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Survivalist Cult Victim Was Skinned Alive, Attorney Says

March 11, 1986

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ A man whose body was found on a survivalist cult’s southeast Nebraska farm was skinned alive, a prosecutor said Monday at the murder trial of a father and son accused in the torture slaying.

In his opening statement, Otoe County Attorney Randall Rehmeier said cult leader Michael Ryan, 37, and his son Dennis used a razor-like instrument to skin the legs of James Thimm, 26.

The bodies of Thimm and 5-year-old Luke Stice were found in unmarked graves last August at the farm near Rulo. Michael Ryan will be tried later on a first-degree murder charge in the death of Stice.

Defense attorneys said they may present insanity defenses for the father and son.

In testimony Monday, Cheryl Gibson a former cult member, said Michael Ryan planned to kill Thimm and Rick Stice, the father of the slain youth, because God was angry with them.

″Michael Ryan said Yahweh was very angry at James Thimm, Rick Stice and (his son) Luke Stice,″ Ms. Gibson testified in Douglas County District Court.

Rick Stice, who left the farm after his son died, is expected to testify for the prosecution at the current trial.

Michael Ryan, who could be executed if found guilty, was sentenced last September to five years in prison on a weapon conviction. His 16-year-old son faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Rehmeier, in his opening statement, said that after Thimm’s legs were skinned, Michael Ryan kicked one of his arms until it broke. Dennis Ryan then broke one of Thimm’s legs with a wooden board. Michael Ryan kicked Thimm in the head and ″jumped up and down on his chest,″ crushing his ribs and killing him, Rehmeier said.

After the body was placed in a grave, Michael Ryan ordered another farm resident to shoot Thimm in the head with a .45-caliber pistol, Rehmeier said.

Rehmeier’s account of the final moments of Thimm’s life added new details to pre-trial testimony provided by former members of the heavily armed cult. James Haverkamp and John David Andreas testified that Thimm was chained, whipped, shot in the fingers and forced to have sex with a goat.

Both Ryans sat impassively during the opening statement. Dennis Ryan yawned several times.

Rehmeier said a psychiatrist will testify that neither of the Ryans suffer from any type of mental illness and that both knew what they were doing was wrong.

An attorney for Dennis Ryan admitted his client helped kill Thimm. Rodney Rehm said the teen wasn’t responsible for his actions because he was heavily influenced by adults who had a strange lifestyle and bizarre political and religious beliefs.

″You see a boy growing up in a loony bin, on a nut farm,″ Rehm said in his opening statement. ″If he had a choice, he would have chosen some other dad, some other man, some other time on earth.″

Rehm, who has said he will use an insanity defense, said medical experts will testify that Dennis Ryan is a ″strange, unusual, weird mentally ill child.″

Louie Ligouri, an attorney for Michael Ryan, indicated that an insanity defense may also be used for his client.

″Michael Ryan was, wrong or right, deeply devoted to his beliefs and his Yahweh god,″ he said. Yahweh is the old testament name for God used by the cult.

″Michael Ryan doesn’t want to claim an insanity defense,″ Ligouri said. ″We may do it anyway.″

Ligouri admitted that Michael Ryan helped assault Thimm, but said Ryan’s role in the torture will be disputed.

James Haverkamp, his cousin Tim Haverkamp and Andreas are expected to be key prosecution witnesses in the trial. Tim Haverkamp, 23, last month pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Thimm’s death.

The trial was moved to Omaha by Richardson County District Judge Robert Finn because of publicity about the case.

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