. I felt important,” I remember Dennis saying. “How could you not? I was 15 and being told I was ‘The One.’ How could it not feel good?”
Then, he said, soon after believing he was God’s chosen one, he learned he was living a sick lie. In fact, he learned he was a lowlife pariah who, instead of going to high school, would be spending the rest of his life in prison.
“How would you feel?” He asked, leaning toward me.
“I would have hanged myself,” I remember responding.
Dennis told me soon after those comments that he had forgotten to bring a tent. So, we bedded down beside each other in my tent for the rest of the night. He snored. I know that because I was awake those few hours before dawn wondering if I had just made my own deathbed.
The next morning we cooked bacon and eggs. We fished and talked. In a strange moment of small-world bonding, we discovered the man who first attempted to rape him in prison in Lincoln was in fact a 3rd-grade classmate of mine in Falls City. We agreed Richardson County, also home to the murders made famous in Boys Don’t Cry, has a pretty seedy underbelly.
Increasingly, the conversation was nothing more than the jabs and banter of two buddies on a fishing trip.
I suggested he might want to cut down on the number of f-bombs he dropped in each sentence. “I know,” I remember him saying. “It’s f*ing tough not to cuss when you’ve been in prison for 12 years.”
In the 18 years since that night, I’ve never once felt frightened by Dennis. In fact, as he increasingly succeeded in building the normal life he craved, I began to deeply admire him.
That year, I visited Dennis two more times in Kansas. We spent a few days together each visit, playing video games, watching sports, visiting a nearby bar. In time, we talked less about the past. He was becoming increasingly frustrated trying to find gainful—let alone meaningful— employment. He had gone on dates a couple times, but there hadn’t been second dates. I increasingly found myself giving what I fancied was sagely advice. I don’t have a little brother. I was 29. He was 27 with no real-world experience. I imagined I could help him navigate troubles.
In 1998, I wrote about that first year out of prison. It had been a frustrating stretch for him, but he was settling into a rhythm. Life was pretty dull and uneventful—a mundane “boy-meets-world” kind of year. In his case, though, at least in my eyes, uneventful meant wildly successful.
Soon after that, I moved to Arizona. In 2004, Dennis was going to come visit me in Phoenix. We made plans to go four-wheeling in the Sonoran Desert. I don’t remember why that never happened.
Dennis got married not long after I wrote that first story. I remember telling him he should wait. But he was in love. His son was born a year later.
Over the years, we talked about coaching youth sports, the newest video games, and the mercurial rhythms of married life—the usual stuff. Of course, there was ribbing about the highs and woes of local sports teams. He’s an insufferable Kansas Jayhawks fan.
Sometime after I moved back to Nebraska in 2007, we planned to meet up for a day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City with our kids. For the usual reasons amid busy lives, those plans also never gelled.
In our talks after 1997, we spoke less and less about life before 1997.
In fact, that recent March phone call was probably the longest time we spent talking about his father in 18 years.
Michael Ryan came within two weeks of being executed in 2012. In the weeks prior to his execution date, Michael, who is housed at the Tecumseh State Correctional Facility, reached out to a cousin of Dennis’ to discuss where his body should be buried.
The cousin called Dennis to discuss the topic. By that time, Dennis had only contempt for his father. He didn’t deserve a proper burial, Dennis said. He belonged in the sewer with the rest of the human excrement.
But, like numerous condemned inmates around the country, Michael’s execution was stayed due to problems with how prison officials obtained one of the three drugs needed for a lethal injection.
Although Ryan has exhausted nearly all of his appeals, the state still has failed to obtain one of the three drugs, a drug that companies around the world now refuse to produce for ethical reasons.
Michael Ryan refused to be interviewed for this story.
In response to a request I made in 2007, I was told he said he also had no intentions of speaking with his son.
Dennis said he’s not sure how he would react if his father called one last time before his death. “It would probably sound pretty ugly,” he said. “But he won’t call. He’s a coward.”
Dennis last spoke to Michael in 1985, the year they were arrested. Michael told him, “The circle is not complete. You’re with Satan now.”
A few years later, a prison psychologist suggested Dennis write a sort of farewell letter to Michael and “be done with him.”
“I tended to always write song lyrics to express things back then,” Dennis said in March. “I just sent him the words to ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ by Phil Collins. They seemed perfect at the time.
I don’t care what you say,
I don’t play the same games you play.
Yes, “The circle is not complete.” And, also, no. Thirty years later, Michael’s hateful words are taking on new meaning for Dennis.
The self-professed prophet accidentally got it right. The circle is not complete. The son didn’t become the father. Dennis has taught me that even disastrous nature and nurture can be overcome by will and love.
Back in 1997, I remember asking Dennis’ mother what differences she saw—differences that would be critical to Dennis’ survival—between her ex-husband and her son. Months before at the lake I felt I had seen in his agitation the brewing of a storm. I was wrong. At that time, his mother, I believe, already knew why Dennis would succeed against such terrible odds.
“He cares,” she said. He’s around people who care about him now. He has goals. I believe he can make it.
“And here’s something big: Dennis is not mean,” she told me then. “Simple as that.”
Eighteen years later, pondering the death of his father, Dennis brought up that widely held concern in 1997 that he would, at best, flounder, and at worst, kill again.
“I’m demanding,” he told me. “I’m selfish. I’m a hard person. It’s good that I’m on the road a lot. I joke that I’m a typical Virgo. Just your typical pain-in-the-ass Virgo.
“But I’m driven. And I’m not mean. You know that. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not mean.”
I’ve never known him to be mean. I have never heard anyone who knows him say he is mean. In my mind, he is remarkable. These quiet years quietly attest.
“Michael was mean,” Dennis said. “Terribly mean. I assumed that he wasn’t always mean, but mom says, ‘No, he was mean from the start.’ He was abusive. That’s who he is.
“And that isn’t me. The proof is in this life.
“When he’s dead, it’s over. It’s time for it to be over.”