INDIANAPOLIS | Paula Cooper, a Gary native who at age 16 was the youngest death row inmate in the United States before an international outcry helped reduce her sentence, killed herself Tuesday near an Indianapolis office building.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said officers were called to the 9500 block of Angola Court, near the northwest Indianapolis-Carmel border, Tuesday morning in response to a report of a body lying near a tree.
The Marion County coroner's office confirmed that Cooper, 45, was pronounced dead at the scene at 7:38 a.m. Indianapolis time from a suspected self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
Cooper's death comes 30 years and 12 days after she and three friends murdered Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Gary Bible school teacher, in Pelke's Glen Park home.
According to records, the teenagers pretended to be interested in taking part in Pelke's Bible classes to get into the house where Cooper, then 15, ultimately stabbed Pelke 33 times with a butcher knife.
She and the other girls, all students at Gary's Lew Wallace High School, then ransacked the house and got away with $10 and Pelke's car.
Cooper's three accomplices were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 25 to 60 years. But Cooper, who confessed to Pelke's slaying, was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
At the time — in 1986 — she was the youngest death row inmate in the U.S.
The decision to sentence a child to die prompted international criticism and pleas for clemency, including from Pope John Paul II.
Indiana lawmakers in 1987 passed a bill, authored by then-Rep. Earline Rogers, that raised the death-penalty age from 10 to 16.
In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a person younger than age 16 to death, and the high court commuted Cooper's sentence to 60 years in prison.
Indiana law now requires offenders be 18 to be death penalty eligible.
Rogers said Tuesday that she was sorry to hear about the death of Cooper, whom she had not met.
Rogers said she was familiar with the issue of juveniles and the death penalty, but lawmakers didn't realize until Cooper's case came to light that Indiana's death-penalty age at the time was 10.
"It was the lowest age of any in the country that you could be executed for murder," she said.
Former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard told Rogers that the bill passed in 1987 was one reason justices decided to spare Cooper's life, Rogers said.
Pelke's grandson, Bill Pelke, who found his grandmother's body but later organized opposition to the death penalty, said he was devastated to learn of Cooper's death. He worked to help Cooper after realizing that's what his grandmother would have wanted, he said.
"My grandmother would have been appalled she was on death row and that there was so much hate and anger and desire for her to die. I was convinced my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula and her family," he said in a telephone interview from Anchorage, Alaska, where he runs Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing, which supports alternatives to the death penalty.
Pelke said he visited with Cooper while she was in prison and had last spoke to her in August. He was expecting to hear from Cooper next month, when she was scheduled to be released from parole. He said she had expressed an interest in speaking for his organization.
"I have no idea what was going on in her life. I thought she was doing well from everything I had heard," he said. "I had hoped she would travel with us. She had always told me she wanted to help young people to avoid the pitfalls that she had fallen into. She said she knew she had done something terrible to society and she wanted to give back."
Cooper's sister, Rhonda Labroi, issued a statement Tuesday saying the family is devastated.
"She was so sorry for the crime that she committed, and she worked hard to change her life," Labroi said. "While in prison, my sister grew from a teenager into a strong women, and she was trying to build a future outside of those prison walls she had come to call home for more than 25 years.
"We love and miss Paula, and ask that you please keep her, our family, and Ruth Pelke's family in your prayers, and please grant us privacy as we grieve," Labroi said.
While in prison, Cooper earned her GED, received a bachelor's degree, completed an apprenticeship program in housekeeping and collected various certificates.
She knocked one day off her sentence for each day of good behavior, earned extra credits for her educational achievements and won her release from Rockville Correctional Facility on June 17, 2013 after 28 years behind bars.
Shortly before leaving prison, Cooper told The Times she was looking forward to giving back to society and getting a job.
"We should pay for our crimes and we should, you know, take our punishment," Cooper said. "But everybody deserves a second chance."
Indianapolis police said they have not determined why Cooper killed herself outside a technical school. They also still are investigating how she was able to obtain a gun as a convicted felon.