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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Families seek reconciliation over murders

By: S. Jane Thomas
Staff Writer
Sun-Warner Robins

    Bill Pelke went from hating the 15-year-old girl who stabbed his grandmother to death in 1985 to forgiving her and helping her get off of death row.
    Pelke is a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, which is conducting a Journey of Hope throughout Georgia this month.  While on tour, Pelke and others who have lost loved ones to murder will tell of their journey toward inner peace and crusade against the death penalty.
    Pelke said on May 14, 1985, four freshman girls skipped school in Gary, Ind., with the intention of playing video games, but they didn’t have any money.  One of the girls knew Pelke’s grandmother.  They went to her house, and she let them in.
    “One of them hit her on the head with a vase and another girl – Paula Cooper – took a butcher knife out of her purse and stabbed my grandmother to death,” Pelke said.
    The trial of the girls took a year and a half and the district attorney sought the death penalty against two of the girls.  Cooper was sentenced to death for stabbing Pelke’s grandmother and became the youngest female in the United States to receive the death penalty.
    “At the time, I had no problem with the death penalty,” Pelke said.  “I thought if they didn’t ask for the death penalty in my grandmother’s murder, they would be saying she wasn’t an important enough person.  But I would have accepted whatever penalty the district attorney had sought.”
    However, four months later, Pelke had a change of heart.  He was sitting in his overhead crane at the steel factory where he worked and pictured his grandmother with tears of compassion for Cooper.
    “My grandmother was a religious person and she shared her faith freely,” Pelke said.  “I felt she would have been more interested in someone receiving religious faith rather than receiving the death penalty.  I was convinced she wouldn’t want the girl’s father to have to see her executed.”
    He said he spent a lot of time thinking about his grandmother’s life and her faith and became convinced forgiveness was the right path.
    “But as for compassion, I had none,” Pelke said.  “I asked God for love and compassion for Paula and her family.”  It was at that point, Pelke wrote a letter to Cooper on death row describing his grandmother’s life, her faith in God and her ability to forgive.
    “At that point, God did give me love and compassion for Paula,” he said.  “And I realized I didn’t want her to die.  I felt that would have been wrong.  The forgiveness was not something I had to work for then, it came automatically and that brought tremendous healing.”
    His life completely turned around once he was able to forgive Cooper.  For a year and a half, he was only able to picture Cooper as the woman who had butchered his grandmother on her dining room floor – the very room where his family gathered for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and other special occasions.
    But once he was able to picture his grandmother as she had been and what she stood for, he was able to let go of the hate and pain.  So, he began to concentrate his energies on sharing his grandmother’s faith with Cooper.
    “There have still been a lot of tears, but they have been tears of joy because I have been able to love someone who hurt my family deeply,” Pelke said.
    In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court took Cooper off death row and converted her sentence to 60 years in prison.  She and Pelke have exchanged more than 300 letters since that time.
    “She’s not the same person she was 1985,” he said.  “I learned she was the victim of child abuse, and from that she knew one thing and that was how to hate.  My goal for her now is to have as strong a love for Jesus Christ as my grandmother did.
    “I made a promise to God that any doors he opened by allowing me to forgive Paula, I would walk through them,” he said.  “I figured it would be speaking at local Sunday school classes and a reporter or two when they heard I was against the death penalty.  But as I spoke to various groups, I received an education on the death penalty.”
    Learning more about the death penalty is what prompted Pelke to begin actively speaking out against death as a crime deterrent crime.
    The basic tenet of MVFR is that killing is wrong whether it is by the government or by an individual, according to Pat Bane, director of MVFR and niece of a murder victim.
    “It’s the same act no matter who does it,” she said.  “It sends the message that killing is necessary, and we don’t think it is.”
    The group is accessible not only to families who have lost loved ones to murder but to the families of people on death row.
    “We are essentially the victims of the same violent society,” Bane said.  “The mother of a son on death row goes through the same pain the family of the victim goes through as appeal hearings come and go.  MVFR allows us all to come together.”
    Pelke said MVFR members feel the need to share the Journey of Hope with a “hurting society.”
    “I believe in love and compassion for all of humanity not only to the death penalty but to all society’s problems,” Pelke said.