By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
A woman who has spent more than 25 years in prison for her role in the kidnapping of an elderly couple near Gillette has had her lengthy sentence commuted by Gov. Mark Gordon.
Gordon commuted the sentence of Darla Rouse, who was sentenced to 53 years to life in connection with the 1996 kidnapping. The Department of Corrections is expected to determine during the first week of the year when Rouse might be released.
Darla Rouse’s journey to prison began when she was a dumb kid in love. At 44, she’s now spent more than half her life behind bars, serving four sentences at the Wyoming Women’s Center.
Rouse met James “Jay” Boule in her home state of Texas when she was 19. She was a waitress and Boule sat in her section, laying on the flattery and listening to her in a way that she found addictive. He was charismatic, too, and when he asked her out, she didn’t hesitate.
He was also controlling, Rouse found. A couple of months into their relationship, he got her fired. She’d already moved in with him. He was unemployed, too, and liked having her home.
The trouble was money, so he hatched a plan to rob his aunt and then blow up her house. He didn’t tell Rouse what was going on, but she’d driven over in the car to the aunt’s house with him and a friend.
The plan failed, and Boule was arrested. Neither Rouse nor the friend were implicated in the botched crime.
Boule ended up jail in Tyler, Texas, and Rouse visited him regularly. He talked to her often about escaping and he ultimately ended up breaking out by using a prison-issued blanket to shimmy across the barbed wire fence while wearing only T-shirt and underwear.
He found a pay phone and called Rouse’s aunt to come get him. Rouse’s aunt had no idea that Boule had broken out of jail and she brought him home to Darla.
Rouse left with Boule and the couple were on the lam for a few days before they ran out of money. Seven miles west of Gillette, Boule drove into a rest stop on fumes before hatching yet another plan.
This one involved holding up Jerry and Rose Rockne and taking their pickup truck and fifth-wheel camper. Boule asked Rouse, armed with his revolver, to watch 64-year-old Jerry and 69-year-old wife Rose while he cuffed them, tied them to chairs and checked out their pickup.
The couple, still holding Jerry and Rose Rockne, fled toward Montana, stopping once for a quick 15-minute meal at a Pizza Hut as Jay was hungry. The elderly couple remained in the camper, but at some point, Rose was able to free her hands and hurled herself through the door, still handcuffed, onto the pavement of the truck route through Buffalo.
Rose alerted authorities and a car chase ensued until Rouse and Boule were eventually nabbed on Interstate 90.
Boyfriend Turned On Her
Rouse’s trial on Dec. 16, 1996, in Campbell County Sixth Judicial Court before Judge Dan Price II did not go according to plan.
Not only did Boule turn on her, saying she came up with the kidnapping idea, but Rouse’s court-appointed attorney got sick in the middle of the trial and had to be hospitalized, leaving a new attorney to jump in.
Meanwhile, Judge Price had no patience for the then-19-year-old woman’s excuses, ultimately sentencing her to four terms varying in length from five to 30 years for a total of 53 years to life.
Later, Price would regret the length of the sentence and start intervening on Rouse’s behalf.
Judge Has Change of Heart
Rouse appealed her sentence in 1998 to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but it was rejected.
Beginning in 2007, Price wrote multiple letters to the Wyoming Board of Parole in Rouse’s defense.
At the same time, the Rockne family consistently urged the board to keep Rouse in prison, citing the lasting impact the kidnapping had on Jerry and Rose.
Over the years, the parole board has voted that Rouse be released from prison because of her lack of a lack of infractions while an inmate and the fact that, by all accounts, she had been a model prisoner who showed great remorse in her repeated letters to both the family and the parole board.
Gov Mead Would Not Commute
In Wyoming, the only way a sentence can be reversed is by a commutation from the governor. Twice during his tenure, former Gov. Matt Mead. a former federal prosecutor, refused to sign a request for commutation for Rouse. Mead acknowledged that Rouse seemed to be making good progress in prison, including surrounding herself with a solid support group of friends and family.
That support network included Shawnee ranchers and advocates Cheri and Charlie Reese, as well as Lyn and Russ Underdahl of Minnesota, who met Rouse during a prison tour and instantly felt attached to her.
Ultimately, Mead’s denial hinged on the Rockne family’s requests that Rouse remain in prison.
Through it all, both the Reeses and Underdahls have stood steadfastly by Rouse’s side and consider her a member of their families. They see her during constant visits, talk during frequent phone calls and make holiday trips to see her. They have also hired lawyers to fight on her behalf. Last year, when Charlie passed away, he referred to Rouse as a “beloved daughter” in his obituary.
Both families vehemently believe that Darla made a terrible mistake in the past, but has since paid for her crime and deserves a second chance at life outside prison.
Family Became Supportive
In addition, the Rockne family no longer opposes Rouse’s release.
Gordon made the final decision on Tuesday, issuing a commutation for Rouse and one other person. They were among six commutations presented for the governor’s consideration and the first he has granted.
The governor’s Communication Director Michael Pearlman told Cowboy State Daily that Rouse’s commutation was approved based on a variety of factors including the fact the Rockne family no longer opposes her release, Rouse’s remorse for her crime, her disciplinary record while incarcerated and her rehabilitative programming and other work while incarcerated.
During her 25-plus years in prison, Rouse has volunteered to conduct prison tours, worked with K-9 officers, achieved several personal fitness and exercise degrees, lead fitness classes for other inmates and attended college online. She’s had one infraction in her years at the Women’s Center for using the kitchen without permission.
Rouse’s release date and how many years will be shaved off her sentence will be up to the state Board of Parole and the Wyoming Department of Corrections, which just received notification of the commutation from the governor’s office.
According to Paul Martin, deputy administrator for the Department of Corrections, Rouse’s new sentence computation will be determined during the first week of January. Without the commutation, Rouse would have served at least another 13 years.
For her part, Rouse is contemplating the little things she dreams of doing on her release. Running to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, taking a walk at night, eating off of real dishes, attending church, enjoying dinner with friends and family, picking her own clothes, hearing a telephone ring or just sitting on a porch by herself, watching everyday life go by.
No Clue of Modern World
What she knows of the outside world outweighs her experience in it. Smart phones and other technological advances have whizzed past her like most other milestones. Motherhood. College graduation. Holding her dad’s hand in his waning days of cancer.
Rouse delivered news of the governor’s commutation Tuesday evening during a phone call with Lyn Underdahl.
“She quietly said ‘he signed it,’ and then was quiet again,” Lyn said by email Wednesday.
Lyn hadn’t heard her and asked her to repeat herself. Then the news sunk in and both women began screaming at once.
“She giggled, and we both kind of lost it together,” Lyn said, summarizing their shock and emotion with a simple statement. “God is good.”