ROCKVILLE, Ind. | On Monday, region native Bill Pelke celebrated the release of one of his grandmother's killers from prison.
Paula Cooper was 15 years old when she fatally stabbed Ruth Pelke, an elderly Gary Bible school teacher, 33 times with a butcher knife during a 1985 robbery. Cooper and three other teens later pleaded guilty to charges relating to Pelke's death.
But it was Cooper's case that garnered international attention, including that of Pope John Paul II, when she was sentenced to death in 1986. She was 16 years old.
In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence someone younger than 16 to death and commuted Cooper's sentence to 60 years in prison.
Cooper, now 43, was released at 10 a.m. Monday from Rockville Correctional Facility, said Doug Garrison, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Correction. Because of credit time earned through good behavior and other programs, Cooper served about 28 years in prison.
Bill Pelke said he remembers the exact moment he forgave Cooper for his grandmother's murder.
It was Nov. 2, 1986, and Pelke said he was sitting in the cab of a crane at what was then Bethlehem Steel in Burns Harbor. He was reflecting on his grandmother's death when he realized how appalled she would be that Cooper was sitting on death row and surrounded by hatred.
"She would've had love and compassion," Pelke said of his grandmother. "Now that fell on my shoulders."
The next day, Pelke wrote Cooper a letter. She wrote back, and the two became friends. It is an unlikely friendship, but one that has survived nearly 20 years.
"Paula has worked hard to change her life in the decades since the crime," Cooper's sister Rhonda LaBroi said in a statement. "She entered prison as a very troubled teenager and is leaving a reformed woman. ... As always, our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the Pelke family."
Pelke said Cooper told him she was excited but scared about experiencing life outside prison walls. She's never written a check, had a bank account or a job, he said.
While in prison, Cooper earned her GED, received a bachelor's degree, completed an apprenticeship program in housekeeping and collected various certificates. She previously told The Times she hopes those accomplishments will help her find steady work. Cooper also said she wants to talk to troubled youth and help them avoid making her mistakes.
Pelke traveled from his home in Alaska to Indiana to be there for Cooper's release. At the request of Cooper's family, he did not go to the prison on Monday. But Pelke said he promised to take Cooper out to lunch and will buy her a computer. A friend of his also agreed to take Cooper shopping for new clothes.
He said he looks forward to hearing from her soon and wishes her "all the success in the world."
"People ask, 'How can you forgive her?'" Pelke said. "Forgiveness is not for the person who has done something wrong. Forgiveness is for us."