SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Rodney Berget lives in a single cell on South Dakota’s death row, rarely leaving the tiny room where he awaits execution for bludgeoning a prison guard to death with a pipe during an attempted escape.
For Berget’s immediate family, his fate is somewhat familiar. He is the second member of the clan to be sentenced to death. His older brother was convicted in 1987 of killing a man for his car. Roger Berget spent 13 years on Oklahoma’s death row until his execution in 2000 at age 39.
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The Bergets are not the first pair of siblings to be condemned. Record books reveal at least three cases of brothers who conspired to commit crimes and both got the death penalty. But these two stand out because their crimes were separated by more than 600 miles and 25 years.
“To have it in different states in different crimes is some sort of commentary on the family there,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty trends.
The siblings’ journey from the poverty of their South Dakota childhood to stormy, crime-ridden adult lives shows the far-reaching effects of a damaged upbringing — and the years of havoc wrought by two men who developed what the courts called a wanton disregard for human life.
Rodney Berget is scheduled to die later this year, potentially ending the odyssey that began when the two boys were born into a family that already had four kids.
A former prison principal described Rodney as a “throwaway kid” who never had a chance at a productive life. A lawyer for Roger recalled him as an “ugly duckling” with little family support.
The boys were born after the family moved from their failed farm in rural South Dakota to Aberdeen, a city about 20 miles away. Roger arrived in 1960. Rodney came along two years later.
His farming dreams dashed, patriarch Benford Berget went to work for the state highway department. Rosemary Berget took a night job as a bar manager at the local Holiday Inn.
The loss of the farm and the new city life seemed to strain the family and the couple’s marriage. When the family moved to town, “things kind of fell apart,” Bonnie Engelhart, the eldest Berget sibling, testified in 1987.
Benford Berget, away on business, was rarely around. When he was home, he drank and become physically abusive, lawyers for the brothers later said.
By the 1970s, the couple divorced, and Roger and Rodney started getting into trouble. Roger skipped school. Rodney started stealing. Soon, they were taking cars. Both went to prison for the first time as teens.
Roger Berget enjoyed a rare period of freedom in 1982 and met a woman while hitchhiking. The two started a relationship, and the woman gave birth to a child the next year. But Roger didn’t get to see his son often because he was soon behind bars again, this time in Oklahoma. And for a far more sinister crime.
Roger and a friend named Michael Smith had decided to steal a random car from outside an Oklahoma City grocery store. The two men spotted 33-year-old Rick Patterson leaving the store on an October night in 1985. After abducting him at gunpoint, they put Patterson in the trunk and concluded he would have to be killed to prevent him from identifying his captors.
They drove the car to a deserted spot outside the city and shot Patterson in the back of the head and neck, blowing away the lower half of his face.
A year later, Berget pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death on March 12, 1987. An appeals court threw out a death sentence for Smith, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Less than three months after Roger was sentenced to death, Rodney Berget, then 25 and serving time for grand theft and escape, joined five other inmates in breaking out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
The men greased their bodies with lotion, slipped through a hole in an air vent and then cut through window bars in an auto body shop at the prison. Berget was a fugitive for more than a month.
Thirteen years passed before Roger Berget was executed by lethal injection on June 8, 2000. His younger brother was still in prison in South Dakota.
But the good days were numbered because a year later, he was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and kidnapping. He headed back to the South Dakota State Penitentiary — this time for good.
Then Rodney got to talking with a fellow inmate named Eric Robert about a goal they shared: to escape — or die trying.
The plan was months in the making. The inmates figured they would corner a solitary guard — any guard would do — and beat him with a pipe before covering his face with plastic wrap.
Once the guard was dead, Robert would put on the dead man’s uniform and push a box with Berget inside as the prison gates opened for a daily delivery. The two would slip through the walls unnoticed.
On the morning of April 12, 2011, the timing seemed perfect. Ronald “R.J.” Johnson was alone in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Johnson wasn’t supposed to be working that day — it was his 63rd birthday. But he agreed to come in because of a scheduling change.
After attacking Johnson, Robert and Berget made it outside one gate. But they were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through the second gate. Both pleaded guilty.
In a statement to a judge, Rodney acknowledged he deserved to die.
“I knew what I was doing, and I continued to do it,” Berget said. “I destroyed a family. I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa.”
His execution, scheduled for September, is likely to be delayed to allow the State Supreme Court time to conduct a mandatory review.
Rodney Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson, has declined to comment on the case outside of court. Rodney did not respond to letters sent to the penitentiary.
The few members of the Berget family who survive are reluctant to talk about how seemingly normal boys turned into petty criminals and then into convicted killers of the rarest kind: brothers sentenced to death.
Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said some families of the condemned remain involved in appeals. But others see no reason to preserve connections.
“There’s no light at the end of it,” he said. “What happens at the end is execution.”