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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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