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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The campaign to save the life of Paula Cooper, who at 16 became the youngest Death Row inmate in Indiana, attracted international attention after she pleaded guilty to murder in 1986.
Her successful appeal eventually led to her June 2013 release after serving 27 years in prison.
But on Tuesday, Cooper’s story came to a somber end in Indianapolis. Police say she was found dead, apparently by her own hand.
Cooper, 45, died just after 7:15 a.m. from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in the 9500 block of Angola Court, according to Indianapolis Metropolitan Police. Marion County coroner’s office on Wednesday ruled her death a suicide
A police report said the responding officer “located the victim lying next to a tree on the west lawn area of the ITT parking lot.” A Bryco .380-caliber handgun was in the victim’s lap and a black Toyota Corolla registered to Cooper was parked nearby.
“It’s an unusual ending to a tragic case,” said Indianapolis attorney Jack Crawford, who was the Lake County prosecutor when Cooper was charged. “I’ve been involved in a lot of cases in my life, and nothing compared to this case.”
Cooper became infamous in 1985 when at 15 she was charged with murder in the stabbing of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke during a robbery. Law enforcement identified Cooper as the ringleader in the slaying. She and three friends went to Pelke’s Gary home armed with a 12-inch butcher knife.
An investigation showed Pelke allowed the teens into her home after they said they were interested in Bible study lessons. But the scene turned grisly when they knocked Pelke to the ground and Cooper climbed on top of her.
“Paula Cooper got on top of her and kept saying to her, and this is her own admission, ‘Where’s the money, bitch?'” Crawford told The Indianapolis Star during a 2013 interview. He said Cooper began slicing Pelke with the butcher knife. The woman’s last words were the Lord’s Prayer.
The other teens involved were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on robbery or murder charges: 25, 35 and 60 years. But when Paula Cooper was sentenced, the judge invoked capital punishment.
The decision led to an immediate shift in public outrage. Paula Cooper was among only a handful of women in Indiana to receive the death penalty, and she was the youngest in the state’s history. At the time of her sentencing, she was also the youngest Death Row inmate in the United States.
The 30th anniversary of the murder was just two weeks ago.
Bill Pelke, a grandson of the slain Bible teacher, told The Star on Tuesday that he forgave Paula Cooper, who said she had been abused as a child. He said he visited her in prison 14 times. They exchanged emails almost weekly the last two years of her incarceration.
In one of their last messages, Paula Cooper told Pelke her time in prison was about up and she was scared. She had spent most of her life incarcerated. She had never written a check or paid a bill.
There was so much, Pelke said, that she didn’t know how to do.
He offered to help. But the two talked only once after she was released.
Pelke said he was devastated to hear of Cooper’s death.
“We had wanted to do things together around restorative justice and the death penalty,” he said. She wanted to be an example for other young people who have been abused.
“She wanted to tell them, ‘Look, this is how I responded to the hate and anger, and look at all the trouble I got into,'” he said. “She wanted to give them alternatives so they didn’t end up like her.”
Cooper’s pursuit of an appeal made her world renowned. According to the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Supreme Court received 2 million signatures in support of her appeal. Pope John Paul II sent an emissary to Crawford’s office and wrote an appeal to then-Gov. Robert Orr. The United Nations received a million signatures in support of overturning Cooper’s death penalty.
Two years after Cooper’s sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court, which was already considering the issue of imposing death sentences on teens, ruled it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who was younger than 16 at the time the person committed a crime. Indiana lawmakers later raised the minimum age from 10 to 16 in 1989 and again to 18 in 2002.
“A lot of things have changed,” Crawford said. “It was a truly unique case.”
The Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper’s death sentence and sent her to prison for 60 years. She served 27 years of that sentence until her 2013 release.
Kevin Relphorde, who served as Cooper’s public defender, said Tuesday he was stunned by the news. He said he hadn’t spoken to Paula Cooper in years and had lost track of her.
“Paula was a good person,” he said. “She was very misunderstood. She went through a lot at the hands of her father, with physical abuse, and I think that led to the situation with Mrs. Pelke.”
Her time at the Rockville Correctional Facility began with troubles. In 1995, she was sentenced to three years of solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard.
“I was very bitter and angry, so I was in a lot of trouble. I hated it. But I learned to adapt eventually,” she said in a 2004 interview with The Star.
Paula Cooper soon began pursuing educational opportunities, first earning her GED, then a vocational degree, and in 2001 a bachelor’s degree. Beginning in 2011, she worked as a tutor.
“She couldn’t deal with the outside world,” speculated Warren W. Lewis, a retired dean and professor at Martin University who taught Cooper at the Indiana Women’s Prison.
“I knew her well, and I loved her,” Lewis said Tuesday. “She was practically a child, and she shouldn’t have been treated like an adult.”
Lewis said he taught Paula Cooper and other female inmates a college-level Introduction to Philosophy class. He had not had any contact with her for several years.
“My goal,” he said, “was to work up to a level of trust to ask, ‘Why are you in this prison?'”
When he reached that point with Cooper, Lewis said, the young prisoner told him no one had ever asked her that question.
“I really don’t know why I did that” was the best she could offer in regard to her role in the killing.
Like a lot of prisoners, Paula Cooper had difficulty connecting the cause and effect of crime -– “there’s a disconnect,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he took her death as a personal failure.
“My question,” he said, “is what happened to her once she got out?”
It’s unclear how Cooper was spending her time since she was released. Rhonda Labroi, her sister, declined to comment about Cooper’s death Tuesday.
“It’s just amazing that after all those years of incarceration that she would be released and then something like this would happen,” said Relphorde, who added that Paula Cooper was remorseful about the killing. “She was willing to pay her debt to society.”