Herman W. Kreutzer, California prison inmate D-20376, will not be wearing his beloved cowboy hat when he meets with the parole board Thursday.
And it’s doubtful that any board member will refer to him by his preferred nickname, “Rock,” or respond in kind if Kreutzer addresses him as “pardner.”
This is the first time that Kreutzer, 59, serving a sentence of 17 years to life at the state prison in San Luis Obispo for gunning down his son-in-law in 1984, has been eligible for a parole hearing.
The San Diego County prosecutor’s office will vigorously oppose his release. “Mr. Kreutzer’s crime exhibited a high degree of callousness and viciousness,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Allard.
But even without his 10-gallon hat and folksy vocabulary, Kreutzer will enjoy some advantages that most inmates lack when they face the parole board:
* A record as a model inmate (including rave reviews as a country-western singer and guitarist at prison talent shows).
* Three job offers.
* A relatively intact family that promises emotional support and a place to live.
* Letters of support from two politicians from opposing ends of the spectrum: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and State Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego).
“It is my impression,” Killea wrote, “through the information presented to me by his son, that Mr. Kreutzer has indeed rehabilitated himself and will again be a positive member of society once released from incarceration.”
If press clippings are allowed, Kreutzer could even present a clip from 1985, when the sentencing judge likened him to a tragic figure from Shakespeare and expressed hope that someday the parole board would show him leniency because of the “provocation” he had suffered.
If all this seems improbable in this age of law and order, it is no more improbable than the overall story of this Wisconsin native who moved to California and set himself up as the living embodiment of the Old West.
For several years he presided over a Wild West theme park called Rock Kreutzer’s Big Oak Ranch and Frontier Town, complete with mock shootouts, make-believe cowpokes and the Red Garter saloon. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens gave concerts there.
Kreutzer feuded with local politicians about zoning laws and noise ordinances. He ran for political office. The adjectives controversial and flamboyant were welded to his name by reporters.
The theme park/ranch in rural Dehesa, 25 miles east of downtown San Diego, boasted the motto, “We put the West back into the country.”
Groups such as the San Diego Police Officers Assn. held company picnics there. Kreutzer strode the grounds as the unofficial marshal in his cowboy hat, sharkskin boots and shiny suit.
But when Kreutzer dispensed some frontier justice--putting five bullets into his son-in-law--the real law stepped in.
Kreutzer was the obvious suspect. Two weeks before the murder, Kreutzer and 32-year-old James Ray Spencer had gotten into a bloody brawl. Kreutzer bit off the tip of Spencer’s finger, and Spencer gouged Kreutzer in the eye and ripped his scalp, requiring surgery.
Kreutzer denied any involvement in Spencer’s murder. He claimed he had been in Tijuana watching jai alai with his family.
For six months, sheriff’s deputies were stumped. Then, based on the word of a security guard, Kreutzer was arrested.
Later he decided to come clean and told an inquiring reporter: “I shot the son of a bitch.” He said Spencer had habitually beaten his wife, Kreutzer’s daughter, Kelly, and that Kelly was living in fear for herself and their baby.
At trial, Kreutzer argued that he thought Spencer, who had a criminal history, had a gun and was high on methamphetamine during their late-night confrontation. His attorney suggested that the shooting, at most, was manslaughter.
Prosecutors called it a cold-blooded ambush and asked for first-degree murder, noting that no second gun was found. The jury split the difference and called it second-degree.
Kreutzer’s sons, Kurt, 30, a landscaper, and Jerome, 38, a real estate agent, pleaded guilty: Kurt to being an accessory, Jerome to voluntary manslaughter. Both served local jail time.
As the parole hearing has neared, Kurt made the rounds of politicians, asking for support. Job offers were rustled up from Kurt’s landscaping business and from an auto parts company and an insurance company where the owners know Kreutzer.
“We are very familiar with Mr. Kreutzer’s work ethics,” Regina Schard of Automotive Equipment Co. wrote. “He has always proven himself to be extremely intelligent, centered and loyal.”
Allard notes that Kreutzer has never truly taken responsibility for his crime--a key criterion for parole--and that he is still insists that Spencer had a gun. “This was an ambush like something out of ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ” Allard said.
The judge, in sentencing Kreutzer, said it was reasonable for Kreutzer to expect that Spencer, given his violent nature, would be packing a weapon, but that it did not justify Kreutzer shooting first. One witness said Spencer begged for his life.
After the convictions, the Big Oak Ranch was lost. Kelly remarried and moved to Wisconsin. Kreutzer’s wife, Lynne, pleaded guilty to being an accessory and was sentenced to community service. Recently she filed for divorce.
If the concept of rehabilitation means anything, family members say, Kreutzer should be given a chance at a fresh start.
“My father doesn’t belong in prison,” said Kelly Kreutzer, 38. “What he did, he did to protect his family. It was unfortunate, but I don’t blame him. He’s paid the price.”
Kreutzer, in a telephone interview, conceded that his chances of getting parole are slim: “With the political climate these days, they’re just not letting anybody out. If they let anybody out, they should let me out.”
The voice was the same ebullient one that used to be heard jousting with politicians or acting as an emcee. “I’ll never change, pardner,” Kreutzer laughed.