A life in prison

Facing colon cancer, John Patrick Murphy, a former University student and convicted stalker, must come to grips with death.

by Robert Downs

Donna Busch relaxed on the back porch of her St. Paul home, enjoying a clear Sunday evening in mid-May. It was 1984. As she glanced up from her book, she spotted a familiar man walking toward her from across the lawn âÄî she had met him at a local bar two nights earlier. He had given her a ride home and then asked for a kiss. When she refused, he had become angry. âÄúCan I get a drink?âÄù the man called to her. Hurriedly, Busch poured a glass of orange juice and slipped inside the house. He followed. Busch told him to leave and ran for the telephone. The man tore the phoneâÄôs chord out of the wall, grabbed her by the hair, tore her clothes, punched her head and began kicking her when she fell to the floor. Busch managed to scramble to a neighborâÄôs house and call police. That was BuschâÄôs first âÄî but not last âÄî traumatic incident with the now-notorious John Patrick Murphy, court records show. Murphy still says he hardly pushed her, but the incident resulted in a fifth-degree assault charge. Murphy, 59, is now confined to Stillwater prison until 2034 for multiple parole violations and convictions on several charges of terroristic threats, many of which were against female prosecutors and judges in the Ramsey County justice system. Sentencing for several of MurphyâÄôs crimes broke precedent and were much harsher than state sentencing guidelines. In May, physicians inside Stillwater prison detected the presence of colon cancer in Murphy, and on Oct. 29 the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected his most recent appeal, sealing his probable fate: he will die in prison. To die in prison A life in prison can be difficult for a 59-year-old âÄî especially one with ailing health. Eleven percent of the 9,353 inmates inside Department of Corrections facilities are more than 50 years old, July DOC statistics show. Aging prisoners require quality health care, and the DOC has adopted a sure-fire way to keep its prisoners healthy: cover everything. Prisoners like Murphy, who may face prolonged care, may be treated until theyâÄôre cured, dead or released from prison. From 2005 to 2008, 52 inmates died in Minnesota prisons, and not one of those deaths was by murder, Department of Corrections officials said. Of those, 16 were by cancer and 6 by suicide. The DOC does not have a cap on medical care like most insurance care providers, and treatments for patients are not necessarily based on cost, Nanette Larson, Director of DOC Health Services said. âÄúIf there are two treatments out there, cost doesnâÄôt necessarily come into play,âÄù Larson said. âÄúWhat comes into play is community standards, whatâÄôs going to be best for the offender, and what we may have access to.âÄù Murphy is scheduled for release in 2034, and is not eligible for an early departure. If alive when released, he will be 84 years old. When asked if he thinks he will die in prison, Murphy said, âÄúProbably, yes. I think I will.âÄù Attack on the justice system Since he was a teenager, MurphyâÄôs life has been defined by the revolving doors of prisons and jails, Mary Geisenhoff, MurphyâÄôs younger sister, said. âÄúHe was in and out of prisons his whole life,âÄù she said. Prior to his assault charge on Donna Busch, Murphy had three felony convictions for wrongfully obtaining welfare in Ramsey County, a forgery conviction from Los Angeles County, California and a federal mail fraud conviction. Police began to follow Murphy closely in 1985 in attempts to prove his involvement in terroristic acts against Judge Joanne Smith, Busch and her neighbor Ted Markgren, court records show. At that point he was suspected of slicing up dead animals and leaving bloody carcasses in and on the cars, houses and doorsteps of Busch, as well as threatening the children of Markgren, who had testified against Murphy in his assault case. He was also suspected of slashing eight tires and spray painting the house of Smith, who presided over the case. Nine years later, Murphy would plead guilty to these charges. But at the time, none had been proven. Under close watch, the county also began scrutinizing MurphyâÄôs financial records. He was found to owe $11,000 in taxes from undeclared income in 1988 and was sentenced to 50 months in prison, twice that of state sentencing guidelines. Murphy served prison time from November 1989 to December 1990. The increased sentence was recommended by DOC agent Eric Ellestad; Murphy pled guilty to slashing eight of his tires on the four year anniversary of the sentencing. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who is running for governor in 2010, first came into contact with Murphy when she prosecuted the tax evasion case under former county attorney Tom Foley. She accepted the case despite MurphyâÄôs reputation, which had spread throughout the legal system. A judge and a prosecutor had already withdrawn from two of MurphyâÄôs cases by that time, fearing for their safety, records show. âÄúI worked with my predecessor Tom Foley on the case,âÄù Gaertner said, âÄúand he had approached a number of the more senior attorneys in the office who just said âÄòno.âÄô They didnâÄôt want to be part of any prosecution.âÄù Some newspaper reporters ran stories about Murphy without bylines for fear of revenge, as well. Murphy complains that prosecutors retaliated against him by issuing a longer-than-usual sentence for the tax case. Gaertner said she could not speculate as to whether Murphy being the chief suspect in the terrorizing cases had anything to do with his sentencing, but did say surveillance of Murphy led to his charges. âÄúBecause he was under surveillance as a suspect in the terroristic acts, he was seen conducting the illegal transactions that led to the tax evasion charge,âÄù Gaertner said. More than a year after Murphy left prison in June 1991, Gaertner found eight tires on two of her vehicles flattened. Three months later, four more were slashed. Immediately, her mind turned to Murphy. âÄúI wasnâÄôt surprised,âÄù Gaertner said. âÄúThat doesnâÄôt mean that I wasnâÄôt frightened. I was.âÄù She began to fear for the safety of her three daughters, she said, none of whom were more than 10 years old. Murphy had allegedly threatened MarkgrenâÄôs children once before, court records show. âÄúMy tires were slashed because I am a prosecutor and I was doing my job,âÄù Gaertner said. âÄúThat kind of crime undermines the stability of the entire criminal justice system.âÄù Murphy still maintained he was made a scapegoat by the county. âÄúIf I was under such close supervision, why wasnâÄôt I arrested when I did any of these things?âÄù Murphy said. âÄúIt doesnâÄôt make any sense.âÄù Terroristic threats Murphy was arrested in May 1993 after fleeing to Arizona and was extradited to Minnesota. Murphy spent a year in solitary confinement on one million dollars bail. Ramsey County originally charged him with 32 counts of terroristic threats, criminal damage to property and conspiracy to commit terroristic threats. The charges included repeatedly terrorizing 13 people âÄî 11 of whom held positions in the criminal justice system âÄî from 1978 to 1993. The charges included: – Smearing blood and dumping oil on the outside and walkways of houses. – Making numerous threatening phone calls – Throwing rocks, bricks, cement and pipes through numerous house, car and garage windows. – Causing $4,500 in damages to BuschâÄôs car by throwing concrete against its roof and doors, breaking the windows, ripping out the heating controls and removing the sun visors. – Spray-painting messages like âÄúIâÄôll be backâÄù and âÄúIâÄôll come backâÄù on several houses. He was accused of painting a swastika on the house of a former parole officer, along with the words âÄúfag,âÄù âÄúqueerâÄù and âÄúhomo,âÄù but later denied it and did not plead guilty to the charge. – Planting fake bombs on the property of several victims. Both occasions required a bomb squad. A partial print from one of the faux bombs was used as evidence to convict him. – Flattening more than 150 tires. – Cutting telephone lines – Ordering pizzas to the houses of judges and placing gay and lesbian classified ads on their behalf. – Dumping piles of broken beer bottles, crushed rocks and scrub brush in front of houses. Murphy accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to ten counts of terroristic threats and one count of conspiracy to commit terroristic threats. He was ordered to pay $30,000 restitution and received a 45 1/2 year sentence, but was only required to serve 8 years âÄì 37 1/2 of the years were probation. The sentence was equal to that of a second-degree murder under state guidelines. The most unusual condition of MurphyâÄôs probation barred him from coming within 150 miles of any of his victims, which effectively banished him from the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. âÄúIt was then and still is a very unusual condition of probation,âÄù Gaertner said. âÄúIt was necessitated by the relentless activity of the defendant.âÄù Ever since he went to prison, Murphy has been trying to withdraw his plea, claiming he was unfairly coerced into entering it. âÄúThey told me I was going to get 100 years in prison,âÄù Murphy said, claiming authorities harassed several of his family members. âÄúThey said if I pled guilty they would leave them alone.âÄù Murphy served his first stint in prison from May 1993 to September 1998. In 1994, while serving his sentence, Murphy was charged with 18 felony offenses for making threatening telephone calls impersonating Dennis Linehan, a convicted murderer and sex offender. Most of the calls were made to Steven Iversen, whose 14-year-old sister, Barbara, was killed by Linehan in 1965. Murphy was never convicted for making those calls. Inside the walls Murphy and his wife married in the late 1980s when she became pregnant. They remain married, but neither she nor his daughter has ever visited him in prison. They rarely, if ever, answer his calls, Murphy said. âÄúShe blamed him, I think, for causing all of this,âÄù MurphyâÄôs sister Geisenhoff said. âÄúShe thinks that if she talks to him bad things are going to happen again.âÄù During the countyâÄôs investigation, authorities searched MurphyâÄôs wifeâÄôs home and office, which Geisenhoff said embarrassed the usually reserved woman. âÄúSheâÄôs moved on,âÄù Murphy said. âÄúMy own daughter wonâÄôt even talk to me.âÄù Geisenhoff, who visits monthly, is the only visitor Murphy receives and the only family member or friend he still speaks with, he said. When notified that he had cancer in May, the only person he told was Geisenhoff, and he still remains apprehensive to speak about it. âÄúI donâÄôt know what I want to do,âÄù Murphy said. âÄúWell, you know, itâÄôs kind of a personal thing. They explained what all the options are, and it doesnâÄôt look good.âÄù In order to gain favor with the courts, and pass time, Murphy participated in classes and education programs, he said. Murphy attended the University of Minnesota for three years before and after a stint in the Army, and claimed to have received a degree from the University through prison. However, that is not possible, prison and University officials said. âÄúI took anger management, critical thinking, Focus on the Family, all those things,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôve taken all their college courses: psychology, chemistry and math. I got enough credits for my degree.âÄù Murphy has been relentless with his appeals since he entered prison. Murphy turned to prison law libraries to gather materials to represent himself in court. After five unsuccessful appeals, one of which reached the Minnesota Supreme Court, Judge Bruce Gross deemed MurphyâÄôs lawsuits frivolous and barred him from making motions without prior approval from the court. Murphy still claims the courts lacked evidence, but because of the money they had put into his case, made leaps in logic to prosecute him. âÄúYou know, what it came down to in this investigation is they had tunnel vision,âÄù Murphy said. âÄúThey spent all of this time and money for years and years and itâÄôs like a corporation. You need to get a return on your money.âÄù Many facets of MurphyâÄôs long-running case were highly publicized. Former Star Tribune reporter Paul Gustovson, who covered MurphyâÄôs ordeal almost in its entirety, said he remembers it well. âÄúIt was the longest running case I can recall from when I was at the newspaper,âÄù he said. Multiple Parole Violations Murphy was released from jail in 1999 and sent to Florida to live with a cousin, but returned less than a week later âÄî his cousin couldnâÄôt handle the constant surveillance, court documents said. Murphy was then placed in a Minneapolis halfway house and tracked via GPS, and in February 1999 was arrested for traveling outside his established boundaries and tampering with his GPS device. Murphy returned to prison from March 1999 to August 2000 for that violation. After his release, Murphy ended up in another Minneapolis halfway house, where he remained until he fled to Iowa with a police informant in September 2000, which violated the conditions of his parole. Murphy claims it was a set-up, and that he had to go to the veteransâÄô hospital in Iowa to deal with stress the county was putting on him. âÄúThey were harassing me. Every job I came up with they came up with a reason I couldnâÄôt take it,âÄù Murphy said. âÄúThey gave [the informant] a bait car, and they let me cross the Iowa border so I could violate the conditions of my parole.âÄù Murphy returned to jail from August 2001 to December 2004 for that violation. Murphy then moved to North Dakota and seemingly turned over a new leaf. Murphy was renting a house, passed all of his drug tests, didnâÄôt miss meetings with his parole officer and began volunteering. He volunteered at the local Salvation Army in Moorhead, and volunteered at Moorhead Public Library on occasion, as well as a homeless shelter and Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, court records show. Murphy was arrested in Fargo, North Dakota on June 12, 2005 for eluding a police officer, and then Sept. 24 for hindering and possession of stolen property, as well as providing false information to law enforcement. However, he did not return to prison because he did not tell his probation officer of his violations and authorities in Minnesota did not immediately find out about them. Eventually, a Ramsey County Sheriff stumbled across MurphyâÄôs record and Murphy was arrested on Jan. 6, 2006. âÄúHere I was, able to get work, get my own place, manage to pay my own bills, establish credit âĦâÄù Murphy said. âÄúThe DOC considered me a success, but I guess the judge didnâÄôt.âÄù The drama truly began when a Clay County jail employee mistakenly released Murphy on Jan. 9 and he went missing. Ramsey County deputies, the Fargo Police Department, Clay County police and U.S. Marshals fervently began searching for Murphy in the Fargo area. MurphyâÄôs former victims then went under close supervision in the Twin Cities, which garnered a storm of media coverage. Local television stations and newspapers in North Dakota and Minnesota covered the story and Murphy admits seeing his picture on the news. Yet, he didnâÄôt turn himself in to authorities until more than a month after his release. âÄúWhy should I? I was doing real good,âÄù he said. âÄúIt was a traffic violation. One percent of inmates would turn themselves in in that situation.âÄù Eventually, one month after his release, Murphy turned himself into Clay County jail. âÄúI hear youâÄôve been looking for me,âÄù he reportedly said. According to court transcripts, Murphy was in shock when Judge Gross announced his sentence: âÄúWhat is my sentence?âÄù Murphy asked. âÄúWhat are my total sentences?âÄù âÄúTwenty-seven and a half years,âÄù Gross replied. âÄúThatâÄôs crazy,âÄù Murphy contended. âÄúI should have punctured your tires.âÄù