Today’s column is the second in a two-part series on the 1985 murder of Ruth Pelke and her grandson’s crusade to save the life of her killer, chronicled in a new book.
Bill Pelke could not bring himself to clean his grandmother’s blood from the floorboards of her Gary home. His “Nana” was killed May 14, 1985, when four teenage girls talked their way into her house, then viciously stabbed to death the 78-year-old Bible teacher.
Nevertheless, Bill Pelke felt compelled — and convinced — that the 15-year-old girl who was sentenced to death for her grandmother’s murder should not be executed by the state. That girl, Paula Cooper, would become the youngest death row inmate in Indiana, creating international attention and a passionate controversy that would continue after her own death.
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“I believe this is a story about the best and the worst that humanity is capable of,” said Alex Mar, author of the new book.Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy” (Penguin Press, $28).
The book, set to be released March 28, explores overarching themes that have fascinated me about this case — mercy, forgiveness, compassion and empathy — and our lack of such virtues. The book’s title is a reference to biblical scripture, citing Jesus’ words.
“This particular crime inspired a series of individuals, from Lake County to the Vatican, to challenge the status quo — sometimes at great emotional cost — because they believed we could do better,” explained Mar, who lives in New York City.
She stumbled onto this case while researching broader aspects of the justice system.
“I was immediately struck by two things,” Mar told me. “The fact of Paula’s age at the time of the crime, and the choice of her victim’s grandson to forgive her. I wanted very much to try to understand Bill and Paula’s relationship over time; it posed enormous questions about the limits of empathy, forgiveness, and friendship.”
Mar also tried to understand how such a young person could end up doing what Cooper did on that bright spring day in 1985.
“I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question, but I do hope that I’ve captured some important pieces of who she was,” Mar said. “The chaos and abuse that defined her childhood, her incredibly close relationship with her sister in the middle of that chaos, and the vivid intelligence she began to display in her many letters from death row.”
Cooper’s death sentence was later commuted by the Indiana Supreme Court, thanks to the tireless efforts of Pelke and countless strangers who learned about the case. In 1989, Cooper was sentenced to 60 years. She served 27 years until her release in 2013.
Was this proper justice for Cooper’s crime? Our answer may reveal our core values regarding crime and punishment.
“This is a story that asks what any community is willing to accept as just consequences — as justice — for harm done,” Mar writes in the prologue of her 368-page book.
Cooper had earned a college degree in prison, learned culinary skills, and then attempted to live a normal life in the Indianapolis area. “Second chance,” a headline in The Times stated.
Bill Pelke had moved from Portage to Anchorage, Alaska, to live with his life partner, Kathy Harris, whom he met in 1998 while crusading against the death penalty for death row inmates. He founded Journey of Hope, an organization led by murder victims’ family members seeking alternatives to capital punishment. He toured more than 40 states and 15 countries, preaching forgiveness and compassion.
“Jerry, it’s all about love, compassion, and forgiveness,” Pelke told me when I knew him. I can hear his calm voice in my head as I write these words. Mars’ written words echo his feelings.
“If it was wrong for Paula to kill Mrs. Pelke, then why was it ‘justice’ for the state to sentence her to death — particularly for a crime committed at the age of 15?” Mar asked rhetorically. “While Bill’s Baptist father believed that the death sentence was right in (Cooper’s) case, citing his faith, Bill considered it a matter of Christian conviction to forgive. How do we know when our convictions are right?”
We don’t, I thought. Not for every conviction. Something I’ve learned over several decades of personal interactions is that people’s convictions often change over time. At one point in their life, they’re convinced of something that somehow loses conviction over time. Maybe they find or lose God. Maybe an abstract issue becomes a personal one. Or maybe they simply change their mind after experiencing profound circumstances.
Pelke’s conviction about this issue remained intact, without waver, until his death Nov. 12, 2020. He died of an apparent heart attack after exiting his home to shovel the driveway. His funeral, affected by pandemic restrictions, was attended by no more than 15 mourners and livestreamed on the internet, according to Mar’s book.
I remember when I heard the news. I recalled Pelke’s gentle smile, calm voice, and devout Christianity. I wondered if his grandmother could be described the same way. She would be so proud of his life and his actions, I thought.
Cooper wouldn’t die from a heart attack or a vicious stabbing or from racist death threats made after her release from prison. She took her own life after a lifetime of emotional demons, harassing anguish, and haunting guilt.
In a letter to her fiancé, Cooper wrote, “I have taken a life and never felt worthy.”
Cooper died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A Bryco .380-caliber handgun was found on her lap. A digital recorder was found on the seat of her nearby car.
“This pain that I feel every day I walk around — I’m so miserable inside. … This is a reality that’s too much for me to handle,” Cooper said into the recorder, according to Mar’s book. “I must have peace — peace of mind, peace in my heart. … Forgive me, I must go now.”
A headline in The Times stated, “KILLER COMMITS SUICIDE.”
I ask you again, was this proper justice for Cooper’s crime?
When I first read the news, I shook my head in sadness — not for Cooper but for the human condition.
In so many ways, this case illustrates how our species is still in its infancy. Our primal savagery. Our grasps for forgiveness. Our attempts to make sense of the senseless. And our beacon pleas for humanity in the darkness of inhumanity.
We have so much blood on our floorboards yet mercy in our hearts.
Contact Jerry at Jerry.Davich@nwi.com. Watch his “She Said, He Said” podcast. Find him on Facebook. Opinions are those of the writer.