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01-20-2004 Anchorage Daily News

Murder meets mercy in Anchorage man's book
JOURNEY: Victim's grandson says forgiving killers was healing.

By MELISSA DeVAUGHN

Looking at her photo, it is easy to see that Ruth Elizabeth Pelke -- "Nana" to her family -- was a peaceful woman. Her eyes, from behind thick-rimmed glasses, were kind, her smile gentle. She taught Bible classes to neighborhood children, befriending those whom others may have given up on. So her murder, committed in Gary, Ind., nearly 20 years ago by four troubled teen girls, was particularly shocking. Murder is murder, but to be stabbed 33 times in your own home for only $10 and an old car is unthinkable. Bill Pelke, an Anchorage resident and grandson to Ruth Pelke, writes about the event in his new book, "Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing." He will have a reading and book-signing tonight at Side Street Espresso.
A key personality in the book is Paula Cooper, the ringleader of the foursome that killed Ruth Pelke. She was 15 at the time of the murder. A year later at her trial, Cooper was sentenced to death, becoming at that time the youngest female on death row in the United States.
At first, Bill Pelke felt the sentence was just. But over time, he came to believe that putting the young woman to death would be barbaric and that the only way to move forward was to forgive.
Today, Pelke is president and co-founder of Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, an organization with the same name as his book. Its goal is to rid the United States of the death penalty. He also is on the board of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, a local watchdog organization that keeps tabs on death-penalty issues in Alaska.
Territorial Alaska legislators abolished the death penalty in 1957.
"There's always the possibility of (re-establishing the death penalty) being raised," said Hugh Fleischer, an Anchorage attorney and president of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty. "For the last couple of years, we have not had any bills, but we are organized to keep it that way. We don't want the state of Alaska, which we are very proud of for not having the death penalty, to reinstate that."
Pelke's book begins with the gripping tale of Nana's murder, how four girls knocked on her door under the guise of learning more about Bible classes. When the 78-year-old let them in and turned to reach for some papers, the girls struck. The aftermath was a family devastated by the loss, particularly by the brutality of the event. For Pelke, it was a time of turmoil, during which his life deteriorated and his faith was challenged.
He describes, in quick, descriptive chapters, the trials of the girls, his reaction to Cooper's death sentence and his slow, agonizing transformation from being angry to offering forgiveness to her. The case drew national and international attention because of Cooper's age and gender and by her surprise ally in Bill Pelke.
"I was convinced that my grandmother would have been appalled at that sentence," Pelke said.
"After I forgave (Cooper), it brought this tremendous feeling. I did pray for love and compassion for her, and as I realized there were others on death row, I prayed that I didn't want them to die either. ... Because that's the answer. The answer is love and compassion for all humanity. I felt it was my mission to talk about this love and compassion."
Pelke said it is hard to hear people criticize him for forgiving his grandmother's attacker, to accuse him of somehow not loving Nana enough. But for him, the decision was clear: He could not move forward if he hung on to the hatred.
"I tell people that forgiving Paula Cooper did more for me than it did for her," he said. "It gave me the philosophy of life -- (forgive) a neighbor who complains about the noise, a driver who cuts you off. It really is a wonderful way to live. We've seen people who have someone in their family get killed, and the anger and resentment, if they hang onto it, is like a cancer."
Fleischer said he hopes tonight's reading will make people aware that there is a way to seek justice other than to execute those who commit crimes.
"I think that it is very important to see this from the perspective of someone who is a real victim of murder (of a loved one)," Fleischer said. "In the course of really sitting down and thinking about it, he realized it would be far better for the state to not replicate what the girls did to his grandmother by murdering them too."
Pelke said he still keeps in touch with Cooper, who has since earned a college degree and has a job, working from the prison for an outside company. Some of her wages go to a victims' restitution fund, some to the prison upkeep program, and some she can keep for herself. Her death sentence was reduced to 60 years in 1989, which at the time of sentencing meant she would be eligible for release in 30 years. Here Pelke pauses, acknowledging that a 30-year sentence might seem paltry.
"Thirty years, that's not even a year for every time my grandmother was stabbed," he said, his voice trailing off.
Still, Pelke hopes and believes that Cooper will live a different life.
"She's definitely not the same person today that she was then," he said.
And that's what love and compassion are all about, he said.
In his book, he writes about being a guest on the Oprah Winfrey TV show, talking about forgiveness. Toward the end of the show, Winfrey talked to two women who said they just could not get past the murders of their loved ones, that they could never forgive their attackers.
Pelke said he still feels sad when he thinks about that moment and considers that those two women may never be happy again.