On May 14, 1985, four high school girls wanted money to play the arcades. One suggested they see 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Pretending to seek Bible lessons, the girls were let in. When they came out, they stole Ruth Pelke's car, leaving her repeatedly stabbed body on the dining room floor.
A year later, a judge sentenced Paula Cooper, considered the dominant force in the murder, to death. Ruth Pelke's grandson, Bill Pelke, recalls having “no problem” with Cooper's death sentence.
But his views took a U-turn four months later when, distraught over a broken relationship, the steelworker began to pray from up on his crane. In tears, he questioned the events in his life, his stint in Vietnam, a divorce followed by bankruptcy.
Then, he says, “I began to picture somebody with a whole lot more problems than I had. I pictured Paula Cooper slumped in the corner of her cell with tears in her eyes, saying, ‘What have I done, what have I done?'”
Pelke recalled that on the day of her sentencing, when it became clear the judge was about to order the death penalty, Paula's grandfather cried out, “They're going to kill my baby! They're going to kill my baby!”
The grandfather was ordered out of the courtroom, and Pelke remembers the tears in the man's eyes, and the tears running down Paula's cheeks, staining her light blue dress as she was led off to death row.
Then suddenly he pictured his grandmother, the way she looked in a photo run in a newspaper with each story about the murder. “It was a very beautiful picture of her taken several years before she was killed,” Pelke says. But this time he saw tears coming down her cheeks. “There was no doubt in my mind that they were tears of love and compassion for Paula and for her family. I was convinced that she wanted someone in our family to have that same love and compassion.
“I started thinking about forgiveness and how I was raised and what the Bible had to say.”
Pelke started to pray for God to give him love and compassion for Paula and her family. He decided then and there to write her. “I knew immediately that I no longer wanted her to die, and I no longer had to try to forgive her. Forgiveness at that point was automatic.”
He has since exchanged more than 200 letters with her. He learned that Paula Cooper, a victim of child abuse who attended 10 different schools by the time of her arrest, has earned the equivalent of a high school diploma while in prison and has been taking college correspondence courses. She has told Pelke she feels remorse for the pain she caused him and his family. She knows she'll have to live with her past actions. She wants to help young people avoid the pitfalls she experienced.
Forgiveness changed everything for Pelke. All of a sudden it no longer made sense to hold a grudge against someone who had called him a name years ago. He quit getting drunk. He joined up with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group of people who have experienced the murder of a loved one but oppose the death penalty, and told his story at gatherings around the country.
Pelke had traveled the distance from a desire for revenge to a need for reconciliation. But the gap remains unfathomable to some, including his close family members. Pelke's public stand against the death penalty caused tension between him and his father, who favored capital punishment for Paula Cooper. It was Bill Pelke's father who found the bloodied body of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke.
But forgiveness gave Pelke the strength to plant a crab apple tree in front of Lew Wallace High School, a few blocks from where his grandmother lived, as a sign of healing. A circle of students and death penalty abolitionists looked on as the tree was placed in a hole, and students and MVFR members took turns shoveling dirt over its roots. Someone started singing “We Shall Overcome,” and the circle picked up the tune.
Bill Pelke laid one of the last shovelfuls of dirt around the tree. His face twisting with emotion, he said, “I think my grandmother has a smile on her face today. It's very, very rewarding.”