Ruth Pelke

NOTE: Ruth Pelke’s murderer, teen killer Paula Cooper was released from Indiana’s prisons in June 2013. This release was supported by the victim’s grandson, author of the below article.

Posted By: Bill Pelke
To: Members in Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing

Bill Pelke & The Journey of Hope

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bill Pelke & The Journey of Hope
Written by Bill Pelke & Angela Grobben

Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing.

The story we share here with you is a remarkable story.

Written by a man who had to experience the murder of a beloved family member.
Dealing with the pain of loss and the revenge feelings towards the murderers, this is a story of forgiveness and healing, of compassion and love.

It tells how his organization “ Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing”, started and how the members want to share there extreme painful experiences, from either side of the fence….

I want to introduce you to a great man and a dear friend of mine, Bill Pelke

Journey of Hope…from Violence to HealingBy Bill Pelke

On May 14th, 1985 Paula, Karen, April and Denise, 9th grade students at Lew Wallace High School in Gary, Indiana, left the school grounds at lunch time. They planned on ditching the rest of the day. They went to April’s house, where they drank some beer and wine and smoked some marijuana. They began to talk about what they wanted to do for the rest of the day.

They decided they would like to go to the local arcade a few blocks away and play video games. They had one problem. They didn’t have any money. After discussing ways to come up with some money, April told the other girls, “There is an old lady who lives across the alley from where I do. She teaches Bible lessons to neighborhood kids. She lives alone and I think she has money.”

April said, “If you three girls will go to her house and knock on her door and tell her you’d like to take her Bible lessons, I think she’ll let you into her house. If she lets you into her house you can rob her. I’ll stay back as a lookout since she would recognize me.”

The girls all agreed on that plan. With April staying in the background, the other three girls went to my grandmother’s front door and knocked. We called my grandmother Nana. When Nana answered the front door, one of the girls said, “Mrs. Pelke, we’d like to take your Bible lessons.”

Nana said, “Come on in.”

That is the way that Nana was. Nana was a very religious woman and was actively involved in the various services of the local Baptist Church. On Sunday morning she attended Sunday school and then stayed for the worship service. On Sunday evening she would attend the Bible Training hour and stay over for the evening service. On Wednesday she attended prayer meeting and stayed over for choir practice. She was a leader in the boys and girls clubs at the church and involve in the visitation and woman’s missionary program. She was also very active in several programs outside the church called Child Evangelism and Five-Day Clubs. At these events she told flannel graph Bible stories. With the advent of video and such you don’t see this version of storytelling anymore. I have to explain to high school kids what a flannel graph story is.

A board was set on an easel. It was about 2 feet high and about 3 feet wide and covered with felt material. She had cut out pictures of Bible characters with a flannel material pasted on back. The pictures would stick on the board as she told the Bible stories, almost like Velcro.

I remember how as a child I loved to watch Nana telling the stories of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, “David and Goliath”, “Jonah and the Whale”, “Three men in the fiery furnace” and many others. My personal favorite story was about “Joseph and his coat of many colors”. Joseph had received this beautiful colorful coat as a sign of love from his father. Nana would put this colorful coat on the cutout picture of Joseph. His brothers were pictured off to the side in their long, plain drab brown robes. She would tell how the brothers were so jealous and angry they sold him to some slave traders who came by one day while they were out working in the field. I always liked it when Nana put that coat on Joseph.

When I got older and had children of my own, I had the privilege watching Nana teach my children and their friends these same Bible stories. This is what she loved to do. So when these girls told Nana they wanted to take her Bible lessons it was one more chance for her, at the age of 78, to share her faith with young people. She told them, “Come on in.”

When Nana turned her back to go to her desk in the dining room to get some information about the classes, Denise grabbed a vase off of the end table and hit Nana over the head. As Nana fell to the floor, Paula pulled a knife out of her purse and began to stab her. While she was stabbing Nana, Denise and Karen started looking through the house trying to find some money.

They had trouble finding any so they came back to where Nana was still being stabbed and told Paula they were not having any luck. Paula was mad that they couldn’t find any money and told Denise to take the knife. Denise refused so Paula told Karen to take it. Karen took it and twisted and turned the knife in Nana’s body while Paula ransacked the house looking for more money.

The girls came up with a total of $10 and the keys to Nana’s old car. They left Nana to die on the dining room floor. They took her car and drove back to the high school they had left a few hours earlier to see if any of their friends wanted to go joyriding.

My father found Nana’s body the next day. You can imagine the pain, the sorrow and the anger that my family felt.

The girls were arrested the day following the discovery of Nana’s body. I had great difficulty believing that four girls so young could have gotten involved in such a terrible, heinous crime. I had children that were the same age.

The trials began about a year later. April Beverly, the girl that had known Nana and set her up was sentenced to 25 years in prison even though she was not in the house when the murder took place.

Denise, the girl that was accused of hitting Nana over the head with a vase was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The State of Indiana at one point said they were going to go for the death penalty for all four of the girls, but they decided to just go for the death penalty for the two girls who handled the knife. Both girls pled guilty, so there was no criminal trial. Each girl simply had a sentencing hearing.

The first girl, Karen Corder, who was sixteen at the time of the crime pled guilty to twisting and turning the knife in Nana’s body for 15-20 minutes. The judge had the choice of either sentencing Karen to death or to Indiana’s alternative at that time of 60-years in prison. He elected not to sentence her to death and gave her the 60-year sentence. The judge stated the reason he was not giving her the death sentence was because she was under the influence of a dominating personality, Paula Cooper.

Paula Cooper was 15 years old at the time of the murder. She was the one who brought the knife along. Paula pled guilty to stabbing Nana. She was deemed to be the ringleader of the girls. There was a four-hour sentencing hearing to determine what her punishment would be. Would she live or die?

The prosecution spent a little over two hours telling why she should get the death penalty. My father was one of the witnesses for the prosecution. He stated what he saw when he walked into the house that day and identified pictures that were taken at the crime scene. My father told the judge that it would be a travesty of justice if she did not get the death sentence. He pulled a paper from his pocket that listed about 25 or 30 Bible references that he said called for the death penalty.

The defense spent about an hour and a half stating why she should not get the death penalty. Then the Judge James Kimbrough gave his decision. I’ll never forget the words of the judge that day. He started off by saying that when he graduated from law school in 1959 that there was one thing that he knew for sure – and that was the fact that he was opposed to the death penalty. He said at that time the majority of the people in the United States were opposed to the death penalty. But the judge went on to say how the pendulum had now swung to the direction where the majority of the people in our country wanted, in fact demanded the death penalty. He stated that he hoped that someday soon, the American public would have their fill of death that this penalty brought and that it would come to an end.

Then he went on to say that according to the laws of the State of Indiana, he had no choice. He sentenced Paula Cooper to death. She became the youngest female on death row in our country. I am ashamed to admit it, but that was okay with me. I knew our country had a death penalty and that people were being sentenced to death for various crimes of murder and some were even being executed. I felt that if they didn’t give the death penalty to the person who murdered Nana, then they were telling me and the rest of my family that my grandmother was not an important enough person to merit the perpetrator being sentenced to death. Well, I thought Nana was a very important person and for that reason alone I had no problem that the death penalty was given.

When I walked out of the court room, television cameras were present. I was asked my opinion of what had just happened in court. I stated, “I feel that the judge did what he had to do”. Then fighting back tears, I added, “But it won’t bring my grandmother back”.

That was on July 11th, 1986.

Three and a half months later, on November 2, 1986, I was at work at Bethlehem Steel where I had been employed for about 20 years as an overhead crane operator. I was working the 3-11 shift and had been told at the start of the turn that my services as a crane operator would be needed at the west end of the mill.

So I climbed up the fifty feet of stairs to get to my crane cab. I took my crane down to the area where I was told I was needed, but when I looked around for the people that were to need my services, there was no one there. As I sat back in my chair I began to think about Nana’s life and her death. As tears came into my eyes, I asked God “Why?

I asked God why He had allowed one of his most precious angels to suffer such a terrible death.” Nana was a good Christian woman. Our family was a good Christian family. I asked God why our family had to suffer so. As I thought about Nana my mind flashed back to the courtroom on the day Paula Cooper was sentenced to death. As the judge began to deliver his sentence there was an old man sitting in the galley that began to cry and wail very loudly, “They’re going to kill my baby! They’re going to kill my baby!”

The judge looked over to the bailiff and said, “Bailiff, escort that man from the courtroom. He’s disrupting the proceedings.” I remembered watching as the old man walked by me as he was being led out of the courtroom. Tears were coming out of his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. I found out later he was Paula Cooper’s grandfather.

I also recalled as Paula Cooper was led off to death row. There were tears coming out of her eyes, rolling down her cheeks and onto her light blue dress causing dark blotches.

It was that point when I began to picture an image of Nana. There had been a very beautiful picture of Nana taken about a year and a half before her death. Whenever the newspapers did a story about her death, about the trials, or about the death sentence being given to Paula Cooper, they showed this very special picture. I began to envision an image of that picture, but there was one distinct difference.

I pictured tears coming out of Nana’s eyes and streaming down her cheeks.

I knew that they were tears of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. I knew Nana would not want this old man to have to go through what a grandfather would have to go through to see his granddaughter that he loved very much, strapped in the electric chair and the volts of electricity put through her body until she was dead. I knew Nana would not wish this on that old man.

I also thought about how Nana had invited Paula into her home to tell her about Jesus. I felt that Nana would have wanted someone from our church, family or community be more interested in trying to continue to share that faith to Paula, rather than being so interested in seeing her put to death.

I began to think about Nana’s love for Jesus and I immediately thought of 3 things that Jesus had to say about forgiveness. The first thing I thought about was the “Sermon on the Mount” in the book of Matthew. This is where Jesus said, “If you want your father in heaven to forgive you, then you need to forgive others.”

I also thought of when Jesus was teaching the disciples about forgiveness, and Peter asked, “How many times are you supposed to forgive…? 7 times?”

Jesus answered by saying, “seventy times seven.”

I knew that didn’t mean that you forgive 490 times and then cease to forgive, but that Jesus was saying forgiveness should be a habit, a way of life.

The third thing that I thought about that night in the crane cab, was when Jesus was crucified. I envisioned the nails in his hands and his feet and the crown of thorns on his brow and Jesus looking up to heaven and saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.”

I thought to myself that Paula Cooper didn’t know what she was doing. Anyone who takes a 12-inch butcher knife and stabs someone 33 times doesn’t know what they are doing. What happened that day was a crazy, crazy …crazy senseless act.

I knew that forgiveness would be the right thing, and thought, maybe someday I would try to forgive her.

But once again I pictured that image of Nana with the tears coming out of her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. There was no doubt in my mind that they were tears of love and compassion. I felt she wanted someone in our family to have that same love and compassion. I felt like it fell on my shoulders. Even though I knew forgiveness was the right thing…love and compassion was something else. I didn’t have a bit of it because of the brutal and heinous way that Nana had been murdered. Yet those tears that I pictured in her eyes dictated to me that I try to generate some sort of love and compassion.

I felt if I didn’t at least try, then whenever I would think about Nana I would feel guilty that I hadn’t tried. I didn’t not want to feel guilty when I thought about Nana.

As I sat up in the crane cab that night, not knowing what else to do, with tears coming out of my eyes and streaming down my cheeks, I started praying again. I begged God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and to do it on behalf of Nana. I asked those things in Jesus’ name

It was just a short prayer.

Then I began to think about how I could write Paula Cooper a letter and tell her about Nana. I could share Nana’s faith and tell her about a God that loved her and a God that would forgive her.

I realized that God had answered my prayer. My heart had been touched with compassion and I no longer wanted Paula to die. I suddenly felt it would be terribly wrong for the State of Indiana to strap her in the electric chair and put the volts of electricity to her.

And I learned the most important lesson of my life that night. It was about the healing power of forgiveness. When my heart was touched with compassion, forgiveness took place. I didn’t need to try and forgive her. The forgiveness was automatic and it brought this tremendous healing.

It had been a year and a half since Nana’s death and whenever I thought about her, I envisioned how she died and it was absolutely horrendous. I pictured someone that I loved dearly, butchered on the dining room floor of her home. This is where we went every year on Christmas Eve; this is where we went for Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays and other happy, joyous occasions. We would sit around the large dining room table and have wonderful meals and a great time. To picture her butchered on that dining room floor was terrible. When I say butchered, that’s how I saw it.

The autopsy report said that not only had she been stabbed 33 times with a 12-inch butcher knife, but they had a section of the carpet that was under Nana’s body in the courtroom that day. They showed how the carpet had been shredded by the knife. They also had pictures of the hardwood floor that was beneath the carpet. The pictures showed how the hardwood floor had been bruised and splintered by the knife. I envisioned her butchered on the dining room floor. But when my heart was touched with love and compassion, forgiveness took place, and I knew from that moment on, that I would no longer picture how Nana died, but I would picture how she lived, what she stood for, what she believed and the beautiful, wonderful person that she was.

And I knew that I did not need to see someone else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.

A tremendous healing had taken place within me. God had done something wonderful. For years I’ve used different words to describe that experience. I’ve called it a miracle, I’ve called it an epiphany, I’ve called it a mountain top experience, and I have said that it felt like I’d been born again. I was TRANSFORMED.

I wanted to do whatever I could do to help Paula Cooper. Before I left my job that night, I made God two promises. I promised that any success that came to my life as a result of forgiving Paula Cooper, that I would give God the honor and glory. It wasn’t anything I had done; it was because God had touched my heart. I promised I would give God the credit.

I also promised God that any door that opened as a result of forgiving Paula Cooper, I would walk through it. If I would have had any idea of the doors that would open, I would’ve been too scared to make that promise. That was over 25 years ago and I have kept those two promises to this day.

The next day I wrote Paula Cooper a letter and explained to her about my experience of forgiveness. I told her how I wanted to try and help her. I asked her for her grandfather’s address, and told her I would like to visit with him. I also wanted to visit with Paula.

I didn’t know if she would respond or not but about ten days later I got a letter from her. It was clear that we both wanted to visit each other; however the Department of Corrections in the State of Indiana wouldn’t allow it. We tried to visit for a number of years, but they simply wouldn’t allow it. Since we couldn’t visit, we began to exchange letters about every 10 days.

I was able to visit with her grandfather shortly before Thanksgiving. I was able to go to his house with a fruit basket and look at family photo albums of when Paula was a little girl. She was a beautiful little girl and no one would have thought she would grow up and commit such a terrible crime.

I ran into an old friend shortly after my transformation in the crane. I hadn’t seen him since Nana’s death. When I saw him, he walked up to me and said, “Bill, I hope that bitch burns.”

A lot of people had said something similar to that after Nana’s death. It was their way to express condolences about her death. I just looked at him and said, “I don’t”. He asked, “What do you mean?” I explained to him a little bit of what happened in the crane and how I had prayed for love and compassion. When I finished talking to him, he looked at me and said, “You know, I don’t want her to die either. You should write a letter to the ‘Voice of the People’ section of the Gary Post Tribune and tell how you feel.”

A lot of people had been writing to the “Voice of the People” section after Nana’s death about the death penalty. Most of the articles said Paula should die. I wrote a short article that was titled, “The answer is love, prayer and forgiveness”. I signed it the grandson of Ruth Pelke.

I wanted to see what kind of dialogue that the article would generate, but surprisingly all articles on the death penalty stopped. I checked daily and there was nothing. About 100 days after the article appeared, I got a telephone call from an Italian Journalist whose name was Anna. She told me that when Paula Cooper was sentenced to death it was headlines in papers throughout Europe. She explained how they don’t have the death penalty in Europe.

Anna informed me that the Paula Cooper case had generated quite a sensation in Italy. She told me a group called “Don’t Kill” had formed to gather signatures asking the State of Indiana not to execute Paula Cooper. Because of all the interest in the Cooper case, Anna and a colleague decided to come to Indiana and do some interviews.

They had called the “Gary Post Tribune” and said, “We’re coming to the area to do a story on the Paula Cooper case, whom do you recommend that we interview?” Anna was told, “There is the attorney, there is the grandfather, there is an investigator and oh yes, a grandson of the victim wrote an article a while back talking about forgiveness.”

Anna told me. “We in Italy don’t picture Americans as being very forgiving people. When we come and do our interviews, do you mind if we talk to you?”

I said “Sure I’d be happy to.”

So Anna and her colleague, representing the three largest papers in Italy, came to Gary, and did their interviews. They also went to Indianapolis to talk with Paula. They went back to Italy and wrote about their interviews in a three day series of articles. A short time later, I got a telephone call from a popular TV program in Italy and was told that they were going to do a program about Paula Cooper. I was asked if I would come to Italy and be on the program.

Of course, I said, “I’d be happy to go.”

On May 14th, 1987, the 2nd anniversary of Nana’s death, I flew to Rome, Italy. When I got to Italy, there was a major press conference. I was shocked at how much attention Italy pays to the death penalty issue. Italy is among the leaders in trying to bring about worldwide abolition of the death penalty. After the press conference, I went to the television station for an interview about the upcoming program. I found out that the cameramen were going to go on a wildcat strike which is quite common in Italy. The program director said they would have to send me back to Indiana and that maybe in a month or two they would try to do the program again and bring me back.

I had just been on a 10-hour plane trip to get to Italy. I didn’t want to get right back on a plane and go home. For one thing I was afraid that if I went home they’d never bring me back again and I wanted to tell my story. I told them I could get some more time off from work and could stay until the strike was over. I also told them it might be cheaper for them if I stayed because they wouldn’t have to pay for another plane ticket. After a short conference and they said, “You can stay as long as you like, and in fact we’ll give you one million lire’ to help with your expenses while you are here.” I hadn’t been in Italy long enough to know what the exchange rate was, but a million sounded pretty good to me.

I ended up being in Italy for 19 days.

Two priests who started “Don’t Kill” drove me around within a 150 mile radius of Rome, where I spoke at schools, churches and to various types of media. The organization had collected 40,000 signatures to send to the governor of the State of Indiana and I was very happy knowing that 40,000 people wanted Paula Cooper to live. In Northwest Indiana it seemed like I was the only one who wanted her to live.

As we traveled around Italy, I had the chance to thank people for signing the petitions and encouraged others to sign. I also had a chance to go to the Vatican and to speak on Vatican radio. Being raised as a Baptist from the time I was a little boy, I never thought I’d ever go to the Vatican, and now here I was on Vatican radio. I spoke on the national and international segments. I talked about love and compassion and forgiveness. I told of Nana’s love for Jesus and talked about the healing power forgiveness. I told the listeners that I didn’t want Paula strapped in the electric chair and her life taken from her.

I had the opportunity to go back to Italy two more times over the next couple of years. Each time I encouraged people to sign the petitions. I thanked those people who had. By the fall of 1989 over 2 million people had signed the petition asking the state of Indiana to take Paula Cooper off of death row. Pope John Paul II got involved in Paula’s case and asked the governor to have mercy on Paula.

Paula’s case drew a lot of international publicity and the State of Indiana became very embarrassed when people around the world found out Indiana law called for a 10 year-old to get the death penalty. The legislatures felt they should raise the age limit for which a person could be sentenced to death. They raised the age limit to 16, but they stipulated that Paula Cooper was still supposed to be executed under the old law.

I got a telephone call while I was at work in the fall of 1989. The caller identified himself as a journalist with UPI. He said, “Mr. Pelke, on the automatic appeal before the Indiana Supreme Court, they have just taken Paula Cooper off of death row and commuted her sentence to 60 years in prison.”

He told me the reason she was taken off of death row was because the justices said it would be exclusionary if she were the only one executed under the old law. He asked me for a comment. The first words out of my mouth were, “Praise the Lord.” I went on and gave testimony about Nana and her faith. I talked about love and compassion and forgiveness. I told him how I was glad that she was off of death row because I made a promise that if Paula was to be executed I would have walked hand in hand with her to the electric chair. I was glad that I would not have to do that. During the next hour and a half I had 15 calls from various media around the country asking for my comments. I told them each the same thing. It was a great day for me.

Shortly after Paula was taken off of death row I began to make plans to go on a two-week march against the death penalty during April of 1990. The march was to start at Florida’s death row in Starke, and end at the burial site of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia. The march was billed as a spiritual march to light the torch of conscience in churches about issue of the death penalty. Since it was spiritual reasons that I was opposed to the death penalty, I felt I should go.

Before I left, my wife said, “Why don’t you just go for one week instead of two?”

I said, “I wouldn’t know which week to pick. I think I should be there for both weeks.”

Then she asked, “Who’s going to be there?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

She said, “Well what are you going to do on the march?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

She said, “Well, where are you going to sleep?”

I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything except I feel I need to be there.”

Finally I got her blessings and drove my van from Indiana to Florida. When I got to Florida I went to the registration table for the Pilgrimage March. Sitting behind the table was one of the organizers, Sister Helen Prejean. Many of you will be familiar with that name. She wrote a book three years later called “Dead Man Walking”. It was made into movie and Susan Sarandon won the academy award as best actress for playing Sister Helen.

I got to know Sister Helen and the other marchers pretty well as we walked the highways ‘putting the rubber to the road’. I also began to get a real education about the death penalty. I learned how it cost more to execute a person than it does to keep them in prison for the rest of their life. One person on the march had coauthored a book called “In spite of innocence” that told of 23 people who were executed in the 20th century and later proven to be innocent. I learned about innocent people who were presently on death row. I learned there are no rich people on death row, only poor ones. I learned many of the people on death row had ineffective council. The thing that got to me the most was walking down the highways with people who had loved ones on death row. There were daughters with fathers on death row, wives with husbands on death row and mothers with sons on death row.

I realized that if you execute somebody, you create more victim family members. It was on this march with Sister Helen that I dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty. The same day that I decided to dedicate my life to this cause Rick Halperin announced to us that there would be a similar event in Texas the following year. Without hesitation I stated that I would be there.

While on the Texas Against State Killing March (TASK March) I came up with an idea of having an event an event that was led by murder victim’s family members who were opposed to the death penalty. I knew from my involvement with the Paula Cooper’s case and from the two marches I had been on that the media was always interested in murder victims’ family members that didn’t want revenge. The media was used to hearing victims’ families call for revenge.

I felt that if murder victims’ family members would take a stand against the death penalty then others would stand by our side and support us. Six months earlier, Marie Deans, founder of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) asked me to be on her board and help them get the 501 (c) 3 non-profit status. I talked to Marie about my idea and MVFR hosted their first main event two years later which was known as the Indiana Journey of Hope.

The rest is history – see