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An elderly Arkansas man, who was sentenced to life in prison for sticking up a taco stand with a water pistol four decades ago, is set to be released after his sentence was commuted.
Rolf Kaestel, 70, who has been imprisoned since the 1980s in the toy gun robbery, had his sentence commuted by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday.
Hutchinson, who granted clemency to a number of state prisoners and non-inmates on Thursday, announced Kaestel’s sentence was to be commuted.
“The applicants intended for pardons have completed all jail time, fulfilled all parole and probationary requirements and paid all fines related to their sentences,” Hutchinson said in a prepared statement.
Hutchinson also announced plans to pardon eight incarcerated individuals serving prison time for various crimes, including drug, credit card fraud, property theft, burglary, breaking and entering, and domestic battery convictions.
Eric Broyles, Jeffrey Chenowith, Donald Hargraves, Miguel Salinas Lopez, April Martin, Joshua Throgmartin, Floyd Williams Jr., and Joe Williamson also received pardons, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Hutchinson issued just two sentence commutations. Kedrick T. Darrough Sr., who was previously convicted of cocaine and marijuana trafficking in 2006, also had his sentence commuted. A total of 50 clemency requests were denied.
LaToya T. Robinson, who was convicted of forgery in 1999 and 2004, also had her firearm rights restored by the Republican governor.
Gov. Hutchinson had previously denied a clemency request by Kaestel in 2015. Had he been denied this time, the 70-year-old would have had to wait another four years to reapply with the state parole board.
In 1981, Kaestel used a water pistol to steal $264 from Senor Bob’s Taco Hut in Port Smith, Arkansas. No one was injured in the robbery. He was ultimately convicted of aggravated robbery. Kaestel was 29 at the time.
For decades, Kaestel languished behind bars.
“I have not been able to make any sense of it,” Kaestel told The Daily Beast in May. “Not because it’s me or my case, but because this kind of thing should not happen anywhere to anyone.”
Criminal justice activists applauded Kaestel’s pending release.
“The decades-old battle to free inmate whistleblower Rolf Kaestel is almost over, thanks to his many supporters,” Filmmaker Kelly Duda told Oxygen.com on Friday. “Rolf's story is just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger one that's still being played out.”
Duda first shone light on Kaestel’s case years ago while investigating a blood bank scandal in Arkansas’ prison system.
“Years before I met him, unbeknownst to me, Rolf had been sent to the ‘hole’ for trying to write about the problems with the prison plasma program for the prison newsletter.”
Duda claimed Kaestel was later relocated out-of-state for speaking out.
“After I interviewed him for my documentary, he was whisked away to Utah and ‘disappeared,’" Duda explained. “There is no question in my mind that Rolf was silenced for speaking out. And I'm just finding out now about other Arkansas prisoners whom I spoke to suffering backlash as well.”
It cost the state about $20,000 per year to keep Kaestel incarcerated.
“Someone doing 40 years for $264 is outrageous and any day later than that is absolutely an injustice,” Duda previously said. “I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in Arkansas or Utah where a person has been sent to life for a toy gun robbery. ... Rolf didn’t kill anybody — it was as victimless a crime as it could be given the circumstances."
Dennis Schlutterman, the taco shop employee who Kaestel robbed, had also previously demanded the state to set him free.
“I couldn’t believe that he was still there,” Schlutterman told Duda in a YouTube interview in 2014. “Many nights I sat there and thought about it and thought about it.”
While incarcerated, Kaestel earned a number of college degrees, toiled as a paralegal, and instructed an astronomy class.
“Forty years and counting has certainly been a heavy price, wouldn’t you say?” Kaestel said. “I sometimes wonder how it would have turned out had things been different, but that’s actually silly to do.”
Kaestel must wait at least 30 days for public feedback on his case before his commutation is made official. He’s being held at a Utah prison pending his possible release.
“On August 4, our next clemency release date, if there are no negative developments, the proclamation of Kaestel’s commutation will be issued,” Shealyn Sowers, Hutchinson’s director of communications, told Oxygen.com. “That is the date that the sentence is commuted to a term of years, and he then becomes eligible for parole.”
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