Paula Cooper

Paula Cooper arrest  (1986)
Paula Cooper arrest (1986)

I was saddened this weekend to read of the suicide of Paula Cooper.

I mostly knew her through news stories. Then I heard about her when visiting another young woman who was friendly with Paula. Both were housed at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

To be sure, Paula was at the prison for a serious crime. At 15, she and friends skipped classes at their Gary, Indiana, school, and showed up on the doorstep of nearby 78-year-old Ruth Pelke.

The girls told Mrs. Pelke they were interested in Bible lessons and on that pretext, she invited them into her home.

In reality, the girls, probably high on marijuana, meant to rob this kindly elderly woman. For some unknown reason, Paula went to the kitchen and retrieved a butcher knife.

She then stabbed Mrs. Pelke 33 times. The girls searched the house and found only $10. They took her car keys and went for a joy ride in the lady’s old Plymouth. This was 1986.

I got involved because Paula was first sentenced to die for the crime. I wrote editorials decrying the death sentence. I noted that growing up, the girl had been frequently beaten and suffered from severe depression.

I don’t recall how the pope became involved. But he also pleaded for clemency. Indeed, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the death sentence. That was in 1989. But that’s far from the whole story.

Paula not only became a model prisoner. She earned her bachelor’s degree. She trained assistance dogs. She tutored inmates and ran the prison kitchen.

With time off for good behavior, she was released from prison a couple of years ago. She had tried to make amends for her crime. Mrs. Pelke’s grandson Bill took up the anti-death penalty cause launching the “Journey of Hope.”

I got acquainted with Bill when he brought his program to Fort Wayne. He had long since forgiven Paula for killing his grandmother. But out women’s prison and free, she took her own life.

She had so much to give. She had so much to live for. Forgiven by others, she couldn’t forgive herself.

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