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Ron Fields was tough on crime. In 1981, five young men robbed a Senor Bob's Taco Hut in Fort Smith. The oldest of the bunch, 29-year-old Rolf Kaestel, carried a toy water pistol tucked into his waistband. No one was hurt in the robbery. The men got away with $264.
They were quickly arrested and the money was returned.
When the case went to Fields, he struck a deal with the younger four, who agreed to testify against Kaestel. In exchange, each of the four was charged with simple robbery, granted a five-year suspended sentence and served less than 120 days in jail.
Cocky, Kaestel opted to represent himself. He was no match for Fields. The young prosecutor threw the book at him.
Because Kaestel had “represented by word or conduct that he was armed with a deadly weapon,” Fields charged him with aggravated robbery, as the law allows. And because Kaestel had three prior convictions for robbery in New Mexico and Alabama, Fields asked the jury to sentence him to life in prison without parole — and fine him $15,000 to boot. The jury agreed.
Kaestel's sentence is one of the most severe ever handed down in Arkansas for a crime that did not involve physical violence. Even murderers sentenced to life in prison are spared the fine. Nonetheless, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, and Kaestel, now 58, can expect to die in prison, unless a governor grants him clemency.
He has appealed for that eight times. In his most recent plea, he noted that, as early as 1992, the Executive Clemency Board gave him a favorable recommendation, but Gov. Jim Guy Tucker opted not to act on it. The plea now before Gov. Mike Beebe was accompanied by a letter from the clerk Kaestel robbed, who said he supported Kaestel's release, in part, because his punishment so exceeded his crime.
While in prison, Kaestel has earned two associate college degrees and certification as a paralegal. He is nearing baccalaureate degrees in several subjects. He also became a prison activist, founding and working with a number of organizations focused on prison reform. Though Kaestel has been a nearly model prisoner and been given jobs entailing responsibility and trust in prison, that latter role did not endear him to correction department officials.
In 1999, about the time Fields was being appointed special prosecutor for cases involving alleged public corruption, Kaestel appeared in “Factor 8,” Kelly Duda's documentary film about the Arkansas prison blood scandal. Soon after, prison officials had him transferred, against his will, to serve the rest of his life sentence in another state.
When asked recently about that move, ADC spokesman Dina Tyler responded: “To put it in simple terms,” she wrote, “he was absolutely miserable here. He became very vindictive toward the ADC after one of his friends died of liver failure while incarcerated. ...
“He wanted to create as many problems as he could for the agency so he began a campaign of lies, half-truths and ugly innuendo. He saw shadows and conspiracies at every corner, and all of his talk about corruption and graft was utter nonsense. Since he showed no signs of getting past it, the hope was that he would be able to do his time more peacefully in another state.”
Tyler acknowledged, however, that Kaestel had not broken any ADC rules or been disciplined by the department before being sent out of state.
By 2004, when a federal grand jury was convened in Washington, D.C., to investigate allegations of murder and public corruption relating to Fields, Kaestel had served 23 years in prison. Now, as Fields emerges uncharged from another cloud of criminal allegations, Kaestel is again appealing for clemency.
“I am rehabilitated,” Kaestel wrote to Beebe from his cell in Draper, “and the ends of justice have been served.”