Victim’s grandson finds forgiveness in wake of brutal Gary slaying
MERRILLVILLE — Bill Pelke at about 4 p.m. Tuesday received the phone call he had been waiting for since Paula Cooper walked out of the Rockville Correctional Facility on Monday morning a free woman.
“Paula Cooper is safe. They guaranteed it,” Pelke said, a slight smile conveying his relief in the news received from contacts within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Pelke has been worried about Cooper since she was released from prison after serving a 60-year sentence, reduced by about half for good time and education credit, for the brutal 1985 murder of Pelke’s grandmother, Ruth Pelke, in the Glen Park neighborhood of Gary.
Cooper, 15 at the time of the crime, was sentenced to die. Pelke, whose own son turned 15 the day his grandmother was killed, spent the better part of the next almost three decades advocating to save Cooper’s life and eradicate the death penalty altogether.
Pelke, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, had hoped to greet Cooper outside the prison gates as she took her first steps as a free woman but received a request from Cooper’s mother that he not be present. He visited her 15 times while she was incarcerated, but was looking forward to the chance to see her walk free.
“I want to welcome her back to society, the free world. I want to reinforce: I will do whatever I can do to help her get a job. To me, it is very important she is successful,” Pelke said.
His forgiveness of Cooper belies the crime that drew the pair’s lives together.
Cooper and three of her teenage classmates at Lew Wallace High School hatched a plan to rob empty homes.
When the group broke into the home of retired Bible school teacher Ruth Pelke, they were surprised to find the 78-year-old home. What followed was a vicious booze and marijuana fueled attack that left the grandmother slashed and stabbed 33 times.
“When it first happened, it was so painful I couldn’t stand to think about it,” Pelke said. About 18 months after his grandmother’s murder, as he was sitting in the crane he operated at the former Bethlehem Steel, he came to the realization he had to let the hatred go.
“I no longer pictured how she died but how she lived. When I did, something tremendous happened,” Pelke said.
He remembered seeing Cooper’s grandfather cry as his granddaughter was sentenced to death. Pelke said he could picture his grandmother with tears running down her face but said those tears were of compassion and forgiveness.
“Forgiveness should be a habit. It should be a way of life,” Pelke said.
During that catharsis, Pelke said, he made two promises he has kept to this day: the first was to give God honor and glory for any success he has had in life and the second was to go through any door that opened up.
That first door opened up shortly after he opened his heart to compassion when an Italian news outlet became fascinated by Pelke’s desire to forgive and by Indiana’s efforts to execute a child. Pelke’s and Cooper’s story quickly gained international attention and fueled a petition bearing more than 2 million signatures demanding Cooper’s life be spared.
Pelke said he had to step up and speak out in an effort to save Cooper’s life, a move he said his grandmother would have wanted.
“At the time it seemed like everybody in Northwest Indiana wanted her to die,” Pelke said.
Over the years he told his story of forgiveness to anyone that would listen. Twenty years ago he helped found Journey of Hope, which advocates against the death penalty around the world.
“I’ve probably told my story 5,000 to 6,000 times,” Pelke said. “I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing.”
Ultimately, Cooper’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years when the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to execute anyone under the age of 18.
Pelke and Cooper have seen each other over the years and regularly correspond.
“I’ve never asked her what happened. There are no good answers for why it happened,” Pelke said. He said he does not need to know.
“Paula Cooper didn’t know what she was doing,” he said, adding no one in their right mind would stab someone with a 12-inch butcher knife. What she did then no longer matters, it is what she does now, he said.
Pelke looks forward to a continued relationship with Cooper now that she has been released. He knows Cooper’s transition back into society will be a difficult one, but he is confident she will do well if she is able to take advantage of the various support networks being made available to her. Part of that support network was ensuring her safety Tuesday, out of the public eye and the pressure that comes with it.
“I wish her the best,” Pelke said.
He is hopeful at some time in the future Cooper will be secure enough in her new environment to stand by his side and share their story together as part of the Journey of Hope.
One day he would like to return with Cooper to the country where the campaign to save her life began so she can meet the people responsible and they can see how her life has changed.
“One of the things I really look forward to is going to Italy with Paula,” Pelke said.