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An Arkansas inmate who held up a taco restaurant with a water pistol and has now spent four decades behind bars is seeking clemency.
Kaestel, who was 29 at the time, was charged with aggravated robbery and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to jail records. He was also fined $15,000.
“I have not been able to make any sense of it,” Kaestel told The Daily Beast. “Not because it’s me or my case, but because this kind of thing should not happen anywhere to anyone.”
It costs approximately $20,000 annually to keep Kaestel imprisoned.
Dennis Schlutterman, the taco shop’s cashier Kaestel at the time of the robbery, has urged officials to grant his release. He said he was shocked to discover that Kaestel was still incarcerated decades later.
“I couldn’t believe that he was still there,” Schlutterman told filmmaker and activist Kelly Duda in an interview uploaded to YouTube in 2014. “Many nights I sat there and thought about it and thought about it.”
Schlutterman was 17 at the time of the robbery. He claimed that Kaestel never threatened him in any way. He said he called on then-Governor Mike Bebe to grant Kaestel clemency.
“I actually apologized to him, because I felt like even though he was the one that robbed me, I felt like I had taken his life because he had been in there for so long,” Schlutterman added. “This man has paid the price 10 times over and it’s time. It’s time for you to let him go... I just don’t feel like Rolf should have to spend another day in prison.”
Duda, who met Kaestel while investigating a blood bank scandal within the Arkansas state penal system, has also emerged as a leading voice in advocating for his release.
“Someone doing 40 years for $264 is outrageous and any day later than that is absolutely an injustice,” Duda told Oxygen.com. “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."
Kaestel, who turned 70 in prison this week, is awaiting Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision regarding possible parole; Hutchinson denied Kaestel’s last clemency request in 2015. If the current request is denied, he won’t be able to reapply to the state parole board for another four years. Hutchinson has upwards of 90 days to make a decision.
“I hope that he’ll do the right thing here,” Duda added.
While incarcerated, Kaestel has earned a number of associate's degrees and college credits, worked as a paralegal, and led an astronomy class. Kaestel is currently housed at a prison in Utah.
“Forty years and counting has certainly been a heavy price, wouldn’t you say?” Kaestel told the Daily Beast. “I sometimes wonder how it would have turned out had things been different, but that’s actually silly to do.”
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