The Ruth Pelke Story: How Her Grandson Forgave Her Killer
It was a bright spring day in 1985. Paula Cooper and three of her friends were on their lunch break at Lew Wallace High School in Gary Indiana. Feeling bored, the teenage girls thought they needed something to do. So they decided to go out and burglarize somebody’s house.
The group first got high on marijuana and wine. Then, armed with a knife, they went to the home of 78-year-old Bible teacher, Ruth Pelke. They told Mrs. Pelke they were interested in her Bible lessons, and she invited them in. Once inside they immediately attacked the elderly woman, hitting her on the head with a vase and knocking her to the floor. They demanded that she give them money.
In the words of Prosecutor Jack Crawford, when Ruth Pelke said that she didn’t have any money, Paula Cooper “started torturing her, slicing her with the butcher knife across her chest.”
According to court records, Cooper personally stabbed Mrs. Pelke in the chest and stomach 33 times, killing her. One thrust was so powerful that it went clear through the victim’s chest, leaving a mark on the floor beneath her. As she lay on that floor dying, Ruth Pelke was saying the Lord’s prayer.
Far from being horrified at the savage crime they had just committed, the four teenagers couldn’t resist bragging about what they had done. That contributed to their being arrested just a day later.
A young but vicious killer is sent to death row
At the time of this robbery and murder, which yielded the attackers a grand total of $10, Paula Cooper was just 15 years of age. In 1986 she was tried, convicted, and at the age of 16, sentenced to death in Indiana’s electric chair. She became the youngest person on death row in the country.
Despite the viciousness of her crime, Paula Cooper’s youth caused many people around the world to advocate that her death sentence be rescinded. In Europe more than 2 million people signed a petition asking that she not be executed. One of those who got personally involved was Pope John Paul II, who sent a papal emissary to Indiana, and personally appealed to Governor Robert Orr to spare Cooper’s life.
Another advocate for leniency was, surprisingly, the grandson of the woman Cooper so horrifically murdered.
Love and compassion for a killer?
Bill Pelke had a very hard time with the way his grandmother died. “For a year and a half,” he says, “whenever I thought about my grandmother, I always pictured how she died. It was terrible.” He initially felt that the death penalty was entirely appropriate for the crime Cooper had committed.
But then his thoughts began to turn to how his Bible-teaching grandmother had lived, and what she stood for. It started when he saw Paula Cooper’s grandfather at the trial.
“My grandmother would not have wanted this old man to witness his teenage granddaughter die,” Pelke says.
Over time Bill Pelke became more and more convinced that his grandmother would have had an attitude of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. Said Pelke,
My Grandmother would have been appalled that this girl was on death row. I was convinced that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for this girl and this girl’s family and convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother wanted me to have that same love and compassion. I did not have any. But I was so convinced that’s what she would have wanted that in a short prayer I begged God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.
That prayer was answered. Within three months of the time Cooper was sentenced to death, Bill Pelke was able to forgive Paula Cooper for what she had done to his grandmother. He became one of the strongest and most visible advocates for removing Cooper from death row. And his advocacy was effective.
A killer is set free
In 1989 a series of rulings in both state and federal courts led to the Indiana Supreme Court commuting Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison. She earned credits toward early release, and in June of 2013, at the age of 43, she was set free on parole after having served 27 years.
VIDEO: Paula Cooper - A second chance at life
During her incarceration, Bill Pelke visited Cooper in prison, and the two eventually began exchanging weekly emails. He never asked her to explain why she had committed the horrific murder because, as he said, “there’s not a good answer for that.” Still, Pelke became convinced that Cooper was truly remorseful for what she had done.
“She would take it back in a heartbeat if she could, but she knows she has to live with it for the rest of her life,” he said. “She knows she took something valuable out of society. She wants to try to give back. She wants to help work with other young people to avoid the pitfalls that she fell into. She wants to try to give back to society.”
Paula Cooper turns her life around
During the almost three decades she was incarcerated, Paula Cooper does seem to have changed from the angry and bitter teenager who could viciously kill without remorse, to a more stable and mature adult. At the beginning of her term in prison she had a difficult time, including being sentenced in 1995 to three years in solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard. But she finally decided “it was time to really sit down and buckle down and get it.”
While serving her term, she earned a GED, a vocational degree and, in 2001, a bachelor’s degree. She tutored other prisoners in culinary arts, and became known as a leader among the inmates.
People have expressed strong feelings about the release of Paula Cooper. With whom do you most agree?
“Seven, eight years ago, I couldn’t say I was ready to go home, and I wouldn’t tell anybody that because that was a lie,” Cooper said before her release. “My time is coming and, you know, I just hope that people give me a chance out there. That’s it – because people do change.”
And one of the people Cooper credits most for the change in her life is Bill Pelke, who visited her in prison a total of 15 times.
“He’s my biggest encouragement,” she said before her release.
Bill Pelke tells the story of his grandmother's murder, and how his own life was transformed by the power of forgiveness.
Ruth Pelke’s death changed her grandson’s life
To some, Bill Pelke’s attitude toward the woman who attacked and killed his grandmother with unimaginable savagery might seem extremely odd. He not only forgave her for the crime, but committed himself to doing all he could to help her put her life back together. Even members of his own family had difficulty understanding Pelke’s attitude, and for a time there was strain within the family because of it.
What could possibly explain such kindness by a member of the victim’s family toward the person who murdered her with such callous viciousness?
I think I know the answer.
The Bible teacher still teaches
It’s that Bible Bill Pelke’s grandmother used to teach. In it Jesus commands, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). As Pelke began to think about his grandmother’s way of life, he became convinced she would have displayed the attitude Jesus calls for in His followers, even toward her own killer. And that conviction changed Bill Pelke’s attitude and his life.
“It’s been a long journey, that’s for sure,” says Pelke, who has become an anti-death penalty activist, “but what I learned about love and compassion and forgiveness in 1986 has just kept me going.”
As her grandson’s change of heart demonstrates, Ruth Pelke’s life may have ended in 1985, but her Bible-teaching ministry continues.
On May 26, 2015 Paula Cooper was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Her parole was to have ended in June, but after spending most of her life in prison, she apparently was not prepared to live on her own.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin