Update: Governor Asa Hutchinson declared his intention to commute Rolf Kaestel’s sentence, which was handed down by a Sebastian County jury in 1981 after he was convicted of aggravated robbery. “I’m just glad it finally happened,” Dennis Schluterman, the victim, who has himself been advocating Kaestel’s release for decades, told The Daily Beast. “It’s something that needed to be done.”
“Finally Rolf Kaestel will be free to see the sunshine again,” said filmmaker Kelly Duda, who met Kaestel when he became a whistleblower in the Arkansas prison blood bank scandal. “This has been a long, hard-fought campaign that shouldn’t have taken this long. But it did. I’m grateful to Gov. Hutchinson for granting clemency and to everyone else who helped free Rolf Kaestel.”
FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS: A man who was sentenced to life in prison for robbing a taco store with a toy water gun in 1981 hopes to have his fourth clemency application approved. Rolf Kaestel, then 30-years-old, had robbed a taco stand near the Oklahoma state line in Fort Smith, Arkansas and stole $264. After being charged with aggravated robbery, he was reportedly sentenced to life in prison on account of previous convictions.
No one was hurt in the incident, but he received an unusually harsh sentence of life in prison. Kaestel, who is now 70 years old, has petitioned Republican Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson for clemency, which he was denied in 2015. If he is turned down for the fourth time, he will not be able to apply again until 2025. According to state law, inmates serving life sentences are not eligible for parole unless the governor commutes their sentence. In February last year, the Las Vegas City Council announced the legislation, banning toy and replica firearms in the city’s Fremont East district.
Who is Rolf Kaestel?
Born in Coburg in 1951, Kaestel grew up in what he believes was a post-war orphanage run by nuns. He became a small-time crook before his conviction. “All of my life I felt like and in fact was an ‘outsider,’” Kaestel said. “I did not meaningfully become a part of society and I never really wanted to be—because I was ‘afraid’ of being assimilated and made into a replica and mimic of what I was seeing all around me.”
Kaestel walked into Senor Bob’s Taco Hut on the night of the crime in 1981, where Dennis Schluterman, who was 17 at the time, was working behind the counter. When he asked Kaestel and his accomplice, Terry Joe Spitler, what they wanted, Kaestel drew his coat back to reveal the butt of a toy gun.
“Do you know what that means?” Kaestel said. Schluterman handed the pair a stash of cash. “I’ve never been robbed before. That’s something you just don’t forget,” Schluterman said to the Daily Beast. About half an hour after the crime, Kaestel was apprehended by police as he was leaving a nearby convenience store. The money was recovered and the toy gun was discovered on the floor of his car.
Schluterman, the victim of the crime, has been pleading for Kaestel’s release for years. “It’s time for his break to come. He needs to be set free,” Schluterman said in a video recorded outside the Arkansas State Capitol in 2013. “And if you really want to know, I believe that the state owes him. I know you wouldn’t see it that way, but this man has paid the price 10 times over, and it’s time, it’s time for you to let him go.”
“What they did was wrong, but man, they were just so far out of town and it was Sunday night and they were out of money, out of gas, it was cold outside. I felt sorry for them after I found out what they did and why they did it,” said Schluterman. When he thinks of the robbery, he says it’s not the crime itself that bothers him, but the many years Kaestel has spent in prison for it—a period that spans Schluterman’s entire adult life. Schluterman, for his part, does not deserve the guilt he has endured over the years, according to Kaestel. Schluterman “has been a victim for 40 years and didn’t deserve a single day of it,” Kaestel said, “and I am sorry that my actions were the cause of it.”
Kaestel was transferred from Arkansas prisons to Utah after he appeared in a documentary film on a prison blood selling scandal. In 2014 the state Parole Board recommended for the third time that Kaestel be considered for executive clemency. It was denied by Gov Mike Beebe in 2014 and then by Governor Hutchinson in 2015, Hutchinson’s first year in office.
In the last 22 years, Kaestel’s only had one visitor: Colby Frazier, a former reporter for Salt Lake City Weekly. Kaestel, the writer said, stumbled into “a volatile corner of the justice system—the part that doesn’t rely so much on concrete law, but more on the whims and moods of the human beings who pull the levers.” Kaestel has no family in Arkansas fighting for him, let alone any living relatives.
Kaestel worked as a paralegal for a local Arkansas firm while in prison, edited the Long Line Writer, the penitentiary newspaper and filed lawsuits in an attempt to gain privileges or protect the rights of himself and fellow inmates. He has three associate’s degrees and enough college credits to be on the verge of earning multiple bachelor’s degrees. He taught astronomy classes and worked in the prison library at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, where he was transferred halfway through his sentence. Kaestel has remained a model prisoner despite being bald, missing teeth and having survived Covid-19 and diabetes.
Governor Hutchinson has until September 3 to decide on Kaestel’s latest bid for clemency.