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The Denver Post

Hate can't fill love's void

June 3, 1996
Section: Denver & The West
Page: B-07
   Hans Bjordahl

Nathan Dunlap finally cracked. The man who coldly killed four people in the Dec. 14, 1993, robbery of a Denver Chuck E Cheese's restaurant had sat impassively throughout his trial.

During the formal sentencing May 17, however, an accusation by one of the victim's brothers that the murders had been racially motivated set Dunlap off. Dunlap, who is black (all four victims were white), launched into a tirade, yelling that race wasn't the issue. He then segued into a verbal assault on those affected by the murders who had assembled to address the court and recommend the death penalty. Well aware that, at the end of the day's events, he would hear himself sentenced to die by lethal injection, Dunlap was clearly worn thin. "I don't understand what you guys want," he said. "You got my life already; so let's go."

Add "bright" to the list of things Nathan Dunlap isn't.

What the families and friends of the victims want couldn't be more simple, obvious or just: They want Dunlap's arms and legs ripped off. They want Nathan Dunlap to be bashed repeatedly in the head with a tire iron. They want to see him lowered into a pit of alligators. They want Nathan Dunlap to suffer. They want him to know pain. They want vengeance.

Such vengeance, however, isn't thought of highly in our criminal justice system, so those angry at Dunlap had but one means to affect him: a sorrowful or angry speech directed at his vacant visage during the sentencing. Though Dunlap's outburst was nasty, brutish and short, his living victims must have found at least superficial satisfaction in knowing he could be reached, if only for a moment. Victims of Colin Ferguson, who killed six people aboard a New York commuter train just a week before Dunlap's rampage, had no such comfort; Ferguson sat impartially though repeated scathing attacks before getting his ticket to life in prison. Two people accused of slaughtering five innocents in a March video store hold-up in Albuquerque, if found guilty, also will face those robbed of loved ones. In that particular crime, I knew, firsthand, the value of one of the lives so viciously discarded.

Thus I know that the anger at Dunlap is as much due to his audacity as his violence. After all, the first reaction upon hearing of the violent death of a loved one is fear - fear that the report might actually be true and, as the paralyzing confirmation surfaces, fear that death could have acted so suddenly, so brazenly and so directly.

To those left in the aftermath of such a shattering crime, death seems like a god, stalking darkened alleys and highways, moving deliberately and stealthily, and striking with terrifying precision. A dark force has extinguished a confidant, a trusted friend, and as the criminal remains at large, that force seems to grow larger, more fearsome and more unfathomable.

Imagine, then, the emotions of the victims' families when the Chuck E Cheese's killer was apprehended and unveiled - playing the part of God that fateful night was not some fearsome, all-powerful creature but a putrid little punk named Nathan Dunlap. Denverites who have followed in Dunlap's infamous footsteps have proven no more impressive: a fat, sniveling loser named Albert Petrosky and a heavily armed control freak named Duncan Cameron. To discover death in the guise of such mediocrity is simultaneously a relief and a bitterly insulting disappointment.

On Friday, the people who loved the Chuck E Cheese victims faced death in the guise of Dunlap's unimpressive form and tried to achieve closure. They could not reach Dunlap with the same kind of violence he visited upon his victims, but they could try to reach him with words. Amazingly, one succeeded. Dunlap's composure soon returned, however, and the closure these victims came to seek no doubt eluded them.

Some will continue to hunt for that closure, tracking Dunlap's slow, tedious journey as he inches year by year, appeal by appeal, from death row to the actual killing chamber. Some seeking that closure will attend his execution, thinking that watching the life drain from Dunlap's insignificant limbs will be what they had wanted all along. Only then, perhaps, they will discover that it was not.

What these families truly "want" from Dunlap is something he stole that can never be returned. They could kill Dunlap 100,000 times and still the debt would not be repaid.

They could torture him incessantly, strip him of all dignity and execute his family in front of his horrified eyes, and still the debt would not be repaid. That's because what this killer ripped from them was love, and you cannot fill a void of love with vengeance and hate - no matter how long you persist and no matter how hard you try.

Hans Bjordahl is editor of the Internet publication Zone Interactive and co-creator of the Cafe Angst comic strip, which runs in The Denver Post.

All content 1996- The Denver Post and may not be republished without permission.
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