Sentenced as a teen, killer hopes for second chance

Dale Gardner in family photos from 1988, when he was 16, and in 2010 at age 38 after spending more than two decades in prison.
Dale Gardner in family photos from 1988, when he was 16, and in 2010 at age 38 after spending more than two decades in prison.
Posted: September 30, 2010

THE FIRST object was small, a brick maybe.

Dale Gardner walked up behind Billy and smashed it into the back of his head.

Billy, 11, fell to his knees, screaming. Did he scream for his mother? She thinks he probably did, when she thinks of it at all. She tries not to.

Dale doesn't remember the substance of the screaming. But he remembers what happened next: He hit Billy again and again, seven times or more, grabbing bigger and bigger rocks to bash Billy's head until the boy lay twitching on the ground.

He then climbed behind the wheel of Billy's mother's car and drove over the boy, twice, until the twitching stopped.

Gardner was 16 when he killed Billy in FDR Park in December 1988. He's now 38. And he'd like to get out of jail.

In the debate about juveniles serving lifelong prison sentences, stories like Gardner's are the cases reformers don't like to talk about.

At public hearings and in reports calling for systemic juvenile-justice change, critics who say that it's cruel to send a kid away to jail forever pick their poster children carefully: typically inmates convicted of murder who served as lookouts or getaway drivers or otherwise had no direct role in the victim's death.

But about two-thirds of Pennsylvania's more than 470 juvenile lifers were convicted of first-degree murder, many for attacks as bone-chillingly gruesome as Gardner's.

To reformers, they are equally deserving of a shot at redemption, despite the atrocity of their actions.

"When you're talking about brain development, the details of the crime don't matter," said Bradley Bridge, a defense attorney and advocate for juvenile lifers.

"Because the bottom line is that the juvenile wasn't in a state, mentally or intellectually, where they could appreciate their actions or the consequences of their actions the same way an adult would. Therefore, it's morally wrong to commit the same punishment to those actions that we would to an adult."

But others worry that ending juvenile life terms would open the floodgates, freeing murderers convicted of gruesome crimes across the state.

Billy's mother, for one, has no sympathy for the "monster" who killed her only child.

"Whether he's 16 or 45, he did it," she said in a recent interview. "At 16, your mind is developed enough to know right from wrong. If any case does deserve it, it's this one. Seven times: That's an awful lot of times to hit someone. And why? For no reason."

After 22 years, the mere mention of her son and the way he died still brings tears. Although friends know she had a son who was murdered, few know the disturbing details. So the Daily News is respecting her request to withhold her and her son's real names, so that she can avoid questions that would renew her grief.

"To this day, I see a psychiatrist and a therapist for depression," she said. "It's been 22 years, but it never goes away."

Doomed by dysfunction?

Some defense attorneys like to argue that a client's path to prison was preordained by a problematic childhood. In that sense, Dale Gardner is a lawyer's dream.

His father was a "straight redneck" from Georgia, a notorious criminal who gave even Gardner's mother an alias when she met him more than 40 years ago near Rittenhouse Square. He got her pregnant at age 20, and they married. But the marriage was short-lived: He abused her, so they divorced when Dale was 2.

"The only thing I got from my father was my name and my height," Gardner said in an interview at the state prison in southwestern Pennsylvania's Fayette County where he's now incarcerated.

The men who courted his mother for the next 13 years were violent surrogate dads who beat him and locked him in the basement regularly. He endured more torture in his South Philadelphia neighborhood, where older boys picked on him for his size and pummeled him.

The abuse led him to act out in school, where he was placed in "SED" classes for socially and emotionally disturbed children, he said. He hit teachers and disrupted class frequently, once throwing a desk out a window. He figures he got kicked out of at least 10 schools by the time he was 16.

Administrators ordered psychological treatment as a condition of staying in the school district. It didn't help.

"I would play with Lego blocks, and [the psychologist] would sit, smoke a pipe and ignore me," Gardner said.

Gardner was smoking and drinking by age 11, using alcohol to escape his problems.

Sometimes, he got the alcohol from his mother. "My mother said as long as I drank in front of her, it was OK," Gardner said.

Sometimes, he bought it himself from bartenders and liquor-store clerks who assumed he was of legal age because even at 12, he loomed taller than most men.

"I had no feeling, really, at the time," he said. "I had no responsibility for my actions. I had no direction."

'Something just snapped'

The day he became a killer, Dale Gardner began drinking early. By the time he met his buddy Eddie Kalese that cold, clear day on Dec. 10, 1988, he said, he was drunk.

Kalese was in a 1987 Chevrolet Nova packed with seven or eight other boys, including Billy, whom he didn't know. It was Billy's mother's car; she frequently rented it out to neighborhood teens to go joyriding, directing Billy to go along to ensure the car's return, according to Gardner and court records.

The boys spent hours taking turns at the wheel, leaving the excursion one by one until just Gardner and Billy were left.

They drove to Dover, Del., "just to look around," chatting amiably during the illicit road-trip, Gardner said. They returned to Philadelphia as dusk descended.

The older boy steered the car into FDR Park, stopping near the Interstate 95 overpass so they could stretch their legs.

As Billy walked toward the frozen lake, Gardner spotted some construction debris nearby.

He grabbed it and attacked.

He beat Billy so savagely that he obliterated his face; Billy's mother later could only identify her son's body by his clothes.

After he drove the car repeatedly over Billy, he went home and lay in his bed in clothing still wet with Billy's blood.

In a recent interview, Billy's mother denied that she rented her car to neighborhood teens and used her 11-year-old son as collateral to ensure its return. Rather, she said, her son sometimes sneaked the keys to go joyriding with older boys.

Police nabbed Gardner within days. At his trial, prosecutors said that Gardner had a mercenary motive: He murdered Billy to steal the car.

But Gardner said that robbery wasn't his plan.

"My mother would let me drive her car; why would I need to steal a car?" Gardner asked.

But he has no other explanation.

"Everybody wants a reason. But I don't know why. Something just snapped on me, and I wound up hitting this kid. I remember doing that. I got locked up for that. They found blood on my clothes. I'm not denying it. I did it," he said, pausing to wipe away tears.

"I got to live with that. But I don't know why. I don't see myself as that type of person who would do something like that. I really don't know why."

Reform or retribution?

The teen who bashed a boy to death is now a man who has taught other inmates anger-management classes.

Within a year after his incarceration, Gardner earned his high school equivalency diploma. Since then, he has taken a steady stream of college courses in everything from theology to paralegal studies to drug-addiction counseling.

After a stint of teaching inmates at the state prison in Houtzdale, he regularly reads teachers' trade journals in hopes of again getting a job teaching inmates.

He has become a devout Catholic, attending weekly Mass and singing in the prison choir. And he's an avid writer who contributes regularly to prison newsletters on such topics as prison reform and educational opportunities behind bars.

"I didn't realize my potential till I got to jail. Sometimes I get a self-defeating attitude, like I don't want to do anything. But I got a motivation, a desire, to better myself. I try to make a life of wherever I'm at," Gardner said.

He knows that he's not the most sympathetic juvenile lifer seeking a chance for parole. He knows that many people, including Billy's mother, can't look past the grisly crime.

But he says that he's not the same person he was two decades ago.

"I believe a person can change. I say a prayer for [Billy] every morning. I pray for his soul, and I pray for his family. There's not one day that goes by that I don't feel real pain for killing [him]," he said, tearing up.

"I'd like to show [Billy's mother] I'm actually worth something," he added. "Maybe she can find some relief in that, that I'm not an animal."

But Billy's mother has no patience for such sentiments.

"[Gardner] went to court and got what he deserved. I thought that would be the end of it, while I was alive," she said.

"Years ago, I was for the death penalty," she added. "Then I saw how the death penalty changed. It's like putting a sick dog to sleep; there's no punishment in it now. So I think life without parole is worse. And I think life without parole is what he deserves."

To her, Billy is a boy frozen in childhood: He adored playing with Matchbox and remote-controlled cars, riding his bike and playing basketball, street hockey and Atari video games.

If he'd lived, she likes to think that she'd be a grandmother now. Instead, it's just her and her 85-year-old father.

Soon after her son's murder, she had his name tattooed on her arm. She wears a gold necklace that she never takes off, a blurry photo of his face smiling from a pendant dangling from the chain.

Twenty-two years after her son's slaying, she remains tortured by a question that Gardner can't answer.

"Why? Why murder?" she asks. "Why didn't he just drop him off someplace and keep the car? Why?"

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