Inmate No. 25550

BISMARCK Zachary Schmidkunz fired a shotgun and killed Alexis Walter in the basement of his parents’ home in Minot on Nov. 17, 2003. He was found guilty in a Minot courtroom and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment.

“There’s a body behind the couch!” exclaimed Rhonda Schmidkunz, Zach’s mother, upon discovering the crime scene.

His father, Gail Schmidkunz, quickly descended the stairs into the basement where Zach’s room and a family room were located. He describes the moment in his book, “I Am Not Silent, Our Zoloft and Depression Story.”

“The scent of a young woman’s perfume permeated the area. I could see behind the couch now. Standing near the end but slightly behind the couch, I saw a sight that sent my heart into my mouth. A young woman lay mostly on her back and partially on her side with a pool of dark red blood beside her. A wound near the area of her right shoulder and right upper chest seemed to be where the blood flow came from. I leaned closer, hoping desperately that I would find life and this person could be rushed to a hospital and saved. There were no chest movements. I looked into the face of this young woman. I found the face to be slightly blue and eyes open, staring to eternity. Sadly, there was no life there.”

At Zach Schmidkunz’s trial his defense was that he was in the midst of “discontinuation syndrome” which led to anger and rage that Zach had never before displayed. Discontinuation syndrome, the effects of abruptly quitting the taking of an anti-depressant drug, is known to alter a person’s mood, even cause sudden anger or rage. The jury disagreed, reaching a guilty of murder verdict in three hours.

Today Zachary Schmidkunz is known as Inmate No. 25550 at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. He was 20 years old when first incarcerated. He’ll be eligible to be placed back into society at age 45.

At the penitentiary Schmidkunz is among the minority of prisoners known as “one timers,” those who committed a single crime that placed them behind bars. Most inmates are multiple offenders with lengthy criminal records.

“I’m in prison. I struggle with what I’ve done, absolutely,” said Schmidkunz during a recent in-prison interview. “Prison stopped being punishment years ago for me. It’s the mental part of it now.”

The mental part is knowing that he took a life from a young woman, a moment he relives day after day.

“I see it every day. You can’t get away from it. I don’t try to get rid of it because I feel, in a way, that’s my own punishment,” said Schmidkunz. “I see it. I hear it. I go days without sleeping. At times I wake up in the middle of the night sweating. It would be wrong on so many levels to forget about it.”

Schmidkunz was active in athletics at Minot High School. He participated in wrestling, a sport he says was a “lot of fun.” However, many say he was a “gentle giant” that lacked the toughness to be a force on the wrestling mat. It was not uncommon for youngsters to gravitate to him and he always met them with a smile. They’d wrestle with him and he’d accommodate by letting them take him down on the mat.

When the State Penitentiary needed an inmate to play Santa Claus during Christmas visitation, Zach Schmidkunz was an obvious choice. He did so for eight years until the program was discontinued. While Schmidkunz may not fit the expected persona of a murderer, he accepts his incarceration.

“I take responsibility for everything that I’m able to. I stopped taking the medication. That’s my fault,” said Schmidkunz. “Nobody forced me to stop taking it.”

Schmidkunz says the first time he remembers bouts with depression was in the seventh grade. Over a period of years his depression became more and more serious. By the time he was a student at Minot State University a doctor had prescribed Zoloft, a powerful anti-depressant, for Schmidkunz. However, says Schmidkunz, the drug didn’t have the desired effect.

“I didn’t feel like it was helping me and I made the conscious decision to stop taking it,” said Schmidkunz. “Obviously, it was the worst mistake of my life.”

Schmidkunz had been taking Zoloft for three weeks before stopping the drug. He said he didn’t feel it was working and that nothing in his life seemed brighter or better. On the day of the murder Schmidkunz went to Minot State University to attend classes but returned home before doing so.

“That day was probably my worst day mentally from a depressed point of view,” recalled Schmidkunz. “That day I woke up and thought, screw this. I knew that was the day I didn’t want to be here anymore. That was kind of my plan. I was going to shoot myself. I left MSU and went home and hung out in my room. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

After sending a message on social media that day to Walter, Schmidkunz arranged to pick her up. The two returned to Schmidkunz’s house where the murder occurred. Schmidkunz left the scene in his own vehicle.

“I was just driving to drive,” stated Schmidkunz. “My mindset wasn’t that I was driving to get away from something. My hair was standing up. I was so full of energy and anger. I was just driving to drive.”

When Schmidkunz reached Jamestown, he says, he started to “come around” and realized what had happened. He stopped at a convenience store to get directions to the Jamestown Police Department where he turned himself in.

“I told an officer I shot a person and he didn’t believe me,” said Schmidkunz. “He really didn’t believe me. He made a phone call and his eyes kind of came up and he realized I was telling the truth. He arrested me for murder. That was the shock of my life but I was taught that when you did something wrong, you turned yourself in. You tell the truth. I was more concerned with that than the possibilities of what was going to happen down the line.”

The sentence Schmidkunz received was for 40 years in prison, but the judge suspended five years. While behind bars Schmidkunz was successful in a Rule 35 Sentence Reduction Request that resulted in an additional sentence reduction of five more years, meaning he must serve 30 years. He is not eligible for parole until serving 85 percent of his sentence which would be sometime in 2029.

During an in-prison interview with the Minot Daily News, Schmidkunz said he wanted to tell his part of the story as it relates to the fateful day of Alexis Walter. Schmidkunz says he understands hatred directed at him, especially by those close to Walter.

“It’s hard not to think about the people you did this to. They cross my mind everyday,” said Schmidkunz. “I don’t expect forgiveness. If something like this happened to one of my loved ones I would want to know more, to know why.”

Schmidkunz says some of the people close to him are still angry about the court’s decision in his case. As for Schmidkunz, he dismissed those feelings a long time ago.

“I had to. It does me no good. They were trying to do their job. I don’t agree with it but I’m not mad about it,” explained Schmidkunz.

Reality of depression

So why do an interview while behind bars? Schmidkunz says he wants to spread the word about the adverse effects of depression, a condition he calls “very real.” He urges people to recognize the condition and not be afraid to seek help from others.

“Depression is the real deal and I think a lot more people struggle with it than people want to admit,” surmised Schmidkunz. “For some people it is something to be ashamed of. There’s millions of people out there who are afraid or embarrassed to talk to somebody about it. You don’t want to go on sometimes. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t explain it to people.”

Schmidkunz says it took a long time to come out of day to day depression. Today, he says, he still has moments of what he terms “situational” depression. It is an improvement from what he endured prior to the murder when his own will to live was on a downhill slide.

“I can’t go for a drive. I can’t visit with friends when I’m down, but that comes with the territory of what happened,” said Schmidkunz. “You’ve got to talk to people. Your friends and family will understand. It’s not something to mess around with or take lightly.”

Dressed in a simple white T-shirt and prison issued pants and seated at a table in a small room adjacent to the prison’s visiting area, Schmidkunz offered the following assessment of his battle with depression and prescribed medications.

“I want it to be known that I’m not saying these are bad medications. I think these medications help lots of people. It just wasn’t for me,” explained Schmidkunz. “I’m not saying the medication made me do it. It was the stopping of it. If I would have had knowledge of this a long time ago, obviously things would be different.”

According to Schmidkunz, the shooting of Walter was not something he had planned to do. He says, after a lot of soul searching, that “something initiated this.” That something, he says, was the discontinuation of taking the medication Zoloft.

“I didn’t just go bad,” said Schmidkunz. “Something happened. Zoloft is the only thing. I was the last one to hear about Zoloft playing a part. This is mine to bear. You can’t change the truth. Obviously I wish somebody would have shaken me and dragged me away. The mental state that I was in at the time, you are not aware that this is what you are about to do, yet a part of you is saying stop. It’s a tug of war. It sounds a little crazy to say that.”

Prison life

Today Schmidkunz works at Rough Rider Industries Monday through Friday. Rough Rider is a workshop on prison grounds that makes a variety of items. Select prisoners are chosen to work there. Schmidkunz says he enjoys the work. He designs tables, such as those used for computers or other special purposes. He also determines the cost of materials and helps set a selling price. Some of the furniture in the penitentiary was constructed by inmates.

Schmidkunz said he used to participate in prison yard softball games but has retired from those competitions. Today he primarily walks an outside track when allowed to do so, usually following the evening meal. He prefers to distance himself from certain elements of prison life.

“It’s like high school but worse. There’s so much drama,” said Schmidkunz.

According to Schmidkunz, prison days are “pretty routine.” Each day begins with breakfast, which usually consists of cereal or oatmeal and toast. Schmidkunz uses money earned working at Roughrider to purchase his own oatmeal from the prison commissary, which he considers to be much better than the standard fare.

Lunch and dinner often consist of turkey loaf or turkey ham. Once or twice a week inmates also receive hard boiled eggs. All activities, including meals, are centered around inmate counts. There is a morning count, lunchtime count, late afternoon count, evening count and, sometimes, a count during the night.

As for the kind of people in the prison, Schmidkunz says it has changed since he arrived there in 2003 with more violence occurring between inmates. Many are career drug offenders. Others, like Schmidkunz, were convicted of murder. For all, prison is a time for inmates to pay the price to society for what they have done. A limited few will reform. Most will eventually be released, many of whom will find themselves in trouble once again.

“The changes have to come from within. I’m one of the few people that actually struggles with what I’ve done,” said Schmidkunz. “You see a lot of these kids that come in and think it’s cool to kill people. If they saw the horrible reality that I see, I think they’d think twice.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today