Episode 087: Barbara & Gordon Erickstad

August 14, 2023

When a couple is brutally murdered in their home, investigators embark on a nationwide manhunt for those responsible. Who killed the Erickstads?

Episode Media
Barbara and Gordon Erickstad (Dakota Spotlight)
Wanted poster for Brian Erickstad and Robert Lawrence (Dakota Spotlight)
Michelle and Aimee Werner in 1998 (Bismarck Tribune)
Erickstad home on Laredo Drive (Dakota Spotlight)
House on E Sweet Avenue where Brian and Robert spent most of their time (Google Maps)
Gordon’s 1998 tan Chevy pickup
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a truly tragic case, one that somehow didn’t receive much attention outside of its small town. This episode discusses sensitive topics and includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

On the morning of September 18, 1998, a young woman walked into a police station in Bismarck, North Dakota. She told the officer at the desk that she thought her boyfriend may have killed his parents. She then provided an address – 245 Laredo Drive.

Officers immediately responded to the scene, armed and ready, unsure of what they would find inside the quaint wood-sided home. But before they even made it through the door, they knew something was terribly wrong. Blood stained the driveway, and there were bloody drag marks leading from the garage to the entryway.

It only got more gruesome once police entered the home. The house was a disaster – there were papers scattered on the countertops, broken glass on the floor, signs of a struggle everywhere. The drag marks continued throughout the house, leading officers to the upstairs hallway where there were multiple pools of blood soaking the carpet. In the main bedroom, the mattress was leaned up against the wall and all the drawers had been pulled out from the dresser. In the kitchen sink were three knives – a large chef’s knife, a smaller filet knife, and a knife that had been broken in half, pieces missing from its tip. All three were covered in blood.

But it was what wasn’t there that caused officers the most alarm – the owners of the home, Gordon and Barbara Erickstad, were nowhere to be seen.

The Bismarck Police Department immediately put up barricades along Laredo Drive, blocking off the usually quiet street while they tried to determine what had happened inside that house. They quickly obtained a search warrant and began collecting evidence, pulling up carpet, bagging the bloody knives, and carefully preserving bloody sheets and clothing that had been left at the scene. Court records show that investigators inventoried five pages worth of evidence from the home that day.

At the same time, detectives canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and speaking with residents. Based on these conversations, they soon determined that the Erickstads hadn’t been seen in nearly 36 hours. Usually Barbara and Gordon were very visible – chatting with neighbors or working in their yard. But one resident noted that the house had been oddly quiet for the past few nights. Another added that the outside porch light had been left on since Wednesday – two days earlier. In addition to that, both of the Erickstads’ cars – Gordon’s 1998 Chevy pickup and Barbara’s 1990 Cadillac – were missing from the garage.

The totality of the information and the bloody scene in front of them told detectives that the Erickstads had likely been victims of a violent attack.

Barbara and Gordon had met in 1969 in Fargo, North Dakota. Barbara was a recent graduate from Dakota Business College; Gordon was a Korean War veteran and member of the Army National Guard. They married in January of 1970 and had two daughters, Michelle in 1971 and Stacey in 1974. Six years later, they adopted a baby boy who they named Brian.

The Erickstad family moved around a few times with the National Guard, but eventually settled in the capital city of Bismarck. Barbara and Gordon worked hard to build a life for their children, and the three siblings grew up happy and loved. The Erickstads were respected in the community, and everyone spoke highly of them.

By the late 1990s, retirement was on the horizon. Gordon had been with the National Guard for over 30 years, and Barbara’s career in finance had been rewarding. The couple were looking forward to spending even more time with their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

So now, as detectives surveyed the bloody scene at the Erickstad home, they knew they had to act fast to find Barbara and Gordon and track down the person or persons who had committed this horrible crime.

Thankfully, investigators already had a solid lead – the young woman at the station that morning had said that she believed her boyfriend, Brian Erickstad, had killed his parents. And Brian’s lengthy criminal record seemed to support that theory.

Although Brian had had a happy childhood, he struggled with the fact that he was adopted, wondering why his birth mother had abandoned him and feeling terrified that it would happen again. As he approached his teenage years, Brian’s life started to unravel. At just 12 years old, Brian was arrested for shoplifting and carrying a concealed weapon. By 13, Brian was drinking alcohol and smoking weed. At 15, he was arrested for possession, and soon he was running away from home, drinking every weekend, and getting high on meth, prescription pills, and PCP. He was eventually sent to a rehab center 50 miles from home where he managed to stay clean for an entire year, but soon, he had fallen back in with the same crowd as before, and his life became solely focused on his drug habit. When Brian turned 18 in 1998, he started being charged as an adult for his criminal offenses.

But through it all, Gordon and Barbara stuck by his side, believing that their son could still turn his life around. They loved him dearly, no matter how much heartbreak he brought them.

Unfortunately, it now appeared as though Brian had committed the ultimate act of betrayal. The manhunt was on.

The Bismarck Police Department and the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Office partnered with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation to issue an all-points bulletin for 18-year-old Brian John Erickstad. He was believed to be traveling in his father’s tan-colored Chevy pickup with his friend and accomplice, 27-year-old Robert Ray Lawrence.

Robert Lawrence had a criminal record even more extensive than Brian’s. He had multiple convictions in Texas and North Dakota – everything from felonies to misdemeanors. In August of 1998, Robert was released from the state penitentiary after serving six months for giving false information to law enforcement, but he failed to contact his parole officer after being released, so a warrant was issued for his arrest on September 11, just one week before police showed up at the Erickstad home.

According to court documents, Brian and Robert had committed crimes together in the past, and witnesses spotted them several times on September 17th, driving Gordon’s pickup around Bismarck. Police were confident that Brian and Robert had worked together to murder Brian’s parents and were now on the run.

On September 18th, just hours after police discovered the bloody crime scene, Barbara’s blue Cadillac was found abandoned in a sunflower field in Cass County, three hours east of Bismarck. The car had some damage to the front end, leading investigators to believe that Brian and Robert had gotten into an accident, dumped the Cadillac, then continued on together in the pickup. The Cadillac was towed back to Bismarck and taken to the state crime lab for processing, while detectives continued to track the fugitives on their escape across the country.

At the same time, investigators were desperately searching for Barbara and Gordon. Then, they had a stroke of luck: Another young woman came forward with information. She knew where the bodies were.

As darkness fell on the evening of September 18, 1998, authorities searched a wooded area in Selfridge, North Dakota, a small town on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Just 500 feet from the highway, the bodies of Barbara and Gordon Erickstad lay among a row of trees. Streaks of blood smeared the grass nearby.

Investigators roped off the area and lights were brought in to allow crime scene technicians to collect evidence in the dark. It was clear from the start that the Erickstads had been victims of a brutal attack. The autopsies would later show that Gordon had been stabbed over 30 times, penetrating his skull and severing his spinal cord. Pieces of a knife were still stuck in his head. Barbara had been stabbed repeatedly as well, but the fatal wound had been a cut to her throat.

At this point, the hunt for Brian and Robert had ramped up. Investigators got a warrant for the Erickstads’ bank information, and they were able to track transactions on Gordon’s credit card as the men traveled from North Dakota all the way to Texas.

On the night of Sunday, September 20th, a sheriff’s deputy working an off-duty security job in Grand Prairie, Texas, noticed something odd at the apartment complex he was monitoring. The deputy watched as a tan pickup pulled into the parking lot and a woman got out of the passenger seat. As she began talking to some people standing nearby, two men also got out and began drinking beer as they leaned up against the truck. The area was well-known for drug trafficking, and the deputy had a bad feeling about the situation unfolding in front of him.

The deputy called for backup, then pulled his vehicle around and blocked the truck from leaving. He noticed that the pickup had North Dakota license plates. He approached the two men and began asking routine questions, trying to determine what their business was in Grand Prairie. He had a feeling that they hadn’t told him their real names or their real reason for being in Texas, but the deputy kept his cool and waited for backup to arrive. By 11:30pm, the two men were in the custody of the Grand Prairie Police Department and had admitted to being the wanted fugitives from North Dakota – Brian Erickstad and Robert Lawrence.

Brian and Robert were each charged with two counts of murder, one count of conspiracy to commit murder, and three counts of felony theft. But investigators still had a long road ahead of them to make sure this case made it to trial.

While Texas and North Dakota worked out the extradition arrangements, detectives in Bismarck were digging into the strange relationship between Brian and Robert and the drug-fueled subculture they were a part of. And much of it took place at 701 East Sweet Avenue.

The small house on Sweet Avenue was occupied by Pam Stockert, her boyfriend Daniel Raywalt, and Pam’s four teenage children – 19-year-old Michelle, 17-year-old twins Aimee and Ryan, and 15-year-old Naomi. The teens lived in the basement apartment, the perfect space for hanging out with friends and doing drugs away from the watchful eyes of adults. Sometimes they even took in other teenagers who had run away from home and brought them into their circle.

Brian Erickstad and Robert Lawrence were frequent visitors to the basement; in the fall of 1998, Brian was dating Aimee and Robert was dating Michelle. Most reports indicate that the couples had only known each other for a few months, but their bonds were strong.

Robert, who was a good decade older than the rest of the crew, had become a kind of leader to the teens. Aimee told the Bismarck Tribune that she looked up to Robert, that she thought of him as a father figure. Even Pam gave up trying to get her children to listen to her, hoping that Robert would be able to control them, but Robert Lawrence was anything but a good influence. However, everybody said that they’d never seen Robert get violent – when he got drunk or high, he just got stupid, not mean.

For Brian, Robert was like a big brother, someone who understood him. But rather than leading him down the right path, Robert and Brian began getting in trouble together.

According to Aimee, Brian’s parents knew that he was spending most of his time in the basement apartment on Sweet Avenue. They didn’t impose many rules on him once he turned 18, but they always made sure he had what he needed. Gordon and Barbara would stop by the apartment to drop off money or clothes for Brian and to remind him to show up for his court appearances. Even Daniel Raywalt noticed their commitment to their son. “His parents care a lot about him. That was a loving family. They did everything right.”

But in the days leading up to their deaths, the tension between the Erickstads and their only son was growing. According to Raywalt, Brian had been stealing checks from his parents, and Gordon had threatened to turn him in to police. Raywalt told the Tribune that it must have been a huge amount of money for Gordon to be so upset.

Whether this was the catalyst for the Erickstads’ murder, we may never know, but in the months following Brian and Robert’s arrest, investigators were able to put together a timeline of events based on witness statements and evidence analysis.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 16th, Brian decided to officially move into the basement apartment on Sweet Avenue. When he returned to his parents’ house to gather some belongings, Gordon and Barbara were as supportive as always. Gordon handed Brian an envelope with court papers and reminded him to show up for his next court appearance. Barbara gave him a plate of cookies to take with him.

Throughout the day, Brian and Robert hung out with a larger group of friends at Sweet Avenue, drinking beer, smoking weed, and doing “speedballs” – a mixture of meth and cocaine. At some point, another partygoer overheard Brian and Robert talking in the basement; one of them said, “Wait till the big thing happens. Then everything will be alright.”

By 1am, everyone in the basement was “pretty trashed” after a day of non-stop partying. But Brian and Robert were still full of adrenaline. They asked one of the girls at the house – 16-year-old Misty Jones – if they could borrow her car, but they wouldn’t tell her where they were going. Misty said no, but they could ride with her while she went to pick up her boyfriend. Somewhere along the way, the trio stopped at a convenience store where Brian stole a case of beer, and they drove off without paying for their gas.

According to Misty, Brian told her to drive to his parents’ house on Laredo Drive. He said that he and Robert were going to kill his parents, but Misty thought he was joking. When they pulled into the driveway, Brian told Misty to stay in the car, but she refused – she got out and stood in the garage with Robert while Brian entered the house.

A few seconds later, Brian came back to the garage and said that his parents were awake. Robert told Brian to get his dad to come into the living room, then the two men went back inside, leaving Misty alone in the garage. Suddenly, she heard shouting, footsteps running up stairs, then a woman’s scream. Brian and Robert burst out of the house, one of them holding a knife, although Misty couldn’t remember which one. Brian was pacing back and forth, saying over and over again, “What did I do?”

Misty claimed that at this point, she decided to go inside the house to see what was going on. She saw Gordon’s body first, lying on the floor, covered in blood. She walked around him and went upstairs where she found Barbara clinging to life.

When Misty told Brian and Robert that Barbara was still breathing, the men began kicking Barbara repeatedly. Finally, Robert told Brian to cut her throat. After that, Barbara was still.

Misty left Brian and Robert at the house to clean up the scene while she drove back to Sweet Avenue. She went to the basement and woke up Ryan, telling him that his friends needed help because “they did a bad thing.” But when Misty and Ryan got to the Erickstads’ house, Brian and Robert were gone, and so was Gordon’s Chevy pickup.

Ryan later told investigators that Brian and Robert showed back up at Sweet Avenue around 5am and told him they needed help. According to Ryan, Robert pointed to the pickup and said, “How do you like my new truck? The corpses are in the back. You’re going to help us move them.”

Ryan said that he couldn’t go – he had to be at school in a few hours. Instead, Brian and Robert enlisted Misty’s help. The three of them drove 60 miles south to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where they dumped the bodies in a line of trees off Highway 6. By 8am, they had washed the pickup and were back in Bismarck. Misty went home, Robert gave Ryan a ride to school, and Brian sneaked back into the basement and fell asleep next to Aimee.

When Ryan returned from school that afternoon, he confided in his sisters about what had happened that morning – Brian and Robert had killed the Erickstads and dumped their bodies. Michelle and Aimee were shocked. Michelle told the Tribune, “I didn’t believe they could do something like that.”

According to the sisters, Brian and Robert didn’t seem that phased by the fact that they had just murdered two people in cold blood. Actually, they didn’t seem to be completely sober, still high on drugs and adrenaline. Michelle said, “It wasn’t like they were totally happy, but they were not shaking scared.”

In the hours that followed, the group began making plans to skip town. Ryan and Michelle were in charge of packing clothes and supplies for everyone while Brian, Robert, and Aimee drove back to Laredo Drive to get Barbara’s Cadillac. Then, Robert and Michelle took the pickup to a nearby park and dumped the bloody blankets from the truck bed. Ryan had hidden their bloody clothes in a bag behind a chair in his room.

But at the last minute, the plans changed. Brian and Robert convinced the others to stay in Bismarck so they didn’t get hurt. That night, they took the pickup and the Cadillac and headed east towards Fargo.

The next morning, one of the girls had a change of heart. Aimee Werner walked into the Bismarck Police Department and reported a murder. Then, another: Misty Jones told police where to find the bodies.

After the Erickstads’ house was processed and their bodies were recovered, investigators were given permission by Pam to search the basement apartment on Sweet Avenue, but without a warrant, they could only look so much. When Brian and Robert were arrested in Texas two days later, police were able to get a full search warrant, which they executed on September 21st.

According to police records, investigators collected a notebook belonging to Michelle, a pair of tan jeans, latex gloves, a bath towel with red stains, a surgical shoe cover and gauze with possible blood, drug paraphernalia, and a letter Robert had written to Michelle. They also seized Misty’s red Geo Metro, the very car Brian and Robert had taken to Laredo Drive on the night of the murders.

Over the next year, investigators worked with the state’s attorney’s office to build a solid case against Brian Erickstad and Robert Lawrence. It was decided that the two would be tried together since they were implicated in the same crimes and faced similar punishments if convicted.

Finally, on October 11, 1999, the trial began.

The prosecution laid out the timeline for the jury, showing gruesome photos and videos of the crime scene. In his opening statement, attorney Bruce Romanick focused on the world of drugs and alcohol that Brian and Robert were immersed in. He told jurors about “areas of Bismarck that many of us do not even know exists… a society within our society… that we cannot understand or even comprehend.”

Nearly 40 witnesses testified for the prosecution, including Aimee, Michelle, Ryan, and Misty. They spoke about the house on Sweet Avenue, how kids went there to party. They did whatever drugs they could get their hands on, and it controlled their lives.

Experts testified about blood evidence and DNA. Brian’s blood had been mixed with his mother’s on one of the knives found in the kitchen sink. Robert’s blood was on Barbara’s clothes. Blood from both Gordon and Barbara was found at the house, in the pickup, on the knives, and on the clothing hidden behind Ryan’s bedroom chair.

Throughout the trial, Brian refused to look at pictures of the crime scene and of his parents’ bodies. He sat and listened as his crimes were laid out before him.

The defense had an interesting strategy – they didn’t raise many objections, they didn’t call any of their own witnesses, and they didn’t offer up any evidence to support their clients’ innocence. Instead, they focused on witness statements about their clients’ drug use on the night of the murders. They told the jury that Brian and Robert were so intoxicated on September 17th that they didn’t know what they were doing. They hadn’t meant to kill Gordon and Barbara Erickstad.

But the prosecution wasn’t having it. Bruce Romanick told the jury that lots of people use drugs and alcohol and don’t kill anyone. “The defendants knew exactly what they were doing when they went into 245 Laredo Drive. You can be drunk and still know what you’re doing.”

The defense claimed that the crime itself was so bizarre and was carried out so ineptly that it couldn’t have been premeditated. Romanick shot back, “The fact that there was bad planning doesn’t mean there was no planning. They planned it and they did it.”

At the end of the week, the jury deliberated for three and a half hours before pronouncing Brian Erickstad and Robert Lawrence guilty on all counts. Brian was sentenced to life plus 10 years. Robert was sentenced to life plus 30.

At his sentencing hearing, Brian broke down, showing emotion for the first time since the trial began. “I’m terribly sorry for what happened. There’s no way I could express how awful I feel… If there was any way I could change what happened, believe me, I would. I feel as though my heart’s been ripped out and stomped on a million times over again.”

He talked about how drugs had turned him into a monster and had eventually become his downfall. “I didn’t understand that I was hurting the people that loved me the most… But at the same time I was losing my mind. I took all my anger and I released it on the two people that were there for me whenever I needed them, that loved me more than anything.”

However, Gordon and Barbara’s family felt like they were lost in the dramatics of the trial. Tom Langemo, Brian’s uncle, spoke on behalf of the family, reminding everyone how Barbara and Gordon were kind, loving, hard-working people who didn’t deserve such a horrible end. They supported Brian through all his ups and downs, but he turned his back on them. Tom spoke directly to Brian: “You had it made and you blew it. You made those decisions. When you come to the end of your life, there’ll be nobody there for you. So may God have mercy on your soul.”

Just hours after his sentencing, Brian gave a phone interview to the Bismarck Tribune in which he repeated how sorry he was and how he took his parents for granted. “When I was in a hole they were glad to pull me out. For some reason I resented them for it. I think maybe I was afraid of them saying, ‘Screw it. We don’t want you no more.’ I thought they were doing it for their benefit. They were saving my life, but I didn’t see it.”

Barbara and Gordon Erickstad are buried next to each other in Valley City, North Dakota. They live forever in the memories of their children and grandchildren. Their kindness and love will not be forgotten.