Man Forgives Grandmother’s Killer Then Works to Eliminate Death Penalty

Post-Tribune, Gary, IN – Bill Pelke’s grandmother was brutally murdered during a 1985 break-in at her home by Paula Cooper and three of her classmates from Lew Wallace High School. Cooper, 15 at the time, was the apparent leader in the booze and marijuana fueled attack that left the 78-year-old grandmother slashed and stabbed 33 times. For her role in the crime, Cooper was sentenced to death.

“When it first happened, it was so painful I couldn’t stand to think about it,” Pelke said. But about 18 months after his grandmother’s murder, as he was sitting in the crane he operated at the former Bethlehem Steel, Pelke 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 as he talked about forgiving Cooper. “Forgiveness should be a habit. It should be a way of life.”

Following that catharsis, Pelke spent the better part of the next 25 years advocating to save Cooper’s life and trying to eradicate the death penalty altogether. 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.

“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 in prison when the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to execute anyone under the age of 18. That sentence was eventually reduced by about half for good time and education credit and she was released last month.

Pelke, who visited her 15 times while she was incarcerated, looks forward to seeing her even though he now lives in Alaska.

“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.

Read the full story: “Victim’s grandson finds forgiveness in wake of brutal Gary slaying”

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