GILLETTE — Mike Etchemendy wants closure.
His nephew, Johnny Etchemendy, wants that, too, but there’s something more. When Johnny looks in the mirror, he wonders if the face of the father he never knew is staring back at him.
Both of their lives forever changed when Marty Etchemendy —Mike’s brother and Johnny’s dad — lost his life at the hands of two strangers in 1987.
Thirty-two years ago, Marty was killed in Campbell County after being kidnapped and assaulted by two men for several hours in a terrible string of events that began in Marty’s hometown of Miles City, Montana.
Now, one of the killers, Vernon Kills On Top, is eligible for parole.
Mike, Johnny and the rest of Marty’s family are trying to make sure Kills On Top never walks the streets a free man.
As terrible as the murder was, it was the events leading up to it that haunts the Etchemendy family.
“They didn’t just shoot him. They didn’t just cut his throat,” Mike said. “For 17 hours, they beat the hell out of him. And it was nonstop, and it was for no reason.”
Marty’s body was found in an abandoned building 20 miles south of Gillette.
“The sheer brutality of what he went through was just sickening,” said Marty’s niece, Summerlee Luckow.
In 1988 in Montana’s 16th Judicial District in Custer County, a jury found Kills On Top guilty of deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping and robbery. He was sentenced to death for the first two charges and 40 years in prison for the robbery. His brother, Lester, received the same sentence.
Mike said he doesn’t have strong feelings one way or the other when it comes to capital punishment, “but the nice thing about the death penalty is, there’s closure.”
Their death sentences were later overturned after an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court and reduced to life in prison without parole. It should have ended “right then and there,” Mike said.
“At that point, we thought there would be closure,” he said. “It’s been far from that.”
After a court decision this summer, Vernon Kills On Top, 61, is now eligible for parole. His parole hearing won’t happen until early 2020, at least, but Marty Etchemendy’s family is doing everything they can right now to make sure Kills On Top remains in prison.
From death penalty to parole
In July, Montana Supreme Court struck Kills On Top’s kidnapping charge on grounds of double jeopardy, saying it stemmed from the same facts as his homicide charge, the Billings Gazette reported. Because the kidnapping charge had a ban on parole, it made him eligible for parole.
While Mike believes people should have the ability to appeal a sentence, “this has gone beyond that.”
If someone can go from the death sentence to getting out on parole, “there’s a problem there,” he said, adding that the family has lost some faith in Montana’s judicial system.
“It’s kind of just a smack in the face,” Luckow said of the court’s decision.
She never met her uncle. She was born seven months after he was killed. And as a child, she didn’t know much about the details surrounding his death.
“Growing up, we always knew that Uncle Marty was murdered, but that was pretty much it,” she said. “Our family kept it pretty private.”
But in the last few months, however, Luckow has learned a lot more about her uncle’s death.
“I would prefer he stay in prison the rest of his life,” she said. “Why is this even an option?”
She and Mike have been gathering information and telling people to write letters to the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole to say Kills On Top should be kept in prison. They also plan to have as many people as possible testify at his parole hearing.
Mike, who was three years younger than Marty, was at the University of Wyoming at the time. He got a call from his mom saying his brother was missing. The body was found a couple of days later.
“A lot of the stuff is really cloudy,” said Mike, who was 20 years old when his brother was murdered. “It was so shocking, you don’t know what you remembered and what you dreamt.”
What made it even worse was that their father was in Australia at the time. It took the family days to get ahold of him.
“The patriarch of the family didn’t have a clue what was going on,” Mike said. “It definitely put us into a spin.”
Thirty-two years later, “It doesn’t get any easier,” he said.
Old wounds reopen, and they’re as fresh as they were in 1987.
“It makes your adrenaline rush every time you think about it, and you do think about it nonstop,” he said.
Marty Etchemendy was at a bar in Miles City the night of Oct. 16, 1987. Kills On Top and his brother, Lester, went into the bar later that night with two women. When Etchemendy left the bar, he had trouble finding his car, so the group offered to help him.
Etchemendy got into a black Dodge car with them and they drove around, searching for his vehicle.
One of the women in the car, Diane Bull Coming, testified that Lester, in his native tongue of Northern Cheyenne, said that they should “roll him and steal from him,” according to documents filed with the Montana Supreme Court.
Lester and Etchemendy started arguing in the back seat of the car, and Lester began beating and choking Etchemendy and trying to force pills down his throat.
Etchemendy was ordered to empty his pockets, and his wallet was rifled through. The group took his credit cards and two paychecks.
Vernon stopped the car, saying he “wanted in on some of this,” Doretta Four Bear testified. The brothers took Etchemendy out of the car and beat him and kicked him while he was on the ground. During this, Etchemendy was screaming and pleaded with them to stop.
Later, Vernon got into the back seat with Etchemendy and tried to choke him. He then stopped the car and told Etchemendy to take off his clothes. The brothers then put him in the trunk.
They used Etchemendy’s credit card to buy gas in Ashland, Montana, and picked up another woman, LaVonne Quiroz, while Four Bear fled to a friend’s house. The brothers washed blood of their hands at a water trough. At this time, Bull Coming saw Etchemendy in the trunk and said he was beaten up, bloody and his eyes and mouth were swollen, and his hair was matted down with blood.
They then went to Broadus, where they cashed one of his checks. Bull Coming suggested they go to Gillette. They turned off on a side road from Highway 59 and let Etchemendy, who was blindfolded out of the truck. Lester, who had a metal pipe, warned Etchemendy that if he tried to run away, he would be beaten.
Vernon removed the blindfold, which angered Lester because he worried that Etchemendy would be able to identify them. Lester said they would now have to kill Etchemendy, and Vernon agreed, Bull Coming testified.
Lester forced Etchemendy to drink a mixture of beer and Everclear in an attempt to get him to pass out, then put him back into the trunk. Lester talked to Etchemendy through the backseat, and Etchemendy told him that he had a wife and two young boys.
They got to Gillette in the afternoon, and they stopped to get gas. Etchemendy began pounding on the trunk and calling for help, so Vernon instructed Quiroz to move the car to an alley.
Bull Coming said Lester told Vernon they had to “get rid of” Etchemendy or they’d get caught. Vernon agreed, but wanted to wait. Lester and Bull Coming took the car and drove out of town. Lester turned onto a side road, stopping only when they weren’t visible from the main road. Bull Coming said Lester opened the trunk and hit Etchemendy with a pipe while the victim said, “Oh, God, no, God, no, don’t do this to me.”
Lester kept hitting him, causing blood to spurt from his head. Lester then hit him with a tire iron and a rock. After throwing the tools into a field, Lester got back into the car. After they drove a short distance, he told Bull Coming to stop so he could shoot Etchemendy. He tried to shoot him by putting a .22 caliber shell in a vice grip and hitting the shell with a hammer.
They kept on driving, but stopped at the Rustic Inn Lounge because the car had two flat tires. Bull Coming said she saw Lester try to cut Etchemendy’s throat with a small knife. She went into the bar, and Lester later came in and told her Etchemendy was dead.
Vernon and Quiroz joined them that afternoon. They bought new tires and left Gillette, driving south. They put Etchemendy’s body in an abandoned community hall about 20 miles south of Gillette.
A rancher was driving by when he noticed their car parked by the community hall. They drove off without closing a gate, so he followed them and forced them to stop. He told them to go back and close the gate, which they did.
They then drove to Sheridan. Lester and Bull Coming bought some new clothes with one of Etchemendy’s credit cards and got a motel room while Vernon and Quiroz drove to Billings, Montana. On the way there, Vernon disposed of the blanket which had been used to cover Etchemendy.
Quiroz said she and Vernon stopped at a home, where they washed their clothes and washed out the car.
The afternoon of Oct. 18, 1987, Yellowstone County law enforcement were told to be on the lookout for a black Dodge, occupied by four people that might have been involved in an assault and a kidnapping.
That same day, an officer spotted the car. It was pulled over, and Vernon and Quiroz were arrested.
Lester and Bull Coming hitchhiked to Billings, where they were arrested at a friend’s house on Oct. 19. That same day, officers found Etchemendy’s body in the abandoned building.
An autopsy found that he died from extensive blunt trauma to the left side of his head, which crushed his skull. The pathologist said Etchemendy had been injured in the head at least 45 minutes and up to 12 hours before he died.
Johnny was only 2 years old, almost 3, when his father was killed. Johnny has no memories of his dad.
“Sometimes (I) feel like I can remember being carried up the stairs by my father,” Johnny wrote in an email, but he’s almost certain this is just “a manufactured memory.”
He spent many nights crying, hating that his father had been taken from him. He often wonders how his life would have been different if his dad was alive to raise him, to watch him grow up.
As a child, people would tell Johnny he looked exactly like his father, Marty, did at his age. They said that he walked like his father, that his handwriting looked just like his dad’s.
One afternoon, Johnny was in the car with his mom, and the low fuel light came on. He asked her, “wouldn’t it be fun to just see how far we can go until the car dies?”
She started to tear up, because Marty had asked her the same question years ago when she was pregnant with Johnny.
On one hand, hearing stories about his father “hurts terribly,” Johnny said, because he’ll never know what it would have been like to be raised by him. He can only experience Marty through other people’s rearview memories.
But on the other hand, hearing stories about his dad is “the greatest gift” he could ever be given, he said.
“Maybe I do know him a little bit,” he said. “At least as much as I know myself.”
To this day, Mike hasn’t seen the pictures that law enforcement took of his brother’s body. But he doesn’t have to see them to know what Marty went through the night he was killed.
“Everybody dies, but not everybody dies like that,” Mike said. “If they would’ve had a gun, it would’ve been over quickly, and I hate to say this, but that would have been easier to deal with.”
Ever since Kills On Top was convicted, he hasn’t stopped appealing his sentence. And Marty Etchemendy’s family won’t stop trying to keep him in prison.
Just because Kills On Top is eligible for parole does not mean he will be released. That’s up to the parole board to decide. In Montana, inmates can go before the parole board at least once every six years, so if Kills On Top’s request for parole is denied, he can try again later.
“Everybody starts healing up from it, putting it behind us,” Luckow said. “Then it gets re-drudged up.”
“We will have to deal with it for every six years until he’s dead or he’s out,” Mike said.
He said he feels it is his duty to make sure Kills On Top never re-enters society.
“If it was switched, if I was killed, and Marty was defending me, he’d go all out to keep this guy in prison,” he said.
Johnny said he will be at every one of Kills On Top’s parole hearings, fighting to make sure he isn’t released.
If Kills On Top is released from prison, Mike said he won’t allow himself to be consumed by it.
“I’m going to forget about him as good as I can,” he said. “He’s not worth losing any sleep over.”
“If we lose this fight and he is let out, then the only choice I have is to move on,” Johnny said. “It is not weakness or betrayal to move on.”
To hold onto anger and rage, he added, is to give evil the victory.
“I’d hope he just crawls into a hole and quietly falls away in the history of time,” Johnny said.
Mike said he believes he’s forgiven the brothers, and if not, he’s very close to getting to that point. But still, they must face the consequences for their actions.
“Just because you forgive somebody doesn’t mean they’re off the hook,” he said. “I can forgive him and still want him in prison.”
All Mike wants is closure.
He’s afraid he may never get it.