Friday, 5 October 2012

A life and legacy

A life and legacy

Pelke's devotion to family, faith resonates decades after murder

by Sarah Tompkins

Ruth Pelke's family has fond memories of holidays in her Gary home, complete with crocheted gifts, colored cookies and "Nana salad," Pelke's macaroni salad mixed with watermelon pickles.
But in 1985 four teenage girls turned their stepgrandmother's dining room into a crime scene, leaving Pelke dead with more than 30 knife wounds piercing her 78-year-old frame.
"It went through her body, through the carpet, through the padding on the floor," said Pelke's stepdaughter, Ruth Weyhe, now 88. "There were marks in the floor."
In an infamous case that made national headlines, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, 16-year-old Karen Corder, 14-year-old Denise Thomas and 15-year-old April Beverly were arrested and charged as adults in relation to the murder.
"Christmas has never been the same, that's for sure," said Pelke's now 64-year-old grandson, Bill Pelke.
'I just loved her so, so much'

Ruth Pelke grew up and worked on a farm in Peru, Ind., doing manual labor as well as helping her neighbors with chores as the women recovered from childbirth, according to her family. She was a second or third cousin to Weyhe and Robert Pelke's mother, and they said the family would see her during trips to the countryside.
Robert, Pelke's stepson who is 92 and living in South Carolina, said he always would remember how much faith Pelke had in him. And how she once trusted him to drive a wagon full of hay as a teenager – which he accidentally flipped over after turning a corner too sharp.
"She didn't hold it against me," he said. "She treated me very good. It was just one of those things she took in stride. She was very cool. She took everything calmly."
Weyhe, who now lives in Porter County, said she recalled farm trips dating back to when she was 4 years old.
"I used to go with her out to the pasture and bring in the cows and stand there and watch her milk," Weyhe said. "I just followed her everywhere. I just loved her so, so much."
A year after her mother died from leukemia, she said her father and Pelke became an item. But before Pelke would marry Weyhe's father, Pelke said he had to first ask his children if they would be OK with it.
Weyhe said they were thrilled.
"I remember her and granddad having a wonderful relationship," said Karen, Pelke's 47-year-old granddaughter. "They would joke around and he would tease her and smooch with her. He was always very loving and she was very loving back to him."
It was Pelke's first marriage, and she never had any biological children.
"She took on a whole family," said Pelke's 51-year-old grandson, Jon. "She was the only grandmother any of us had."

The family threw her a joint 70th birthday party and "Nana's Day" in May shortly after Mother's Day, donning Pelke with a queen's robe and crown. Bill said one of the reasons for celebrating her was because she didn't stand to be honored at a Mother's Day service.
"I guess because she didn't have any kids of her own, she didn't feel like she was a mother," Bill said. "And that bothered me."

Pelke opened her arms to her nonbiological family, as well as her church family. Her relatives said she was an active member of her Baptist church and volunteered as part of a child evangelism program in her neighborhood. For about an hour sometimes five days a week, she would meet with youths and share Bible stories ranging from David and Goliath to Noah's ark.
She was known for using vibrant flannel graphs to tell those stories, her family said, sticking figures made of flannel and paper against unique flannel backgrounds propped on an easel.
"She was just a loving, caring person and she spoke positively of people," said granddaughter Dottie McKay, 67, of South Carolina. "She loved the Lord."
McKay said Pelke was killed shortly before McKay's daughter's high school graduation party, and they found the card she had prepared for her daughter after Pelke's death.
"If you had a perfect grandmother or mother, she would be the one," McKay said.

That day
Pelke had been living alone since her husband, Oscar, died in 1983, and her family members said they had been trying to get her to move as Gary's crime rate started to rise.
The day before her murder Robert had gone to visit Pelke to talk about getting the Adams Street home in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood fixed up and ready to sell. Weyhe, also a widow at the time, said she had been considering trying to buy a place with Pelke to help get her out of the area.
"She wasn't afraid to stay where she was," Robert said. "She said she'd stay there until she went to heaven."
And on May 14 when Robert went to pick up Pelke for some errands, he found her body on a blood-soaked floor with a towel over her face.
"The first thing I did was lift up the towel and I saw she was dead," Robert said. "I grabbed the telephone, and it was jerked out of the wall, and then I had to run up and down the street. I couldn't find a neighbor home or nothing."
Bill said his father flagged down a car and asked to use their phone because his mother had been killed.
"I know he had never referred to her as his mother, and that was the first time I heard him do that," Bill said.
Karen said she found out after coming home and watching it on the news, as cellphones were rare in the 1980s. Her brother, Jon, said he listened to a radio broadcast as the news broke.
"I remember hearing it on the radio and not knowing and just feeling this feeling," Jon said. "And then when I was told when I got home what had happened, you're talking about shock. It was heinous."
Karen said it was a blessing to find out who did it so soon.
"I think hearing about it and not knowing what happened, you have terrible thoughts in your mind about who did this," she said. "You don't think young girls. You think men, and what else did they do to this helpless woman?"
Bill said he remembers showing up to the house, seeing his father and another relative trying to scrub stains off the wall and carpet.
"(I) visioned her butchered on the dining room floor and it would just tear me apart," he said. "I couldn't stand to think about it.”

What's in a sentence?
Cooper was sentenced to death at age 15 for the murder of Pelke.
But through a series of events where Indiana law increased the age a child could be put to death to 16, the state Supreme Court ruled putting Cooper to death would be unconstitutional.
Her sentence was commuted to 60 years, and through credit for time served, a day off for each day of good behavior and credit for educational programming and certificates, she is scheduled to be released in 2013.
While Pelke's family members said they agree on the principals of mercy and forgiveness, they did not all have the same view of what justice is.
Bill, once a supporter of the death penalty, later became one of Cooper's biggest advocates. He said he forgave her and has seen how she's changed through their letter exchanges and visits over the past several decades.
"If she was somebody who was 30 or 40 years old, I might not have the same sentiment," Bill said about giving her a second chance because of her youth. "I figured it was up to the state of Indiana to decide when she would be eligible to get out ... so I had no problem that she would get 30 years."
Robert said that while he was a supporter of the death penalty, he was not upset that Cooper's sentence had been commuted and that she would be released in a little less than a year.
"In other words, there was nothing I could do about it," he said. "She was gone, the people were found guilty and punished according to the law. I was satisfied and that's were I left it. … If you hang onto it, it tears your life apart."
Others said they did not think the punishment fit the crime.
"At 15, you know it's murder," Weyhe said. "And (Pelke) was murdered with such force."
Jon said he would want to ask Cooper why she had to stab Pelke so many times. When told his question, Cooper said she would want to have that conversation with Jon, and that she was "very, very remorseful."
The disparity between the 60-year sentence and the less than 30 years of actual time served was frustrating for some family members, Karen said.
"You're gullible and think 60 years, she's got to be 75 when she gets out ... but that's not what they really mean," Karen said. "It's a sleight of hand in our justice system."
Randolph Stone, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago, said the state system does not make sentencing very clear, and that there is a movement to have more truth in sentencing where a year means a year — or at least more than six months.
"That's one of the things that needs to change about the system, is the transparency of the sentencing process," Stone said. "It's very complicated for lawyers, let alone the public."
He also said having a carrot to dangle in front of prisoners as an incentive to behave while behind bars helps wardens control the population.
For those who don't think she should be getting out next summer, Cooper said they are justified in whatever they feel, be it positive or negative.
"They are not going to understand it no matter what I say," she said from Rockville Correctional Facility. "That's just the way they feel. People are entitled to the way they feel."

Sentence breakdown

Paula Cooper was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Ruth Pelke. In 1989 her death sentence was commuted to 60 years behind bars. Here is the breakdown of her sentence calculation resulting in a 2013 projected release date:
60 years minus about 29 years for good behavior with day-for-day credit = 31 years
31 years minus 4 years for time served before 1989 = 27 years
27 years minus 3 years for educational programming = 24 years served
SOURCE: Indiana Department of Corrections

A second chance at life

A second chance at life

Paula Cooper: Convicted of murder at 15, a Gary woman prepares for her 2013 release

by Sarah Tompkins

ROCKVILLE, Ind. | Paula Cooper mixed no-bake cookies, creating balls of sweet coconut and baking cocoa the size of a fist.
The 42-year-old woman was preparing meals for more than 100 prison staff at Rockville Correctional Facility -- where she has spent most of her life.
“I take great pride in what I do,” she said of cooking. “People have to trust you to eat your food. That's the most personal thing that they could do -- is taking something out your hand and believing you've done nothing to it.”
In 1985, Cooper was convicted of fatally stabbing an elderly Gary Bible school teacher 33 times with a butcher knife.
She was 15 years old.
The murder involved three other teenage co-defendants from Gary's Lew Wallace High School and left the region shaken.
Cooper was the only one sentenced to death -- a sentence eventually commuted after international attention and new state legal precedent.
Initially facing the electric chair, Cooper's sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Now, more than 25 years later, Cooper says she is a different person, tutoring inmates in the culinary arts while she is counting down the days to her 2013 release. And a second chance at life.
“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 about her rehabilitation. “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.”

The crime
It was a spring day when Cooper and three other teenagers decided to rob a house.
“We just had got really bored,” Cooper said. “We had started burglarizing people's houses, and that's basically got us to the point where we were at.”
April Beverly, whom Cooper said she met in person for the first time that day, lived behind a 78-year-old grandmother's house and suggested that house be their target.
Ruth Pelke lived alone in her Adams Street home in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood. Family members called her “Nana,” and she took interest in sharing Bible stories with children, including Beverly, in the Gary neighborhoods.
While accounts differ as to what exactly happened inside Pelke's house on May 14, 1985, Cooper describes the crime as a “robbery gone bad.”
“It was a murder,” Cooper said. “And it wasn't one that was planned or premeditated. It just happened.”
Cooper said the other burglaries were done at various vacant homes, and this one was different because, unbeknown to them, Pelke was there.
And she invited the girls into the house.
According to records, the teenagers pretended to be interested in taking part in Pelke's Bible classes. When Pelke let them in to write down the information, she was hit over the head and then stabbed dozens of times with a 12-inch knife.
“Once we got inside, it was like, 'What do we do now?'" Cooper said. “And everything just started happening ... It was a long time ago, and there are some things I can remember about it and some things I don't, but it just was never the intention, we just never had the intention of hurting anybody.”
While records place the knife in Cooper's hands, she said it was in everyone's at some point. The girls ransacked the house, stole about $10 and Pelke's car keys and drove away.
Cooper said they were “panicking, and then just one thing is leading to another, and everything is just moving really fast.”
Bill Pelke, the victim's grandson, said his son turned 15 the day his grandmother was killed.
“At first I thought, well, it was probably some 30-, 40-year-old drug addict, you know, trying to get money for a fix or something,” said Bill, now 64. “When we found out several days later that it was ninth-grade girls, it was just a real, just a real shock.”
Denise Thomas, then 14, Karen Corder, then 16, and April Beverly, then 15, later received sentences ranging from 25 to 60 years in prison. Thomas was convicted of murder, Corder pleaded guilty to murder and Beverly pleaded guilty to robbery in connection with the murder.
Beverly was pregnant and Corder a young mother at the time of the crime.
Cooper said she felt like they conspired against her to get favorable sentences, and that she, in turn, took the biggest fall.
“I think one of the misconceptions is that I was some ringleader of this big murder; that's not true,” said Cooper, who had no prior criminal record. “What I want people to know is that all four of us were guilty, and that's the bottom line. There was no innocent person in that house.”
After pleading guilty in April 1986 to murder, and murder while committing a robbery – without the benefit of a plea deal – Cooper was sentenced to death.
Indiana legislators later changed the law to make 16 the minimum age someone could be sentenced to death. But the law was written to exclude Cooper. International media attention and petitions for clemency on Cooper's behalf poured in from around the world, including from Pope John Paul II.
In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence someone younger than 16 to death, and the high court commuted Cooper's sentence to 60 years in prison. It was the second harshest sentence for murder at the time.
“This is a difficult conclusion to reach because of the gruesome nature of Cooper's acts,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard in the court's opinion.
And with a day knocked off a state sentence for every day of good conduct, Cooper is scheduled to be released July 17, 2013.

The time
Cooper wears a maroon T-shirt over khaki-colored pants, her daily prison garb, with a yellow I.D. clipped below her left shoulder. She has short, black hair, wears white and brown eye shadow and is soft-spoken. She describes herself back in the 1980s as “horrible.”
“I'm the type of person that I don't like to be fake,” she said. “I don't like to pretend with people. I mean, I was a very troubled person years ago. I was very troubled, had some very serious issues with myself and people, period.”
According to reports and Cooper herself, she was originally from Chicago, physically abused as a child, ran away from home starting at about age 12 and had regular contact with the Juvenile Detention System.
One report describes how Cooper was beaten with an extension cord and how a family member placed Cooper and another young relative in a car and started the engine in a garage in a murder/suicide attempt.
After years of being bitter in prison and falling into the negativity that hovers over many in that environment, Cooper said she has changed.
“If I never have hope, if I never have faith, if I never believe in anything, and I'm just sitting here moping around all day long, my life is just one ball of misery,” she said. “You have to learn how to deal with your own bitterness and anger and the things that's going on inside.”
Cooper credits her growth to God's intervention and her taking advantage of Rockville's programming after transferring nine years ago to the facility about three hours south of Gary.
Cooper was previously involved for discipline issues, but is now a leader among inmates, tutoring many in culinary arts. She said she felt like she had a lot to prove to people, and she was proud to be instructing fellow inmates on how to properly prepare meals.
“There's a lot of people in there that's never cooked before," Cooper said. “Ever.”
Her first job after arriving at Rockville was for Prison Enterprise Network, known as PEN Products, a division of Indiana's Department of Correction that manufactures various products for the state prisons and has some joint ventures with private companies as well.
Cooper said the woman in charge told her she originally never had any intention of hiring her. But after Cooper explained her past and shared her present, she was hired.
“That was my first chance, and I didn't want to let her down because I felt like she was the first person I encountered here at this facility, and if I had've disappointed her, then I was never going to be able to redeem myself,” Cooper said.
Cooper said she ended up a valued employee, pressing more than twice the daily quota of metal parts used for doors and ice machines.
And while she said she's grateful to count her mother and sister among her supporters, she has found another source of strength in an unsuspecting place: Bill Pelke, the murder victim's grandson.
“He's my -- he's my biggest encouragement,” Cooper said.
Bill Pelke, who once agreed with the judge's death-penalty ruling, became one of Cooper's strongest advocates in having that sentence commuted. They have written each other almost weekly for decades, and have in-person visits when possible.
Pelke said he realized his grandmother would have wanted compassion for Paula, and that God made forgiveness in him possible.
“We're supposed to hate the sin but love the sinner,” said Bill Pelke, who wrote a book about his experience and helps victims' families through the nonprofit Journey of Hope, From Violence to Healing. “Paula has changed. She's not the same person that committed that terrible crime in 1985.”

The future
With just about a year left of her sentence, Cooper is looking forward to giving back to society and getting a job.
But she said she is worried society will not give her the opportunity because of her past.
“We should pay for our crimes and we should, you know, take our punishment,” Cooper said. “But everybody deserves a second chance.”
That ability to find work is one factor in whether inmates return to prison, according to various studies. In Indiana, about 40 percent of the prison population released in 2005 went back behind bars within three years, according to the DOC.
“I mean, I don't care if I have to sweep floors, wash dishes or flip hamburgers, I'm going to take what I can get, you know, just to get on my feet and show people that I deserve a chance. Because I've done my time,” Cooper said.
During her decades in prison, Cooper has earned her GED, received a bachelor's degree, completed an apprenticeship program in housekeeping and collected various certificates. She said she hopes it helps her find steady work, and that regardless, she wants to talk to troubled youth and help them avoid making her mistakes.
“You know, I have a real story,” she said. “And there's somebody out there, even if it's just one kid, that will listen. And I'm hoping to get them.”


Timeline of events

May 14, 1985: Bible teacher Ruth Pelke is murdered.
May 15, 1985: Stepson Robert Pelke discovers her body.
May 1985: Four Lew Wallace High School students arrested for the murder of Ruth Pelke -- Karen Denise Corder, 16; Paula Cooper, 15; April Beverly, 15; and Denise Thomas, 14.
Nov. 7, 1985: Denise Thomas convicted of felony murder/murder on Dec. 4, 1985; Sentenced to 35 years in prison.
March 26, 1986: Karen Corder pleaded guilty to murder of Ruth Pelke on May 29, 1986; Corder sentenced to 60 years in prison.
April 21, 1986: Paula Cooper pleaded guilty to the stabbing murder of Ruth Pelke.
June 23, 1986: April Beverly pleaded guilty to robbery in connection with the murder of Ruth Pelke.
July 18, 1986: April Beverly sentenced to 25 years in prison.
July 11, 1986: Paula Cooper is sentenced to death.
July 13, 1989: Indiana Supreme Court finds Paula Cooper's death sentence unconstitutional and commutes her sentence to 60 years in prison.
July 17, 2013: Paula Cooper's scheduled release from prison.


May 14, 1985: Bible teacher Ruth Pelke is murdered.

May 15, 1985: Stepson Robert Pelke discovers her body.

May 1985: Four Lew Wallace High School students arrested for the murder of Ruth Pelke -- Karen Denise Corder, 16; Paula Cooper, 15; April Beverly, 15; and Denise Thomas, 14.

Nov. 7, 1985: Denise Thomas convicted of felony murder/murder on Dec. 4, 1985; Sentenced to 35 years in prison.

March 26, 1986: Karen Corder pleaded guilty to murder of Ruth Pelke on May 29, 1986; Corder sentenced to 60 years in prison.

April 21, 1986: Paula Cooper pleaded guilty to the stabbing murder of Ruth Pelke.

June 23, 1986: April Beverly pleaded guilty to robbery in connection with the murder of Ruth Pelke.

July 18, 1986: April Beverly sentenced to 25 years in prison.

July 11, 1986: Paula Cooper is sentenced to death.

July 13, 1989: Indiana Supreme Court finds Paula Cooper's death sentence unconstitutional and commutes her sentence to 60 years in prison.

July 17, 2013: Paula Cooper's scheduled release from prison.