Prisoner Who Got Life for Stealing $250 Finally Wins Freedom

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Arkansas Dept of Corrections
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Arkansas Dept of Corrections

Rolf Kaestel has served 40 years of a life sentence for robbing an Arkansas taco restaurant with a toy water gun. He took $264, no one was hurt and, as The Daily Beast reported in May, even the victim has advocated for the 70-year-old inmate’s release.

Now Kaestel is getting that chance at freedom, something he’s spent decades fighting to obtain. On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced his intent to commute Kaestel’s sentence, which a Sebastian County jury delivered in 1981 after convicting him of aggravated robbery. Kaestel, then a drifter with a criminal record, was 29 years old.

As we reported, Kaestel’s bid for clemency won the support of high-profile activists including CNN commentator Van Jones, former actress Rose McGowan and music industry executive Jason Flom—all who told us Kaestel’s punishment was unusually severe.

He Robbed a Taco Joint With a Toy Water Gun for $264. He Got Life in Prison.

According to police reports, Kaestel and a young band of travelers had run out of money and food while passing through Arkansas and decided to target Senor Bob’s Taco Hut. Dennis Schluterman, then 17 years old, was working the counter when Kaestel flashed the toy gun and demanded he open the register. Kaestel and his group made off with under $300.

When Schluterman learned decades later that Kaestel was still in prison, he joined a small chorus of supporters pushing then Gov. Mike Beebe to grant Kaestel clemency. “It’s time for his break to come. He needs to be set free,” Schluterman said in a video recorded outside the state capitol in 2013. “And if you really want to know, I believe that the state owes him.”

On Thursday, Schluterman said Gov. Hutchinson’s impending commutation felt like a weight lifted off his shoulders. “I’m just glad it finally happened,” Schluterman told The Daily Beast. “It’s something that needed to be done.”

While in prison, Kaestel became a paralegal for local law firms, took enough college courses to be shy of multiple degrees, and in 1999, served as a whistleblower in the Arkansas prison blood bank scandal—something which he and supporters say led corrections officials to abruptly transfer him to Utah under an interstate compact.

Kaestel was featured in filmmaker Kelly Duda’s documentary on the prison blood bank, which is believed to have infected people across the globe with HIV and Hepatitis C. In recent years, Duda has been among Kaestel’s most vocal supporters.

Shealyn Sowers, Hutchinson’s director of communications, said the public has 30 days to comment on the governor's intent to grant clemency. “On August 4, our next clemency release date, if there are no negative developments, the proclamation of Kaestel’s commutation will be issued,” Sowers said. “That is the date that the sentence is commuted to a term of years, and he then becomes eligible for parole.”

Still, the Arkansas Parole Board isn’t expected to deny Kaestel’s release. Since 2012, the board recommended clemency for Kaestel three times but Hutchinson and Beebe declined to grant it, records show.

“Finally Rolf Kaestel will be free to see the sunshine again,” Duda said. “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.”

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