Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 17, 1987
Date of birth: 1961
Victim profile: John Martin Etchemendy, Jr.
Method of murder: Beating with a pipe
Location: Custer County, Montana, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 24, 1988. Commuted to life in prison, 1995

Vern Kills On Top

No A27177

Montana State Prison
Deer Lodge, Montana

...Year of Birth


...Marital Status




...Date of offense

October 17, 1987

...Sentenced to death

June 24, 1988


sentence reduced from the death penalty to two life sentences with no parole

Vern Kills On Top was convicted with his brother Lester of the murder of John Martin Etchemendy, whom they met at a bar in Miles City, Montana. On the pretense of helping Etchemendy to find his car, the two men had offered him a ride. Later, forcing him into the trunk of their car, they drove him south to Gillette, Wyoming. There Vern went to a bar, while Lester & a friend drove out of town with Etchemendy still in the trunk. The body was found in a rural area 20 miles south of Gillette.

Montana is a land of beautiful scenery, but we were not there for the ambiance. We crossed railroad tracks, passed a decrepit grain silo & abandoned trucks. The flat, open badlands stretched on that rainsoaked day to the prison's front gates.

Vern Kills On Top stepped out of the shadows at the end of his cellblock & shuffled forward, arms & legs hobbled by chains. As he came closer I could make out Indian features: round face, broad nose, raven-colored hair.

Native American culture clashes with contemporary society; outsiders are invariably suspect. From the moment he entered the cramped, makeshift canteen to the end of our visit hours later, Vern Kills On Top had little to say. I am rarely at ease when I meet residents of death row, & Vern made no effort to make it easier. His eyes darted around the dirty little room, following intently every move we made. When my assistant, Ken MacEwen, walked behind him, Vern's head swiveled like an owl's. Everything distracted him.

I tried to coax Vern by relating childhood experiences-summer on the farm riding horses. He matched me experience for experience, but never relaxed & opened up. I never did figure out whether it was his indigenous side or his prison facade that was frustrating me.

I persevered. Slowly, something began to change. Though the only voice I heard was Courtney Bent's, each hush became a kind of speech. By his silence, he told me about the chasm between us. The silence was his message.

Slowly I began to understand, or at least make some sense of it. Prison had reduced Vern's voice to a single note-suspicion. Native Americans have always been wary of photographs; maybe their suspicions are well founded. I respected the cultural distance. We had to piece together whatever fragments he involuntarily revealed.

Courtney was so taken with Cheyenne lore that she asked the authorities if they could bring Vern back, so we could record his dialect. Vern was as surprised as we were when permission was granted. Self-consciously, he spoke the beautiful Cheyenne words into our microphone.

We walked out of Vern's windowless night. He was our last inmate; the project was "done." I knew I would never come back.



Vern Kills On Top



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