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09-1997 The Witness

Moving toward Abolition
by Marianne Arbogast

This past spring, Bill Pelke bought a bus and retired from his 30-year job as a crane operator at Bethlehem Steel, with plans to tour the country. The 1965 former Eastern Trailways cruiser is not most people's idea of a recreational vehicle, but then, recreation is not what Pelke has in mind.

The day Pelke retired - May 14 - was the twelfth anniversary of an event which changed the course of his life. On that day in l985, his 78-year-old grandmother was murdered in her Gary, Ind. home by four ninth-grade girls who wanted money to go to a video arcade. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Pelke underwent a conversion which led him to extend forgiveness to those who killed his grandmother and devote his life to fighting the death penalty. His bus, christened "Abolition Movin'," will carry his campaign wherever the spirit moves.

The brutality of Ruth Pelke's death defies comprehension. Chosen because of her hospitality to neighborhood children, she willingly opened her door to the teens who inquired about taking Bible lessons. Once inside, one of the girls hit her over the head with a vase. Another, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, took a butcher knife from her purse and stabbed her 33 times, while the others searched for cash. They found $10 and a set of car keys. While Pelke lay dying, they drove her car to their high school and took several classmates for joyrides.

The girls were arrested and, over the next few months, three were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. The fourth, Cooper, wax regarded as the ringleader. As her trial approached, public sentiment strongly favored the death penalty. Pelke recalls that friends sought to console him with the words, "I hope the bitch burns." He did not disagree.

"I felt that if they didn't give the death penalty, they would be saying that my grandmother was not an important enough person to merit it," Pelke says. Leaving the courtroom after Cooper was sentenced to death, he told a reporter that "the judge did what he had to do."

For months, Pelke fought to suppress the painful image of his grandmother that haunted him. "Whenever I thought about my grandmother, I pictured how she died - butchered on the dining room floor where our family had gathered for so many years on joyous occasions.

More immediate personal struggles enabled Pelke to "put the murder and the trials on a back burner," he says. The breakup of a long-term relationship with the woman he was later to marry pushed him into a serious depression.

One afternoon in November, as Pelke sat high above the ground in the cab of his crane during a lull in his workday, he found himself in tears.

"I asked God why, why, why?" Pelke says. Painful memories assaulted him - the loss of a childhood sweetheart, combat and injury in Vietnam, a troubled marriage, divorce and separation from his three children, and the nightmarish death of his grandmother.

But as he prayed, a new image rose in his mind.

"I began to picture my grandmother in tears," Pelke says. "I began thinking about what she believed in, and there was no doubt in my mind that her tears were tears of compassion for this girl on death row and for her family.

"My mind flashed back to the day Paula was sentenced to death. Her grandfather began to wail, ‘They’re going to kill my baby,' and had to be escorted from the courtroom. As Paula was led away, tears were rolling off her cheeks onto her dress, causing dark blotches.

"I thought about my grandmother's faith and what the Bible taught about forgiveness. I knew Nana would not have wanted Paula put to death, and I felt like she wanted someone in our family to have the same compassion. I begged God to give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family."

Pelke knew that his prayer had been answered when he started to think about what he could do for Cooper.

"I wanted to try to help her in any way I could, and I realized it would be terribly wrong for the state of Indiana to put her in the electric chair and send volts of electricity through her body."

From that moment, Pelke began to remember his grandmother alive and loving, "the way she lived and what she stood for and who she was," he says. "It was such a relief."

Immediately, he began writing Cooper, and at Christmas time, went to visit her grandfather.

The reaction of Pelke's family and friends was mixed. While many were impelled to rethink their own positions, others were confused and even hostile.

"One of the most hurtful things people say is, ‘You must not have loved your grandmother very much,'" Pelke says. "I was told that by somebody very close to me."

At a friend's urging, Pelke wrote an article for a local paper. Soon afterwards, he was interviewed by an Italian journalist, and then asked to travel to Italy to appear on a television program.

"The Italians, who do not have a death penalty, could not understand why the state would want to execute someone who was only 15 years old," Pelke says.

His trip to Italy drew widespread media coverage and fueled a campaign for Cooper's removal from death row. Forty thousand Italians, mostly school children, signed a petition on her behalf, and the pope appealed for clemency.

"Eventually, in 1989, because of international embarrassment, the law was changed," Pelke says. "Before that, a 10 year-old could have gotten the electric chair in Indiana."

Although the age for legal execution was raised to 16, the court initially stipulated that Cooper would still be held under the old law. Later, her sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.

A co-founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, Pelke says that forgiving Cooper "did more for me than it did for Paula."

"I don't go out and debate the death penalty," he says. "What we do is share our stories of the violence that took place in our lives, and share the healing.

"I watched the families of the Oklahoma bombing victims express so much pain and anger, and I know that what we're talking about can help them."

Pelke is troubled by the way the legal system manipulates grieving families.

"They are told by the courts that the death penalty is justice, that it is their only hope for closure and healing. But the day after the execution, they still have the hurt and pain and anger.

"They are not told about alternatives, such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, with the perpetrator doing work and putting money into a victims' fund, for counseling or support of families who have lost a breadwinner."

Letters and meetings between victims and perpetrators are also discouraged.

"Many people in prison would like to have contact with victims' families, but attorneys are generally opposed," Pelke says. "Defense attorneys are afraid their clients might say something that could be said against them."

Although Pelke and Cooper exchanged hundreds of letters, it was not until 1994 that he was finally allowed to visit her. He has continued to visit regularly.

His life has changed in many ways, Pelke says.

"I learned that forgiveness should be a way of life. There were people I had been working with whom I had held a grudge against for 10 years. I realized if I was going to forgive Paula and hold a grudge against others, I would be a hypocrite." He also found himself re-examining other views. Although he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, he felt sickened by the jubilant support of the Gulf War.

"There had to be other ways," Pelke says. "I have seen enough death, and I don't want to see any more."

"Abolition Movin'" is both practical and symbolic, concretizing Pelke's commitment to be there for the long haul.

In June, he drove it to Washington, D.C., where he and others were on trial for unfurling an anti-death-penalty banner on the steps of the Supreme Court building on the anniversary of the first execution following reinstatement of the death penalty in the U.S.

"It was amazing to see the excitement the bus generated," he says, recounting a breakdown in a McDonald's parking lot that occasioned a string of conversations with restaurant patrons. During the trial and an overlapping fast and vigil, Pelke drove vigilers to Baltimore to protest an execution there.

"This is not something that will be over in a couple of years," he says.

"But I have seen many people whose hearts were touched, who changed their minds. People realize the death penalty is not doing what the politicians say. I plan to travel around until it is abolished."

SEPTEMBER 1997
Marianne Arbogast is the assistant editor of The Witness