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.
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."