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05-30 Indianapolis Star

3 Who Have Been Touched by Murder Unite in Stand Against Death Penalty


By Rob Schneider
Indianapolis Star Staff Writer
May 30, 1993

Love-filled memories stronger than a desire to bring about revenge. Marietta Jaeger was a mom, Bill Pelke was a steelworker, and Sam Sheppard was a 7-year-old boy without a care in the world. Living in different parts of the country, chances are their paths never would have crossed. But murder brought them together. In different times and places, each lost family members to crimes of stunning viciousness. This week, all three will journey to Indiana to take part in a statewide demonstration – a two week “Journey of Hope,” sponsored, in part, by the families of murder victims. And they, along with members of other organizations participating in the event, have a most astonishing goal:
An end to the death penalty.

Ask Marietta Jaeger, and she will tell you about anger. It overflowed within her one June day in 1973 Her 7-year-old daughter, Susie, had been missing for days, kidnapped from her tent in a Montana campground. The FBI, local authorities and volunteers had combed the area for clues. But they found nothing. Finally, the searchers turned their attention to a river that ran next to the campground, dragging it for signs of the girl’s body. “The boat would move and it would stop. Every time it would stop, my heart would stop because I was so afraid they would find Susie,” Jaeger said. As she watched, it began to dawn on Jaeger that she might never see her daughter again. And the anger began to well up inside her. “Finally, I just couldn’t keep it squelched anymore,” Jaeger said. Her image of herself as a good Catholic girl” began to crack. By the time she went to bed that night, she could barely contain her rage. “I said to my husband…’I could kill him,’” said Jaeger, who now lives in Detroit. “I meant it with every fiber of my being. I’m sure I could have done it with my bare hands and a smile on my face. “I felt it was a matter of justice, that he needed to pay for what we had already gone through and for whatever Susie had to endure.” So today, when Jaeger hears people talk of wanting revenge, she understands perfectly. But don’t expect her to agree. A torturous internal struggle to reconcile her urge for revenge with her religious beliefs left Jaeger certain of one thing: society must resolve its problems through something other than violence. Which is why Jaeger will be part of the Journey of Hope. “I know people think this lady is off the wall,” she said. “Or they think I must not really have loved my little girl. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Because Jaeger’s opposition, ultimately, was born of love. “I argued and argued with God and really had a wrestling match. I gave God permission to change my heart.” First, though, would come a test – agonizing and heartbreaking. Within days of the disappearance, police received a call from the kidnaper offering to exchange Susie for a ransom. Other calls would follow, but the suspect could never decide how to make the exchange. The family’s hopes rose and fell as reports of possible suspects and tips surfaced, then fizzled. During that time, Jaeger took an unusual step. “I began to pray for him every day, which initially was the last thing I felt like dong,” she said. “I worked hard to discipline myself, to remind myself this man was a son of God, even if he hadn’t behaved like one.” Then after a wire service story about Susie’s disappearance appeared a day before the one-year anniversary, the kidnapper call again. “It became clear he was calling to taunt me,” Jaeger said. “But in spite of the fact he was being very smug and very nasty, to my own amazement, I realized that I was feeling genuine concern and compassion for him.” That concern stunned the kidnapper. He broke down and wept and the two began a conversation that would last and hour. Jaeger flooded him with questions about her daughter: “How are you keeping her: Is she getting any education? How are you fixing her hair: What kind of clothes is she wearing?” The call provided investigators with some much-needed clues. Coupled with other information – and details gleaned from another call to Jaeger – police arrested a 25-year-old man named David Meirhofer nearly three months later. A search at an abandoned Montana ranch turned up a chilling hint of Susie’s fate, however: part of a backbone experts believed came from a young female child. Later, Meirhofer admitted had killed Susie about a week after he had taken her. Even so, Jaeger said she had no interest in revenge. She wanted Meirhofer treated, not executed. Meirhofer accepted an offer from federal authorities to plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. Four hours later, though, he committed suicide. “It was not what I wanted for him,” It was another terrible blow.” Since her daughter’s death, Jaeger has met many parents who have lost children to acts of violence. And she has seen the effects of keeping a vindictive mind-set. “While I’ve been there and know it is a normal, valid human response, I also know we have to get beyond that,” Jaeger said. “I am not saying you forgive and forget, because you never forget.” And she certainly doesn’t believe people who commit violent crimes should be put back on the street. But Jaeger rejects the notion that putting killers to death is a measure of justice for their victims’ families. “There are,” she said, “no amount of retaliatory deaths that will compensate for the loss of our loved ones.

A Change of Heart.

Bill Pelke is a steelworker in Portage who hadn’t given the death penalty a second thought. Until 1985. That was the year his 78-year-old grandmother – Ruth Pelke of Gary – was beaten and stabbed to death by a group of girls who knocked on her door requesting Bible lessons. A 15-year-old girl named Paula Cooper was arrested and charged as the ringleader. At the time, Bill Pelke wanted nothing less than her death. “My thoughts were, they were handing out the death penalty for serious crimes and if she didn’t get it, it would devalue the life of my grandmother,” Pelke said. He thought his prayers had been answered when the teenager was convicted and sentenced to die. Four months later, he had a change of heart. Personal troubles had set Pelke thinking about his life, his grandmother’s life and her death. He pictured tears running down his grandmother’s face – tears he believed could only stem from love and compassion she felt for her young assailant, now sitting alone in a jail cell. Convinced that his grandmother would want a family member to speak out against Cooper’s execution, Pelke became active in the anti-death penalty movement. He participated in protest marches in Florida in 1990 and in Texas in 1991. During the Texas march, Pelke suggested a march be held in Indiana and that Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation – on whose board he serves – should be its sponsor.
The Indiana event is expected to be one of the largest anti-death penalty events is recent years, drawing participants from across the country.
“Murder is a horrible crime,” Pelke insisted. “But there has to be some other way than the death penalty.”

Painful Childhood Memories

When Sam Sheppard talks about executions, childhood pain from long ago still seeps through. In 1954, his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was a 30-year-old surgeon who owned a Dutch Colonial home in suburban Cleveland, a sporty Jaguar and a Lincoln Continental convertible. His mother, Marilyn was 31 and four months pregnant. Life, in short, was good. But in July of that year, Sheppard’s world was turned upside down. “My mother was murdered when I was 7 years old. Within five to six months (of the murder), the State of Ohio asked the jury to execute my father for a crime he didn’t commit,” Sheppard said. “So my view is I lived through the trauma of a murdered parent and then was terrorized by the state with the threat of the execution of my father.” Said Sheppard, also a board member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. A jury ultimately found the elder Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder, instead of first-degree, which meant the death penalty could not be imposed. Eventually, Sheppard won a new trial and was exonerated in 1966. He died four years after being released from prison. His son still shudders at the thought of what could have happened.
“I know that if they had convicted him of first-degree murder and executed him with six to 18 months, which they were doing in those days, I would not be alive.” “I could not have withstood another trauma of that magnitude in my life.”

Like Pelke and Jaeger, Sheppard believes violence –whether in the form of guns on the street or electric chairs in state penitentiaries – is not the solution to violent crime. “I sincerely believe it hurts people more, particularly the children.” Said Sheppard, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. “I went to high school in Indiana, to Culver Military Academy. I know first-hand that people in Indiana are decent, solid people,” he said. “I think if they are exposed to the truth, they will be able to decide for themselves.”