Paula Cooper was fifteen years old when she was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of an elderly woman. According to court documents Paula Cooper and three other girls had skipped school and were drinking and smoking marijuana when they went to the home of the elderly woman, Ruth Pelke and gaining entry into the home by asking for bible lessons. Once inside of the home Paula Cooper and the three other girls would attack the elderly woman and Cooper would stab her over thirty times. The girls would steal ten dollars from the woman and stealing her vehicle. Paula Cooper would be arrested soon after. At trial this teen killer plead guilty to murder and felony murder and would be sentenced to death. Due to her age at the time there was much outrage in the community and soon her death sentence would be commuted to life in prison. After serving over twenty six years in prison Paula Cooper would be paroled. Less than two years after her release she would take her own life.
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Bill Pelke remembers rage and anger pulsating through Northwest Indiana 34 years ago when his gentle grandmother was found butchered in her Gary home.
Pelke felt that same fury toward Paula Cooper, the troubled, abused 15-year-old Gary teen who plunged a knife into Ruth Pelke 33 times after she opened the door of her Glen Park neighborhood home to four teens to give them Bible lessons on May 14, 1985.
Former Lake County Prosecutor Jack Crawford said Ruth Pelke said the “Lord’s Prayer,” during the violent assault.
Cooper pleaded guilty. A year later, Lake Superior Court Judge James Kimbrough gave her the death penalty. She was 16.
The brutal crime still reverberates through Northwest Indiana and is especially raw for those who lived it, like Bill Pelke, now 72, and Cooper’s older sister, Rhonda LaBroi, who joined Pelke briefly during his talk Monday at Indiana University-Northwest.[Most read] Bodies of two friends found in DuSable Harbor after going to River North club over weekend lost control of car, drove into lake: authorities »
A year after Ruth Pelke’s death, Bill Pelke told the audience of his epiphany while praying in a crane cab at Bethlehem Steel in Burns Harbor.
It began with an image of the grandmother he called “Nana.”
Her bludgeoned, crumpled body didn’t come to mind. What emerged was a radiant portrait he held up for the audience to see.
“I think about not how she died, but what she stood for. I knew something had occurred in me. I called it a miracle.”
He said his grandmother would think of Jesus’s words after his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Pelke thought about it, too. The next day he wrote a letter to Cooper, housed on death row at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.
Cooper’s crime likely hastened white flight from Gary, offering justification for those who needed it. Pelke recalled hateful letters printed in the Post-Tribune’s Voice of the People.
“This girl couldn’t be killed soon enough,” he said.
Pelke, though, managed to bury his furor. The Vietnam veteran reached out to Cooper’s anguished grandfather in 1986, bringing him a basket of fruit on Thanksgiving.
LaBroi said her grandfather was astonished at Pelke’s visit. “My grandfather said maybe there is a God because this man really is serious. I really believe he has forgiven.”
Pelke continued to work at Bethlehem Steel and correspond with Cooper. By 1987, he began his own death penalty abolition movement called “Journey of Hope.”
After Pelke’s article about love and forgiveness appeared in the Post-Tribune, an Italian journalist contacted him and came to Indiana.
Even without today’s clamor of social media, Cooper’s story resonated across Europe, which doesn’t have capital punishment.
Pope John Paul II penned a letter to Gov. Robert Orr, asking for Cooper to be spared. An appeal to the United Nations came with 1 million signatures.
In 1987, the General Assembly passed Gary state Sen. Earline Rogers’ bill raising the minimum age for the death penalty from 10 to 16. The measure, however, would not affect Cooper.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for defendants under age 16. In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper’s sentence to 60 years.
Meanwhile, Pelke retired in 1996 and moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where he lives today. He visits often and continues his advocacy in an old Trailways bus with a 24-foot “Journey of Hope,” banner on its side.
He didn’t meet Paula Cooper until 1996.
“I gave her a hug and told her I loved her and I had forgiven her. He visited her several more times until her release at age 43 in 2013, after serving 27 years in prison.
Two weeks after the 30th anniversary of the killing on May 26, 2015, Cooper committed suicide in Indianapolis.
“She was not able to forgive herself,” Pelke said of Cooper’s depression.
Pelke’s own journey has taken him to 20 countries. On this trip home, he said he held his great-grandchild for the first time.
“Revenge is never the answer,” he said of capital punishment. “As long as human beings decide who can live and die, we’re going to make mistakes.”
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