Murder Victim’s Mother Becomes Anti-Death Penalty Activist
Singer Steve Earle Honors
BY PAT HILL
When renowned blues folk artist Steve Earle perfor-med at Bozeman’s Emerson Cultural Center last month, he dedicated one of his last songs to a good friend of his from Three Forks, Marietta Jaeger Lane. Earle did so for good reason—Lane came face to face with the death penalty issue after the kidnapping and murder of her daughter in the 1970s, and the song Earle dedicated to her, Ellis Unit One, is the name of a Texas prison compound that houses death row inmates. Lane, though, actively opposes the death penalty (as does Earle), even after the unspeakable tragedy of losing her daughter to a murderer.
Earle and Lane met at an anti-death penalty event over a decade ago, Lane told the Pioneer. “I met Steve in the spring of 1998 in Hollywood,”she said, “at a concert [actor] Tim Robbins had organized on behalf of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Journey of Hope.”
Lane was a board member of MVFR from 1993 to 1996, and co-founded Journey of Hope in 1997. Both organizations seek to abolish the death penalty across the United States and around the world.
Lane said most of the musicians who played that 1998 benefit concert had their music on the soundtrack of the movie Dead Man Walking, including Steve Earle. She said she decided to approach Earle before the concert after she noticed him sitting alone and looking like he needed a friend.
“Steve looked forlorn, beat down, and beat up,” said Lane. “So, I went to sit with him. We quickly became friends. He was just beginning his battle against heroin addiction and looked it.” Lane said she realized what a tough road ahead Earle had in his fight against addiction, in that she had kicked a three-pack-a-day smoking habit.
“Heroin’s tough,” she said, “but he stuck to it. I’ve just seen him grow and grow over the years. He’s just a great guy. He doesn’t play up his stardom. I’ve seen Steve Earle, the big star, sweeping, cleaning up, and just pitching in at events…I appreciate his courage, speaking out against social injustices. We simply tell our own stories, our own personal experiences…we find that we are a very persuasive voice against the death penalty. How do we honor those we’ve lost to violence? Answering that with violence is the wrong approach.”
Marietta Jaeger was camping at the Missouri Headwaters State Park with her family in 1973 when her seven-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped from within the tent the family was sleeping in and subsequently murdered. It was a crushing blow to the vacationing Michigan family. For more than a year after the kidnapping they knew nothing of their daughter’s fate or whereabouts. Marietta Jaeger struggled with an inevitable desire for vengeance, but her Christian background allowed a window for forgiveness towards the person who had taken her daughter.
A year after Susie’s disappear-ance, after signaling through the press that she wanted to talk to her daughter’s murderer by telephone, she got a call from a young man later identified as David Mierhofer of Manhattan, Montana, a small town not far from the campground where her daughter had gone missing.
“One year to the minute [after Susie’s disappearance] he called me, and attempted to taunt me,” Lane told the Pioneer. She said that although in the very beginning she wanted to tear the person who had killed her daughter apart with her own hands, “God had given me permission to change my heart…from fury to forgiveness…God blessed me with David Mierhofer’s call to me.”
“He was undone by the compassion I had come to in my personal journey…he wept,” said Lane.
Mierhofer spoke with Marietta on the phone for an hour or so, a conversation she recorded. The FBI used the taped conversation to finally identify Mierhofer, by matching Lane’s taped conversation with another taped call the FBI made to Mierhofer. Lane said that a subse-quent call Mierhofer made to her from Salt Lake City in an effort to incriminate someone else in Susie’s disappearance, in which he again broke down and incriminated himself, finally led to his arrest in 1974.
“I was given to know that I would have something to say about what happened to the perpetrator,” said Lane. “I was blessed that the head FBI [agent] and the prosecutor were also both men of faith.” She said that at her request the prosecutor offered Mierhofer a manda-tory life sentence, without the possibility of parole, instead of death.
“I had never even considered the death penalty,“ Lane said. “[But] to kill him in Susie’s name would have been too violent and profane.”
She said that only then did Mierhofer agree to confess, not only to her daughter’s kidnapping and murder, but to the murders of two other boys and another young woman in Montana. Though suspected of murders in other states, Lane said Mierhofer would not admit to any other crimes because the death penalty was still possible in the other locations. No resolution, though, came about regarding Mierhofer’s other alleged crimes; he committed suicide in the old Gallatin County Jail shortly after confessing to the Montana murders.
Over twenty years after Susie went missing from Headwaters State Park, Lane returned to Montana from Michigan to mark the 25th anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance.
“I met [Bob Lane] the man I’m married to on that return trip,” she said, and at the very establishment where the Jaeger family had their last restaurant meal with Susie.
Lane continues her battle against the death penalty, speaking at numerous anti-death penalty events every year, and testified against Montana’s death penalty at the 2007 Montana Legislative Session.
“I just want to believe we can abolish the death penalty,” Lane said, “so we don’t become that which we abhor. It’s the only way to survive…to forgive and have compassion. Vengeance leads to unhealthy and unhappy people. The whole issue of forgiveness is tied up in the death penalty.”