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Robert Wayne VICKERS

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "
Bonzai Bob"
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Revenge
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: 1978 / 1982
Date of birth: April 29, 1958
Victim profile: Frank Ponciano (inmate) / Buster Holsinger (death row inmate)
Method of murder: Strangulation / Fire
Location: Pinal County, Arizona, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in Arizona on May 4, 1999
 
 

 
 

On March 4, 1982, Vickers was an inmate on death row at the Arizona State in Florence as a result of killing Frank Ponciano.

At around 6:30 p.m., Vickers was out of his cell, allegedly doing clean-up chores. Instead, he went to the cell of Buster Holsinger, another death row inmate. Vickers was upset over an earlier remark Holsinger had made about Vickers' niece. Vickers doused Holsinger and his cell with some Vitalis he had been saving and then threw burning toilet paper on Holsinger, setting him ablaze. Holsinger died as a result of tracheobronchial bums suffered in the resulting flash fire.

PROCEEDINGS

    Presiding Judge: Robert R. Bean (first trial) James E. Don (second trial)
    Prosecutors: Victor Cook (first trial) Barry McNaughton (second trial)
    Start of Trial:  September 28, 1982 (first trial) October 16, 1985 (second trial)
    Verdict: September 29, 1982 (first trial) October 25, 1985 (second trial)
    Sentencing: October 18, 1982 (first trial) April 24, 1986 (second trial)

Aggravating Circumstances    

    Prior convictions punishable by life imprisonment
    Prior convictions involving violence
    Risk of death to others
    Especially heinous/cruel/depraved
    Committed offense while in custody

Mitigating Circumstances

    None

PUBLISHED OPINIONS

    State v. Vickers, 138 Ariz. 450, 675 P.2d 710 (1983).
    State v. Vickers, 159 Ariz. 532, 768 P.2d 1177 (1989).
    Vickers v. Stewart, 144 F.3d 613 (9th Cit. 1998).


Robert Wayne Vickers

Vickers entered Arizona's prison system as a teenager in 1977 after committing 12 burglaries in 13 days in Tempe. He later admitted to 33 more burglaries in California.

His first murder was of inmate Frank Ponciano, whom Vickers sought out as his cellmate because Ponciano had a TV. Angered that Ponciano did not wake him up for lunch and drank his Kool-Aid, Vickers strangled him and stabbed him multiple times with a sharpened toothbrush. He then carved - and misspelled - the Japanese war cry "Bonzai" in Ponciano's back. "Banzai Bob" had been Vickers' nickname in prison.

Vickers burned a cigarette on Ponciano's foot to show a guard he was dead, then said, "'Get this stinking (expletive) out of my cell."

Vickers later told prison psychologist Kent Spillman that he regretted only one thing about the attack: that he didn't have enough time to carve a swastika to dot the 'i' on Ponciano's body.

Vickers had a knack for creating makeshift knives and bombs, which he used to attack more than 11 prison guards.

Vickers also once escaped from death row and climbed atop the roof of Cellblock 6 through a shaft with another inmate. Vickers had managed to short-circuit the electronic locking mechanism on his cell door and left a dummy in his bed.

Once atop the compound, however, the two realized they had no place to go. The outside fence was too far away, and it was too high to jump to the ground below.

The two then did a striptease for a female tower guard before they were caught by other officers rushing to the roof, corrections Officer Jim Robideau said.

On March 4, 1982, Vickers was on death row at the Arizona State Penitentiary in Florence as a result of killing Ponciano. At around 6:30 p.m., he was out of his cell, allegedly doing clean-up chores. Instead, he paid a visit to Wilmar "Buster" Holsinger, another death row inmate. Vickers was upset over an earlier remark Holsinger had made about Vickers' niece.

He had built a firebomb from hair gel and an ice-cream carton, and he used it to torch Holsinger in his cell.

When a guard asked Vickers if Holsinger was dead, Vickers responded, "He should be. He's on fire." Holsinger died as a result of tracheobronchial bums suffered in the resulting flash fire. The attack also nearly killed a half-dozen other inmates from smoke inhalation and forced officials to evacuate death row.

Afterward, Vickers asked investigators, "Did I do a good job? {ellipsis} I told them they should have gassed me in December when they had a chance."

It was not the first time Vickers had demanded death. In a letter the previous year to then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt, he'd written, "So what's the hold up fella?

"If ya don't do it soon, I'm gonna draw more blood than your cheap mops can absorb. I'm a very impatient person, I never did like waiting. I've got a date with the devil's wife."

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Vickers' conviction for the murder of Ponciano, but Vickers remained on death row for the murder of Holsinger.

His violence, ingenuity and flair for the dramatic became known even beyond Arizona when he appeared in a HBO special to show how one can escape from cuffs and chains.

Vickers' defense argued that his violent personality was a construct of the Arizona prison system, which failed to provide him with the psychiatric help he needed as a teen and raised him in a culture of violence. Vickers had a history of epileptic seizures, and psychiatrists said he had a brain disorder that resulted in violent outbursts.

He spent 17 years on death row before his execution.

Sources

Arizona Department of Corrections "Death Row" Web site
"Profiles of Arizona Death Row Inmates," Arizona Attorney General's Office
The Arizona Republic archives


Last Meal

Green Chili Burros - burritos with barbecued steak, french fries and ketchup, vanilla ice cream, cream soda, cigarette.


Robert Wayne Vickers, 41, 99-05-04, Arizona

In Florence, Robert Wayne Vickers, Arizona's longest-serving death row inmate, was executed by injection today for killing a fellow prisoner in 1982.

Vickers lifted his head from the gurney, smiled and nodded at relatives, including his aunt and cousin.

"Hello, everybody," he said. "See you later."

Moments later he mouthed "time to go" to family members.

Deadly chemicals began flowing into his veins at 3:03 p.m. and he was pronounced dead 2 minutes later.

Vickers, 41, of Phoenix, was sentenced to prison at 18 for grand theft. In 1979 he strangled his cellmate, Frank Ponciano, with a bedsheet because he didn't wake him for lunch and because he drank Vickers' Kool-Aid.

Vickers carved "Bonzai," a misspelling of a Japanese war cry, in the victim's back with a sharpened toothbrush, earning him the nickname "Bonzai Bob." Vickers received the death penalty, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Vickers was executed for killing fellow death row inmate Wilmar "Buster" Holsinger in 1982.

Vickers, released from his cell to perform porter duties, had shown Holsinger a photo of his 10-year-old niece. Vickers became enraged after Holsinger made a vulgar remark about the girl and tossed a flaming cup of hair tonic and toilet paper into Holsinger's cell, igniting a flash fire.

Vickers is the only Arizona inmate sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate.

Vickers' attorneys claimed Vickers suffered from mental problems dating to a boyhood spent in foster homes where he was sexually molested and beaten. They also claimed the attack on Holsinger was not premeditated and did not deserve the death penalty.

Prosecutors called Vickers "shockingly evil." He was double-jointed and could escape from any handcuffs, and he once crawled through ventilation ducts to the prison roof before he was recaptured.

The slightly built Vickers was a macho braggart who threatened to carve the name of the judge who overturned his original death sentence into his next victim. Several officers and inmates were stabbed, shot or assaulted with some of the dozens of makeshift weapons he crafted from everyday items like toothbrushes and typewriter parts.

Vickers eventually became so dangerous that he was housed alone in a 4-cell block reserved for the most violent prisoners.

Vickers becomes the 5th condemned inmate to be put to death in Arizona this year, the most since 5 prisoners were gassed in 1943. It was the 17th execution in the state since they were resumed there on April 6, 1992.

(sources: The Arizona Republic & Rick Halperin)


Robert VICKERS

Frank Ponciano was the cellmate of Robert Vickers and was strangled with a knotted bed sheet because he had failed to awaken Vickers at lunchtime and also drank his Kool-Aid.

After strangling Ponciano, Vickers then used a sharpened toothbrush to stab him six times and carve his name into the dead inmate's back. 

A corrections officer realized Ponciano was dead under the covers of his bunk when Ponciano didn't react to the lighted cigar Vickers shoved into the sole of the Ponciano's foot. Vickers had called the officer to his cell to remove the victim.

They had been cellmates less than 2 weeks. Ponciano had been serving a life term for a Coconino County murder. Before killing Ponciano, Vickers had received an additional 10-15 sentence for stabbing another inmate.

After being sent to death row for Ponciano's murder, Vickers killed Buster Holsinger, a fellow death row inmate, by fire-bombing his cell. Vickers started the fire with an incendiary device he created by pouring five bottles of Vitalis into an empty ice cream container, stuffing a tissue inside and lighting it. Immediately preceding the burning,

Vickers had shown to Holsinger a letter and drawing from his niece. This elicited an obscene comment from Holsinger about the niece. Holsinger asked Vickers if he had ever performed a sex act on her.

Vickers at the time was on clean up-duty in the central area of a "pod" containing four death row cells. Vickers returned to his cell, made the incendiary device and repeatedly splashed the burning liquid into Holsinger's cell while the prison guard was absent from the pod emptying trash.

When the firebomb failed to generate enough flames to engulf the obese and disabled Holsinger fast enough, Vickers doused him with more hair tonic. 

In addition to killing Holsinger, the other occupants of the pod suffered from smoke inhalation from the fire. After pulling Vickers from the pod area, a guard asked him what had happened and he replied "I burned Buster." When asked whether Buster was dead, Vickers stated, "he should be, he is on fire."

Holsinger died as a result of tracheobronchial. burns suffered in the resulting flash fire.  Vickers has at all times acknowledged that he caused the fire and the death.

He later sent a letter to the medical examiner asking if Holsinger looked and smelled like a burnt piece of toast. Vickers asked for a quick execution in 1981, 3 years after he murdered Ponciano.  "I told my lawyer & attorney General to pull my appeals and gas me," he wrote to Bruce Babbitt, then governor. "I know it don't take to long to do that, so whats the hold up fella?' If ya don't do it soon, i'm gonna draw more blood then your cheap mop's can absorb."  

In 1982, after a federal judge granted him a stay of execution, Vickers burned Holsinger to death. 

17 hours before Vickers was to die in the gas chamber, then-U.S. District Judge Carl Muecke in Phoenix granted him a stay of execution. He ruled that Vickers and another inmate scheduled to die then were covered under a 1980 moratorium on executions. 

Hours after the ruling, Vickers told reporters that he hoped someone "snuffs Judge Muecke's momma" and that he would carve the judge's name on his next victim. He has crafted weapons out of virtually anything - toothbrushes, newspapers, plastic foam - and used them whenever he had the chance. 

The door of his cell was covered with a thick layer of plastic to keep him from throwing bodily waste or stabbing at those who walked by.  It wasn't a violent crime that brought Vickers to the Arizona State Prison in Florence in 1977.

He was 19 when he was sentenced to 3 to 9 years for a Tempe burglary. But Vickers, who was 1st arrested in the 6th grade, walked into the prison with a history of violence.

He had gained a reputation at the Catalina Mountain School north of Tucson for stabbing other boys with pencils, and would be convicted in 1978 of a jailhouse stabbing that would add 10 to 15 years to his original sentence.

At the time Vickers said he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and attacked the inmate because he was black.   Vickers - who turned 41 recently - has spent the most time on death row of the state's current 118 condemned prisoners.

He is the only one set to die for murdering other inmates.  Vickers' voluminous prison file is filled with 2 decades of disciplinary reports, from asking corrections officers to slip him some cigarettes to attacks on guards and other inmates. 

Vickers and another inmate tried to escape in 1980, squeezing through the ventilation system to reach the prison roof, where they were captured.  His file shows that Vickers has easily slipped out of handcuffs by either squeezing through them or using handcuff keys he has made out of plastic lighters. 

Far more of the disciplinary reports document the confiscation of weapons - mostly "shanks" - he has fashioned from an assortment of items, including the leg of a metal locker, a scrap of steel, toothbrushes and plastic foam he melted, then hardened into a knife to attack inmates and jailers.

In June 1986, Vickers stabbed a corrections officer in the ribs with a spear. He made it from a sharpened piece of metal from a typewriter and a 30-inch handle he'd made out of newspapers.  Vickers is so dangerous that until he was moved last month to a special holding cell to await his execution, he was housed in a pod for the most violent on death row.  The pod also houses Robert Charles Comer, on death row for the 1987 killing of a camper at Apache Lake and the rape of another there. 

No relatives have contacted the Corrections Department regarding the execution, officials said late last week. Vickers still uses a swastika to dot the "i" in letters he signs "Bonzai Bob." It is a nickname he earned in prison for his vicious attacks, some of which he readily admits to prison officials occurred solely because the victims were black. 

Yet some of his letters are decorated with smiley faces, and one 1988 letter to a Corrections captain asking for contact visits with a lady friend is written on stationery bordered with flowers and a Bambi-like wilderness scene.  Vickers' letter to the governor's office didn't end with his 1981 request for a swift execution.

In 1983, he again wrote Babbitt, asking that he be executed quickly so he could donate his heart to a Fort Huachuca boy who needed a transplant. The boy died a day before Babbitt's office received the letter. At the time, a doctor said the heart of a person killed in the gas chamber would be unsuitable for transplant.

Another letter to the governor that same year asks for permission to wear a 3-piece suit when he is executed. "I wanna die dressed," he wrote. "Gonna be some ladies there. I don't want to go nude or in state clothes." He also asked that his last meal be prepared by a woman. Neither request will be granted Wednesday.


SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: S MOTIVE: PC-argument

MO: Slayer of fellow prison inmates in separate incidents.

DISPOSITION: Condemned, 1978; condemned 1982.


U.S. Supreme Court

497 U.S. 1033

Robert Wayne VICKERS, petitioner
v.
ARIZONA.

No. 88-7629.

Case below, 138 Ariz. 450, 675 P.2d 710; 159 Ariz. 532, 768 P.2d 1177.

June 28, 1990.

The petition for a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is denied.

Rehearing Denied Aug. 30, 1990.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

Adhering to my view that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 231 , 2973, 49 L. Ed.2d 859 (1976) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), I would grant the petition for certiorari and vacate the death penalty in this case. Even if I did not hold this view, I would grant the petition to decide whether the Constitution requires a State to provide an indigent defendant access to diagnostic testing necessary to prepare an effective defense based on his mental condition, when the defendant demonstrates that his sanity at the time of the offense will be a significant issue at trial. I believe that our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), compels us to answer that question in the affirmative.

Petitioner Robert Wayne Vickers was convicted of murdering a prison inmate and sentenced to death. His only defense at trial was insanity.

Specifically, Vickers claimed that he suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, a brain disorder that can cause violent behavior and render a person unable to appreciate the nature and wrongfulness of his acts.

Vickers' court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Bindelglas, determined, after a lengthy interview and an exhaustive review of Vickers' medical records, that Vickers suffered from "definite dissociative reactions" possibly due to temporal lobe epilepsy. App. to Pet. for Cert. B-7.

Dr. Bindelglas based his opinion on Vickers' history of cerebral trauma and seizures, neurological deficits reported by a psychologist when Vickers was a child, improvement in Vickers' condition when he was placed on anti-convulsive and psychotropic medications and reversion when he was taken off the medication, and an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG) performed four years before the murder. Ibid.

Dr. Bindelglas further opined that Vickers probably was in a dissociative state at the time of the offense, which made him "incapable of rendering any judgement and . . . unable to know right from wrong." Id., at B-9. Dr. Bindelglas stated that he could not make a definitive diagnosis, however, without certain neuropsychological testing. Ibid.

Based on Dr. Bindelglas' recommendation, petitioner requested that the trial court provide access to diagnostic testing. Petitioner included with his request an affidavit from a second psychiatrist, Dr. David Bear, who, after reviewing petitioner's records and examining him for five hours, agreed that there was a "substantial possibility" that Vickers suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which may have impaired his ability to " appreciate the quality and nature of the act and its wrongfulness." Id., at C-4, C-9.

Dr. Bear also stated that diagnostic testing, including a careful neurological examination and multiple EEG's, was necessary "before professional judgment can be rendered regarding Mr. Vickers' mental state at the time of the subject offense."

In addition, the state's own expert, Dr. Maier Tuchler, testified at petitioner's competency hearing that diagnostic testing was necessary to determine definitely whether Vickers suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Finally, petitioner supplied the court with the affidavits of two other psychiatrists who testified that strong evidence indicated that Vickers suffered from a mental disorder which impaired his capacity to make rational judgments, but that diagnostic testing was necessary before a firm conclusion could be reached . App. to Pet. for Cert. D and E.

Despite the consensus of these medical experts that diagnostic testing was necessary, the court denied petitioner's request. The court relied on a two-paragraph letter from a psychiatrist appointed at the State's request, Dr. William Masland.

Dr. Masland concluded, on the basis of a quick review of petitioner's medical records, conversations with prisoners and prison staff, and a brief interview with Vickers, that " there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this man is epileptic" and that "further diagnostic testing . . . would be totally superfluous." Id., at F.

The court refused to reconsider its order after receiving additional affidavits from Dr. Bindelglas and Dr. Bear and two neurologists that vehemently contested Dr. Masland's opinion and reemphasized the need for diagnostic testing.

Because of the lack of diagnostic testing, Dr. Bindelglas could testify at trial only that there was a "definite probability" of temporal lobe epilepsy. 159 Ariz. 532, 536, 768 P.2d 1177, 1181 (1989). Before sentencing, petitioner again requested diagnostic testing to establish the brain disorder as a mitigating circumstance; again the court denied his motion.

The Arizona Supreme Court rejected petitioner's argument that the State violated due process by denying him an adequate opportunity to prove his insanity defense. Ibid. The court reasoned that the requested testing would have been expensive and would have posed a "burdensome security problem." Id., at 537, 768 P.2d, at 1182. The court also claimed that nothing indicated that testing would have helped petitioner prove his insanity defense. Ibid.

In Ake v. Oklahoma, supra, at 83, this Court held that when an indigent "defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense." (Emphasis added.)

The right to a competent psychiatrist necessarily includes the right to have the State provide the psychiatrist with the tools he requires to conduct an adequate examination and evaluation of the defendant. To hold otherwise is analogous to requiring the State to provide an indigent defendant with an attorney, but not requiring it to pay for the attorney's legal research expenses.

This is not to say that an indigent defendant is entitled to every scientific procedure that has only a remote possibility of bolstering his defense. Thus, we recognized in Ake that "the Court has not held that a State must purchase for the indigent defendant all the assistance that his wealthier counterpart might buy." 470 U.S., at 77 ( citing Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600 (1974 )).

But when a defendant demonstrates that his sanity will be a significant issue at trial, and his psychiatrist makes a plausible showing that certain testing is necessary for him to perform his Ake function, that testing must be considered one of "the raw materials integral to the building of an effective defense" that the State must provide. 470 U.S., at 77 .

Petitioner undoubtedly satisfied the threshold requirements. First, his sanity was a significant factor in his defense. Vickers' "sole defense was that of insanity," id., 470 U.S., at 86 , and six experts testified that there was a substantial possibility that Vickers suffered from a mental disorder at the time of the offense that might have impaired his capacity to understand the nature of his actions.

Indeed, the trial court's appointment of Dr. Bindelglas itself shows that petitioner's sanity was a significant issue. Second, Vickers' court- appointed psychiatrist established that testing was necessary for him to perform his Ake role adequately. Dr. Bindelglas stated in the clearest terms that he could not make a definitive diagnosis without specific testing. App. to Pet. for Cert. B-9.

Six other medical experts, including the State's expert, Dr. Tuchler, affirmed the need for testing. Pet. for Cert. 7. Without such testing, Dr. Bindelglas could offer only a tentative opinion at trial. Clearly, then, Dr. Bindelglas' ability to contribute to petitioner's defense was impaired unreasonably by the State's refusal to provide access to diagnostic testing.

The trial court's reliance on Dr. Masland's opinion that testing would be superfluous-an opinion not shared by any of the other doctors- does not justify its denial of access to testing. Ake requires the appointment of a psychiatrist who will assist in the preparation of the defense, not one who will merely give an independent assessment to the judge or jury. 470 U.S., at 83 .

Although a judge or jury may choose to believe the State's experts rather than the defendant's at trial, a court may not permit the State's experts to determine what resources the defendant's experts may use. To allow such a veto power is akin to permitting a prosecutor to decide on what cases defense counsel may rely or what witnesses he may call. As long as the defendant makes the threshold showing of the need for testing, the court must provide access to it.

The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision in part on the assumption that the necessary testing would have to be performed out of state and would last four to six weeks, thus imposing substantial costs on the State and creating a security problem. 159 Ariz., at 537, 768 P.2d, at 1182.

The court based this assumption on Dr. Bindelglas' request that Vickers be tested in a California hospital "if at all possible" because the Arizona State Hospital might have been prejudiced in favor of its previous diagnosis and might not perform the job adequately. App. to Pet. for Cert. B-9.

The trial court, however, never sought a compromise; it refused to provide for testing altogether. Any problem posed by sending Vickers to California is a red herring, then, to the extent that less burdensome testing would have satisfied the State's obligation. If, however, the testing procedure suggested by Dr. Bindelglas was in fact the only adequate means of arriving at a medically sound diagnosis, the burden on the State does not justify denying that testing. As we held in Ake, the State's interest in preserving its fisc is not substantial when compared with the compelling interest of both the defendant and the State in the fair and accurate adjudication of a criminal case, particularly one in which the defendant's life is at stake. 470 U.S., at 78 -79-1094.

Finally, the Arizona high court maintained that further testing was of "questionable value" to petitioner's insanity defense and that the risk of an erroneous judgment was minimal because three state experts testified that Vickers was not insane at the time of the offense. 159 Ariz., at 537, 768 P.2d, at 1182.

This reasoning wrongly subjects Ake claims to harmless error analysis. In Ake, we did not endeavor to determine whether the petitioner's case had been prejudiced by the lack of a psychiatrist. Rather, we determined that, in general, psychiatric assistance is of extreme importance in cases involving an insanity defense, id., at 79-82-1096, and that without that assistance "the risk of an inaccurate resolution of sanity issues is extremely high," id., at 82. Because the petitioner had made the threshold showing that his sanity was a significant issue at trial and the State had failed to offer psychiatric assistance, we reversed and remanded for a new trial.

In this case, then, the trial testimony of the State's experts is irrelevant. Vickers' sanity was a significant issue at trial and testing was necessary for his psychiatrist to perform his Ake function. Because the trial court nevertheless refused to require the State to provide access to the requisite testing, Vickers is entitled to a new trial.

Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma recognized the right of an indigent defendant to a competent court-appointed psychiatrist when his sanity is seriously in question. To deprive a defendant of diagnostic testing necessary for the psychiatrist to perform adequately his Ake function renders that right meaningless. I therefore dissent from the denial of certiorari.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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