On Aug. 23, 1988, Melody Rindahl was murdered by her husband, Randy. She was a victim of domestic abuse, but to those that knew and loved her, she was so much more. She was a beloved sister, a singer with a beautiful voice and a devoted friend. She was also a mother, despite the fact that her son had not yet been born.
When paramedics arrived on the scene, they found seven-and-a-half months pregnant Melody, not breathing and without a pulse. They knew in that instant she wouldn’t survive. And while this might sound like the end of a story, it’s actually the beginning. Because though Melody’s life was ending, the most important thing in her world would live on — her son.
His journey certainly didn’t start in a positive way. His biological mother was kept alive by CPR until the paramedics could get her to the hospital. There, she was sustained by a life-support system until he could be delivered by emergency cesarean section. Despite the quick action of the paramedics on the scene, he had suffered oxygen deprivation and there were concerns about his health.
Because he was premature and due to the traumatic nature of his birth, he had to stay in an incubator, and twice required CPR. The outlook wasn’t great — there was a very real chance that he would never be able to walk or talk.
Melody’s experience is not a new one, and sadly, it isn’t the last of its kind. Her story, voice and memory are remembered and honored in a short film by Emmynominated Director, Jason Clemons. To watch Melody’s Story click here.
Loni Bedard, CNP, cared for Ben while he was in the NICU. Despite 39 years at Rapid City Hospital, she’s never seen another case like this. “I can still remember seeing him lying on the radiant warmer,” she recalled. “Just a fragile, preterm baby who needed so much support in the NICU to survive. He was a miracle baby.”
“At first, we didn’t know if he was going to survive,” said Patsy Ericks, Melody’s oldest sister. “But he did much better than they expected and he came home with us in 23 days.” The baby boy was named Benjamin Lee; the name Melody had picked out if her baby was a boy.
Patsy credits the physicians, nurses and other caregivers for Ben’s quick recovery. “Dr. Thiessen delivered Ben, and Dr. Kovarik was the neonatologist that took care of him after birth,” she said. “And of course, the NICU nurses that looked after Ben were amazing too.”
This was long before the hospital would become part of the Monument Health system; at the time, it was Rapid City Regional Hospital. Obstetrician Hubert H. Theissen, M.D., and Neonatologist Stephen Kovarik, M.D., have both since retired. Many of the nurses who treated Melody and Ben have also retired.
Loni Bedard continues seeing patients as a certified nurse practitioner, and despite her tenure at Rapid City Hospital, she’s yet to have another case that has stuck with her like Ben’s. “I knew Patsy, Curt and their kids. We went to church together. Between the trauma, the severity of the situation and knowing the family, I had a lot of emotions. It’s not something I could ever forget.”
Despite the tumultuous beginning, Ben grew up a happy, healthy boy. He started his life as a ward of the state, but Patsy and her husband Curt were quickly granted an interim guardianship over Ben, who they took home and raised as their own. Soon after, their guardianship was made more permanent, and one and a half years later they officially adopted him. “That was just a formality though. Ben was already part of our family,” said Patsy, who became Ben’s adoptive mother. Ben’s arrival in the Ericks family was unexpected, but he fit perfectly. The infant found himself in a home with three older sisters, Clarissa, Charity and Cameo. “I was four months old when Ben came to live with us, so I’ve never known anything different,” said Cameo Haugen. “There were a lot of times growing up that people assumed we were twins.”
Good families tend to find their own balance, their own equilibrium. It was no different for the Ericks family. Clarissa was 11 years old, and Charity was 6 when Ben joined the family. With 4-month-old Cameo a recent addition as well, the balance of the family shifted. “Us older girls — without ever really thinking about it — took on one of the babies,” said Charity Hathaway. “Ben was my baby. Whenever he needed something, it was me who got it for him. Looking back at the family pictures, I always had Ben in my lap or we were sitting next to each other, arms around one another. From day one, we had a very, very close connection and bond with each other. We still do.”
That closeness didn’t just affect their family life, it also had a profound effect on Charity’s career path. She knew at a young age that she wanted to work in health care so that she could help others in need. “I vividly remember the night that Ben’s mom was shot. I remember the policeman coming to our door. I remember our grandma coming over to stay with us,” she said. “It truly impacted the future of my life. I remember visiting Ben in the NICU and telling my mom, ‘I’m going to be a nurse someday because I want to take care of people that need me.’” Charity did just that, becoming a Registered Nurse and earning her BSN. Though she no longer lives in Rapid City, she worked at Monument Health for 17 years, with the majority of her career in Labor and Delivery.
Despite worries that lack of oxygen and blood flow perfusion could have lifelong debilitating effects, Ben was not only a healthy child, but he grew into an athlete who played high school football and was even signed to play at the collegiate level. Instead he chose to serve his country, enlisting in the South Dakota National Guard, deploying to Afghanistan in 2013 for Operation Enduring Freedom, and to Cuba in 2022. “There was a lot of worry when I was a baby, but the only problem I’ve really had was a little asthma,” Ben said with a chuckle. “And what kid these days doesn’t have a little asthma growing up.”
Having never truly met his biological mother, Ben only knows Melody through the stories his mom, grandmother and sisters have shared with him. “I’ve lived a good life with a great family, and there is always — in the back of my mind — a question of what if that never happened? What would my life have been like if I had grown up in the shadow of that abusive relationship? I would have had a very different upbringing,” Ben explained, thoughtfully. “So I know my biological mom through their memories, and I know she loved me, but I’m grateful for my family that raised me.”
When talking about family, it’s clear how important the people in his life are to him. “He’s probably the best husband and father anybody could ask for. He’s the complete opposite of his biological father,” said Cameo. “He’s loving and caring, and dotes on his wife and his children. He’s amazing.”
To Ben, Curt Ericks is his dad — his biological father simply provided genetics. He said, “I had a great role model growing up with my dad, and I think I strive to be like him, not the other guy. I think being a role model is very important, and I had the best. I just focus on being a good husband and role model to my boys.”
“I want them to see what a healthy marriage is and what it should be. I know I had that growing up with my family,” he added.
You can’t untangle the life of Ben Ericks from the murder of his biological mother. Patsy said, “This story became a huge part of our entire family. When something like that happens, everybody responds differently, and you never forget.” And while that’s true, Ben’s story isn’t a tragic one, even if that’s how it started. Instead, it’s the story of a kid who grew up in a good family — his family. He was a great brother, and grew into the kind of man any parent would be proud of; a good husband, a good father and a man who cares about the people around him.
“I think the story of my life can give a different perspective on what family is and how important it is,” Ben said. “Family isn’t just who your biological parents or siblings are. It’s the people that are there for you. The ones who love you.”
Written by Wade Ellett
Photos by Bob Slocum