On a hog farm-turned-doomsday compound in Nebraska, about 20 survivalists prepared for the Battle of Armageddon—and then brutally murdered one of their own after he began to doubt the existence of the god they called “Yahweh.”
It was the early 1980s, and American agriculture was grappling with an economic crisis rivaling the Great Depression. One hopeless farmer in Rulo, a village of 164 people along the Missouri River, invited a religious cult to his homestead when his wife died of cancer and his 80 acres were threatened by foreclosure.
The sect’s leader, unemployed truck driver Michael Ryan, spouted white supremacist and anti-government teachings. Calling himself the “Archangel,” he instructed his followers to steal farm equipment and cattle to pay for their weapons arsenal. He staged cult weddings and though already married himself, he wed four of his own flock.
Before the feds busted the neo-Nazi camp in 1985, Ryan directed the torture, sodomy, and murder of a member who questioned his rule. He also fatally pummeled a 5-year-old follower living on the farm. Some details of the gruesome slaying and abuse, described in court papers, are too heinous to print.
After the cult killer’s 1986 conviction, he was scheduled to die by the electric chair; that was later changed to lethal injection after the state discontinued executions by electric chair in 2009. Over the years, Ryan filed several appeals of his death sentence, including a U.S. Supreme Court request to review his case that was denied without comment in January of this year.
In 2003, an eight-year stay of execution was lifted by U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf, who wrote, “There is not the slightest doubt about the petitioner’s guilt” in “the most horrendous torture and sickening murder imaginable.”
“If any man deserves to be put to death, that man is Michael Ryan,” Kopf concluded.
But Ryan died in prison Sunday, reportedly of natural causes, ending decades of litigation on his behalf and attendant news reports that haunted the victims’ grieving families. An autopsy is pending, but state Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who is leading the charge to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska, previously said Ryan had terminal brain cancer and would likely die before execution.
The sister of 26-year-old victim James Thimm—who was chained up, skinned alive, raped with a shovel handle, and subjected to other unspeakable horrors—has also advocated against the death penalty.
“If there’s anyone that should die of the death penalty, it would be Michael Ryan,” Miriam Thimm Kelle said in 2008, “but I don’t feel that we have the right to say who should live or die.”
A year later, Kelle urged legislators in Montana to repeal state executions for the sake of families like hers: “Take your Michael Ryans and lock them up and throw away the key, so they are forgotten, and spare the victims the pain of 20 years waiting for a false hope.”
Ryan’s death Sunday came days after Nebraska lawmakers voted to repeal capital punishment in favor of life sentences—a bill that Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has vowed to veto. Nebraska last put an inmate to death in 1997; the state has faced difficulties in acquiring lethal injection drugs.
The cult leader’s son, Dennis Ryan, was just 16 when he was sentenced to life in prison for Thimm’s murder. A legal loophole allowed the younger Ryan a new trial, but he was released in 1997 after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter instead.
Two others convicted in connection to the slayings were released from prison in 1998, and a fourth was released in 2009.
Dennis Ryan, now 45, told Omaha magazine that when he last spoke to his father in 1985, the elder Ryan blamed his son for “not completing the circle.” As a teen who grew up in the cult, the younger Ryan was called the “High Prince.” He broke Thimm’s legs with a 2-by-4 and helped other men shoot off his fingers, court records show.
When Dennis Ryan learned of his father’s terminal illness, he told the magazine he couldn’t wait for the nightmare to be over.
“So he’s finally going to die,” he said in April. “Best for everybody. Good riddance. Flush him down the toilet for all I care.”
The Rulo farm became cult headquarters after owner Rick Stice and his terminally ill wife, Sondra, sought out a religious healer. They attended revival meetings in Kansas hosted by James Wickstrom, the anti-Semitic hate preacher behind the extremist anti-tax group Posse Comitatus.
There, the couple met bearded trucker Michael Ryan, who was later described by an informant as “Jim Wickstrom’s main man in Kansas,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1986.
According to court records, Wickstrom’s teachings helped develop the Rulo cult’s belief system.
In 1983, Ryan and other members attended a large Wickstrom meeting in Wisconsin, where the hate preacher showed Ryan the “arm test.” The test involved Ryan facing a group member, who would extend his right arm at a 90-degree angle. Ryan would then place his left hand on the member’s right shoulder and his right hand on the follower’s right wrist before asking Yahweh a question.
If the arm dropped, the answer from Yahweh was “no.” If the arm stayed up, the answer was “yes.” The arm test would rule every aspect of Rulo cult members’ lives, court records reveal.
After Sondra Stice died in 1983, Rick Stice allowed Ryan and the cult to live on the farm because the arm test ordered him to do so.
The arm test also demanded the Rulo group “go out and do some stealing,” and if they refused, Ryan told members their families could be in danger for angering Yahweh, court papers show. While the group snatched farm animals and machinery, Ryan watched television at home.
Ryan also declared he could communicate with Yahweh directly through his mind. At one Bible study meeting, the leader told a woman that Yahweh wanted her to leave her husband. The arm test indicated her spouse was “on Satan’s side,” according to court records.
“By August of 1984, daily life on the farm was established,” a judge wrote in an appellate decision. “The women would consult Yahweh through the arm test in order to determine meal plans, including how long to boil water, and Ryan would use the arm test to find out if any members of the group needed to fast or do penance that day.”
By that winter, the cult amassed dozens of weapons and 75,000 rounds of ammunition, and Ryan demanded that his followers decide whether they’d stay forever or leave the farm and “burn in hell.” If members broke their promise to stay, they would be hunted down and killed, Ryan warned.
It was around this time that Thimm, and Rick Stice’s 5-year-old son, Luke, expressed doubts in both Yahweh and the arm test. As a result, Thimm and Rick Stice were demoted to the status of “slaves,” and Luke Stice was blasted as a “mongrel” and “dogshit,” among other derogatory terms, according to court records.
So began a nightmarish period of abuse and torture that preceded the deaths of Thimm and Luke Stice. As a form of punishment, men on the farm were forced into sodomy, with each other and a communal goat, according to press reports.
In 1985, members painted “666” onto Luke’s back and repeatedly doused the child with ice water before kicking him into the cold outdoors. One follower testified that Ryan demanded the child be dangled from a dog leash around his neck.
The little boy died after Ryan slammed him into a bookcase, knocking him unconscious. No one called a doctor. Instead, members were instructed to put the boy in a bed and pray for him, according to reports.
Weeks later, Thimm would be Ryan’s next victim.
Accused of being a nonbeliever, Thimm was tied to an overhead pipe in the abandoned hog barn and sodomized with pick and shovel handles, and brutally beaten for days. Male cult members took turns whipping the man and shooting off his fingertips. Eventually, the 235-pound Ryan stomped on Thimm’s chest until he died, court records show.
The two victims were buried in shallow, unmarked graves on the farm. Authorities discovered the bodies after Rick Stice provided information that led prosecutors to the compound.
In June 1985, the disciples were busted for transporting ill-gotten farm machinery, and those arrests led to a raid on the Rulo farm and its cache of weapons, including automatic rifles.
Two months later, Nebraska authorities joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in another raid. This time, they started digging and discovered the murdered cult members.
At the group’s 1986 trial, an attorney for Michael Ryan tried to convince the jury his client and his acolytes were insane.
“They marched to the drum of Yahweh,” attorney Richard Goos said, according to an Associated Press report at the time. “They didn’t think in terms of violating the law.”
“These people were not playing with a full deck,” he added.
Along with Dennis Ryan, two other cult conspirators convicted of lesser offenses, James Haverkamp and John David Andreas, were released.
The last of his co-defendants to be set free was Timothy Haverkamp, who was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence but was paroled in 2009.
During Haverkamp’s parole hearing in June 2009, Thimm’s adoptive sister Karen Schmidt described the grisly details of James Thimm’s and Luke Stice’s deaths.
“They were treated as prisoners, they were treated as slaves,” she said, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “They were chained, they were starved. They were not adequately clothed.”
At the hearing, Haverkamp shifted the blame to Michael Ryan.
“I don’t think anybody could have foreseen what happened there,” Haverkamp said. “Once you’re in that environment, it becomes like a psychological trap. You can’t get away from that influence.”