Stephen Lich was a college student when his father, Glen Ernst Lich, 48, was murdered in October 1997 by Ramiro Hernandez Llanas, a 28-year-old Mexican laborer. The crime took place at the family’s home, near Kerrville. In 2000 Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to death. When, early this year, the convict was given an execution date, Lich, now a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chose to attend. But the decision filled him with anxiety and dread—as well as curiosity. What would it be like to witness the death of the man who slew his father? What follows, in Lich’s own words, is an account of how he came to terms with his decision—and what he saw on April 9, when Hernandez was put to death.
Warning: The following contains profanity and descriptions of graphic violence.
I’ll never, ever, ever forget October 15, 1997. In my memory, it’s as vivid as anything I did earlier today. I was living in an apartment in College Station, and the phone rang at about three in the morning. Kerr County sheriff Frances Kaiser identified herself. She put my mother on the phone. My mother was sobbing hysterically. “Daddy’s been killed. We think he’s dead.” My first thought: What kind of accident were my parents in that killed him but she survived? Then Sheriff Kaiser took the phone back, and she told me the general details. My mother was robbed and attacked. They assumed the body behind the house was my father, but it had been beaten so badly the face was not recognizable.
A suspect had been caught, and his name was Ramiro Hernandez Llanas. Back in August my father had hired a carpenter to work on the house, and Hernandez was his assistant. I never met either of them because I had already gone back to school. But apparently there were some problems with the carpentry job, and in September my father fired the carpenter—quite angrily. Of course, Hernandez was out of a job then too. He showed up at my parents’ house a couple of weeks later, in early October, and said he was looking for work. My father said that he couldn’t hire him because of his illegal status, but he could at least offer him a place to stay and food, in exchange for help with some odd jobs. My father didn’t hold any grudge against Hernandez for the carpentry mistakes; in fact, he praised Hernandez for his strength (he was a big guy) and gave him the nickname El Toro. Hernandez slept in a barn, where the tools were kept.
On the night of October 14, he lured my father outside, claiming there was a problem with the generator. Hernandez beat him to death with a heavy metal bar that’s usually used for cracking rocks—bashed in his skull like a pumpkin. Then he went inside the house, took jewelry and money and raped my mother at knifepoint. I’m certain that he intended to kill her too. But through some miracle—which we’ll never explain—he fell asleep just long enough for my mother to break free.
It was horrible. The sheriff’s office arranged for a cleaning crew on the morning after my father was killed. Even so, spots of blood were still on the rocks outside the shed. Blood and gray gunk and flakes of bone were stuck between the floorboards. After his funeral, I spent the afternoon trying to scrub it out. It was my twenty-first birthday.
My father was an impressive and ambitious person. He was born and raised in the Hill Country and wound up having dual careers—one as an academic and another in military and government service. In his academic career, he went from being an assistant professor at Schreiner College, where he was the authority on the German Texans of the Hill Country, to holding a distinguished professorship in German Canadian studies at the University of Winnipeg.
He volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1972 and started as a buck private and a specialist in Eastern European languages. During summer breaks from teaching he worked as an army reservist and rose to the rank of colonel. He served as a military attaché and later as a diplomat. His team established a partnership with the Romanian military shortly after the Ceausescu government fell—a partnership that led directly to Romania’s membership in NATO.
My father was always proud to be a Texan, no matter where he was working. He once wrote a piece called “Texas Pissing” in his travel journal, about how, whenever he’d travel abroad, he’d go outside and urinate on the ground, marking his territory with a map of Texas. It represents the image he liked to portray: crass, yet intellectual; a Texas country boy at heart, while serving as a diplomat in Eastern Europe.
In 1993 he quit the academic life and retired to a mountaintop between Kerrville and Medina with a stunning view of the Hill Country. My brother and I helped my parents build a home there, one room at a time. We built a hydraulic ram to bring water up from a creek; we built a septic system. My father wouldn’t let the electric company spoil his view by putting power lines up his hill, so he and my mother lived without electricity, except for a generator that they ran for a few hours each day to charge some batteries, print papers, and send or receive faxes. He kept busy doing some work for the government, and he did consulting under the name Hill Country Institute.
He was hard on people. He was determined and demanding. His expectations were very high, especially for my brother and me. I don’t think he understood adolescents; he expected us to be intellectually mature from birth. He never understood why someone would want to read Stephen King books instead of classic or modern literature.
Though the two of us butted heads over the years, in the summer