Friday, August 10, 2012

Paula Cooper

Ruth Pelke
Ruth Pelke, 78, lived most of her adult life in Indiana, The Hoosier State. Some say the well-known nickname came from the Indiana pioneers’ traditional greeting to visitors, “Who’s here?” Others say Hoosier came from husher, a slang word for a violent or fighting person who would “hush” others with his fists. Whatever the meaning of the word, Hoosier, Ruth Pelke made her home in Gary, Indiana, located in the far northwestern portion of the state only a few miles from Chicago, Illinois, and on the southern shores of Lake Michigan.
Although her body become withered with age and somewhat frail, Ruth was considered to be in reasonably good health. She got around well, drove her own car, and did most of the things that a woman 20 years younger could do. On nice days in the spring she worked in her yard planting flowers or weeding them, supervised a neighbor boy in the summer months while he mowed her yard, often raked her own leaves in the fall, and occasionally shoveled snow in winter. She went for walks almost daily, no matter what time of year, to help keep her in good physical condition, and she lived modestly on Social Security in a small house in Gary’s Glen Park neighborhood where she’d resided peacefully for over 40 years.
Ruth appeared to have been a happy woman, and many who knew her said that what she wanted most out of life was to help others who were less fortunate than herself in any way she could. Clearly a charitable person, she often donated much of her time, particularly in her later years, helping to raise money at various church functions including baking sales, special dinners, and auctions. It was also said that she often volunteered to work for various community service organizations that are dedicated to helping the needy and homeless.
First and foremost, however, she liked to help children, particularly troubled ones, and, being a deeply religious woman, Ruth spent a good deal of her time teaching the bible to them out of her home and at her church. All good deeds and intentions, however, were cut short during an episode of greed and violent butchery, leaving behind only the memory of the wonderful and loving person that she was.
Suspicions of foul play were aroused on Tuesday afternoon, May 14,1985, when a close friend and fellow churchgoer called on Ruth at her home. There was no response to knocks at her door but, after checking around the outside of the house, the friend realized that Ruth’s ’76 Plymouth wasn’t parked in its place and left, thinking Ruth had gone shopping. Hours later, however, after failing to reach Ruth by telephone, the worried friend notified police and asked them to check on her well-being.
When police officers arrived and received no response from inside the home, they entered through an unlocked door. One look at the inside of the house, which had obviously been ransacked, told them that something was amiss here. Moments later an officer found Ruth’s body at an undisclosed location, covered with blood. From their initial observations, the cops estimated that she’d been dead for at least a few hours. Because of the extremely brutal circumstances of her death, the investigating officers reported to headquarters that she’d been murdered and requested that a homicide team be dispatched to the scene as soon as possible.
Because of the brutality of the crime, the first officers made no attempt to collect evidence. Instead, they froze the scene and permitted nothing to be disturbed by keeping unauthorized people out of the house. They noted that it would be a good idea to have the crime- lab technicians themselves process the crime scene and collect the evidence in this case, given the seriousness, messiness, and unpleasantness of the situation.
When the homicide detectives arrived they were quickly led to the victim’s body. Each of the detectives grimaced when they observed the elderly woman’s body lying in a fetal position on the floor in a pool of her own blood. Likewise, her clothing was covered in blood — literally soaked with crimson fluid. In some places, however, where the saturation was less, the blood was already beginning to turn brown, indicative that the crime had been committed earlier that day.
It was readily apparent that Ruth Pelke, unofficially identified from pho¬tos in the house, had died as a result of multiple stab wounds to her abdomen and upper torso. Her clothing had been cut and torn, and the stab wounds could easily be seen in her flesh. The detectives noted that blood was present in several locations, including smears along a wall and on furniture where it appeared the victim may have attempted to struggle to her knees.
“She must have died slowly,” commented one person at the scene, because there was too much evidence of movement by the victim for her to have died instantly.
In following proper investigative procedure to assure that optimum evidence is obtained, the scene was photographed to show the location of the evidence. Then one of the investigators sketched the scene to record the exact position of each piece of evidence according to precise measurement. The evidence was then collected by the criminalists.
As the criminalists dusted for prints, collected blood samples, collected trace evidence in a vacuum trap, among other things, the detectives continued to take notes of their observations and discuss investigative strategies. Among the things they discussed was the absence of an apparent murder weapon, believed to have been a rather large knife or similar sharp object. Despite their failure to find the weapon after turning the small house inside out, they did, however, speculate that the weapon might have been taken from a collection of knives in the victim’s kitchen. Although the kitchen was in a state of disarray from having been ransacked by the perpetrator(s), the detectives did, as part of their attempt to reconstruct the crime scene, discover that one butcher knife was missing from a knife rack after they had returned all the other knives to their proper places. Of course they could not conclusively determine that this was the murder weapon but it did, at least, give them something to go on.
Even before the detectives began interviewing Ruth’s known friends and relatives, they knew that she must have been a very religious woman because of some of the items she had in her house. The sleuths noted that she had several Bibles, other religious oriented books, crucifixes, small statuettes or figurines, and religious type pictures. They also found church literature, including the previous Sunday’s bulletin from her church, as well a guide for teaching the Bible. The guide, surmised the detectives, explained why she had the extra copies of the Bible, and they speculated that she must have taught the Bible at one time or another, either out of her home or at Sunday school, or both.
After a thorough, methodical search of the victim’s home, the investigators failed to turn up any valuables, including Ruth’s purse. Since her purse was missing, the detectives speculated that it must have been taken by the perpetrator(s) which, if that were true, would indicate robbery as the most likely motive. But why such a brutal killing? They wondered. Why kill the old lady at all?
The investigators answered the latter question after they determined there were no signs of a forced entry into Ruth’s home, strongly indicating that she knew her killer(s) and, if left alive, would have been able to identify them by name. Even so, the detectives could not understand the savagery of the woman’s murder. It seemed so senseless and unnecessary. But, then, they knew that most murders were, and there was no system of logic to adequately explain them.
When the medical examiner arrived, he carefully viewed the victim’s body and concluded, as the investigators had, that Ruth had died as a result of numerous stab wounds. He could not immediately say how many times she had been stabbed or what type of instrument she had been stabbed with. He said she had been dead for a few hours because she was cold to the touch, and reassured the detectives that he likely could arrive at a more precise time of death after determining internal body temperatures.
Shortly after Ruth’s body had been removed from her home and taken to the county morgue, the detectives confirmed from a person close to the victim that Ruth had indeed driven a car for as many years as she could recall. The person provided the detectives with a description of the Plymouth but, unfortunately, did not know the license-plate number. However, the investigators soon had that information after conferring briefly with the department of motor vehicles, and a multi-state APB was issued.
Paula Cooper
As the criminalists continued to work inside the victim’s home, the detectives split up and canvassed the neighborhood in an effort to ferret out useful leads. Most of those they talked with said they knew the victim quite well, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to kill her.
“She was one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” said one person. “Perhaps she was just too nice…she’d never turn a hungry or troubled stranger away from her door.”
“Ruth was known for giving Bible lessons to children,” said another person who lived nearby. “She gave lessons to children in the neighborhood and to kids from the school nearby. She often gave the kids motherly talks, candy, and other treats. She was such a kind, sweet old woman…that’s what makes it so hard to understand how someone could do such a horrible thing to her.”
Some of those interviewed by the police said that Ruth often counseled young girls on the seriousness of premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies, and often warned of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. She primarily dealt with girls who had little or no parental supervision, and treated many of the kids as if they were her own children. It was said that she really believed in children and the premise that they were the future of the world, and the often sad state of today’s youth and the ultra-liberal moralities of recent years truly troubled her. That’s why she worked so hard at counseling troubled children, people said. She really felt her efforts could make a difference.
When witnesses were asked why they thought Ruth may have been singled out as a target for robbery, most said they didn’t know. She didn’t have much money, police were told, and she was never one to show off any money that she did have. Why anyone would target her for a robbery victim was just as mysterious as why anyone would target her for murder.
“She was on Social Security,” said one witness, “and she often had to stretch her resources between paychecks. Shortly before this horrible tragedy occurred, Ruth said she only had ten dollars in her purse…she seldom carried more cash than that.”
As the case unfolded, the detectives became more and more incensed over each new detail they uncovered. How could anyone, they wondered, do such a horrendous thing to such a person as Ruth Pelke? How could anyone be filled with such hate? From the background they put together on Ruth it became increasingly clearer that she would not have provoked the attack against her. So what kind of mentality were they dealing with here? Simply an animalistic mind with no sense or trace of human compassion? It certainly seemed so, judging from the savagery of the killing.
As the detectives searched for leads they asked residents in the Glen Park neighborhood if anyone noticed any suspicious persons or other peculiarities in the area the day of the murder. They were looking for vehicles that didn’t belong, unusual characters, or people who didn’t belong walking or loitering in the neighborhood, any delivery, service or repair people, salesmen, and so forth. Unfortunately, the neighbors didn’t recall any such peculiarities, and many said that the first sign of anything unusual happening was when they first noticed the police cars in front of Ruth’s home.
The answers to their questions were fairly consistent by residents throughout the neighborhood, and many people were unable to provide any details because they simply weren’t home. However, as detectives were wrapping up their initial interviewing phase, one resident said she saw three or four teenage girls walk through the neighborhood sometime between noon and one o’clock. When asked why this seemed unusual, the resident replied that she thought the kids should have been in school. It wasn’t much to go on, and it seemed reasonable to presume the girls were going somewhere, perhaps to one of their homes, during their lunch break.
The chief investigator at the crime scene was also present during the autopsy, which is keeping within routine in such cases so that the pathologist can be briefed regarding pertinent discoveries, or lack of them, which is often useful in making determinations, particularly with regard to time of death. In this sense, the investigator said, after going over his notes, that there was nothing to indicate that the victim had been dead for a long period of time, such as dusty furniture, cobwebs, withering of flowers or drying in flowerpots, or dried food on soiled dishes.
Even though ample photographs were taken of the victim at the crime scene, additional photographs were taken of the scene, and additional photographs were taken of the victim at the morgue, both clothed and unclothed. Color photos were taken that included all pertinent details, including overall appearance of the body, close-ups of the face, with emphasis on the injuries. A ruler was included in the photos for use as a scale.
For those who have never witnessed an autopsy or who have limited knowledge of the details, a postmortem, or information regarding one can be quite macabre. Even seasoned cops sometimes get squeamish, particularly when witnessing the autopsy of a victim of a particularly violent crime, such as the one in this case.
Extreme care was taken in undressing the victim’s body. The garments were not cut, but were removed in the normal way. Since Ruth Pelke’s garments were blood-soaked, they were allowed to dry at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Paper was spread beneath the items to catch any trace evidence that might fall off during drying, and the articles were carefully preserved so that optimum results could he attained from serology testing.
As a matter of routine, the body was then fingerprinted, and the surface of the body was searched for latent fingerprints made in blood. It was not revealed, however, if such prints were found. In search of additional evidence, fingernail scrapings and hair samples were taken from the victim.
The body was then washed, after which it was re-photographed. Next, the pathologist began counting the numerous stab wounds. All in all, there were 37 stab wounds in Ruth Pelke’s body, most of them quite deep. However, the pathologist could not determine what type of weapon was used to kill the victim. All he could say was that it was a long sharp instrument, the width of which was unknown.
After examining the contents of the victim’s stomach, the pathologist said it was very likely that her last meal had been lunch on the day she was murdered. After reaching that conclusion, and after reviewing the victim’s body temperature and other pertinent facts, it was determined that Ruth Pelke had been killed shortly after noon.
In the meantime, her car was found abandoned and out of gas on the south side of Chicago. Two policemen on routine patrol reported that they’d first noticed it poorly parked on a busy street. After running its license number through their computer the APB showed up, and Gary, Indiana detectives were notified. They had the car towed to a police garage where criminalists could go over it thoroughly.
A number of latent fingerprints were collected, including the victim’s. However, there were far more unidentified fingerprints in the car, a fact which served to raise the investigators’ hopes that they’d soon crack the case. The latents were lifted and preserved, and the car was thoroughly vacuumed for trace evidence that would be compared with trace evidence collected from the body of the victim, her clothing and her house.
Meanwhile, criminalists reported finding a jacket in an undisclosed location of the victim’s home. The jacket appeared to be a girl’s, and this was all but confirmed when they found a prescription for birth-control pills in one of the pockets. This information was quickly passed on to the detectives, and they immediately took steps to locate the girl whose name appeared on the prescription. At this point, however, they didn’t know just how valuable this lead was, and had no way of knowing if the girl had any knowledge of Ruth’s murder. After all, it was possible that the coat belonged to one of her Bible students.
The next several hours were critical to the investigation. The detectives quickly tracked down the girl whose name appeared on the birth-control pill prescription and, although they learned much about her, including where she lived, went to school, and so forth, her whereabouts were not immediately known.
The girl the detectives were searching for was Karen Corder, age 16. Following the futile attempt to locate her at her last known address, the detectives checked at the girl’s school, which was located near Ruth Pelke’s neighborhood. At the school the sleuths obtained the names of several friends the girl associated with, both male and female. They promptly checked the new leads but, unfortunately, no one had seen her. Additional probing, however, revealed that she left home to roam the streets a couple of years earlier and had virtually no parental supervision. Although the homicide probers learned that she had no juvenile record, they discovered that Karen gave birth to a child at age 14.
With little else they could do at this point the detectives watched Karen’s home, hoping that she would eventually return. After several hours of waiting she did return home, and the detectives immediately approached her and asked her what her coat had been doing inside Ruth Pelke’s home. Nervously, she responded that she must have left it there during a visit to take Bible lessons.
Although the girl denied having any knowledge of the murder, the detectives learned the names of her friends whom she had accompanied to Ruth Pelke’s home. They were Denise Thomas, 14, April Beverly, 15, and Paula Cooper, also 15. The detectives immediately began background checks on each of the girls.
The sleuths soon learned that Denise Thomas was pregnant at the time of Ruth’s slaying. Like Corder, she was a streetwise kid who had little parental supervision. Paula Cooper, the detectives learned, was a frequent, chronic runaway and burglar. Shuffled to a string of foster homes and juvenile centers, Cooper was an abused child who, the record showed, had been severely beaten with belts and extension cords. While still in grade school, Cooper was forced to watch, along with another female relative, while another male relative raped and beat someone close to her. On another occasion a relative tried to kill her by putting her inside a car in a closed garage with the car’s motor running. There was little information on the last girl, April Beverly, except that she, too, fit into the streetwise kid category and had previously taken Bible lessons from Ruth Pelke. She, the sleuths learned, led the other girls to Pelke’s house during their noon lunch break from a nearby high school the day of the murder.
Over the next several hours the detectives rounded up the girls and brought them in for questioning. Each of the girls initially denied having anything to do with Ruth’s murder but, after repeated grilling, the detectives learned additional information. Finally, while still in the early stages of interrogation, Paula Cooper admitted to stabbing Ruth repeatedly and without any provocation while, she said, the woman begged for her life and prayed. Afterward, she and the other girls ransacked the Pelke house for money and other valuables and stole her car. They had earlier shared a bottle of Wild Irish Rose on their way to Ruth’s house.
After they left in the victim’s car, with Paula Cooper driving, the girls stopped and picked up additional friends, after which they went joyriding until Ruth’s car ran out of gas on the south side of Chicago, where they abandoned it. The detectives learned that the girls had disposed of the murder weapon, a knife, in a garbage can at a Chicago area restaurant.
As the case continued to unfold, Karen Corder, the oldest of the four girls at the time of Ruth Pelke’s murder, made a surprise plea offer through her attorney. The plea was made in the courtroom of Lake County judge James Kimbrough in Crown Point, Indiana. Without receiving assurances from the prosecutors that they would not seek the death penalty, Corder pleaded guilty to murder. During her testimony, she calmly told the stunned judge how she helped kill the woman by holding a knife in her while the victim begged for mercy and prayed.
Under questioning by Judge Kimbrough, Corder calmly told in a “narrative” style how the crime began when the girls made plans, while still at school, to rob Ruth Pelke at knifepoint to obtain money they could spend at a local arcade. Corder said that April Beverly directed her and the others to Pelke, her former Bible teacher, and they gained entry to Pelke’s home on a ruse to take Bible lessons during their lunch break from school. After Paula Cooper stabbed the victim repeatedly with a butcher knife, said Corder, she held the knife in place inside the victim while the others ransacked the house. She said she held the knife in the victim until she died.
April Beverly, said Corder, did not take part in the stabbing, nor did Denise Thomas. April Beverly served as a lookout and did not enter the house until after the stabbing had occurred. They did, however, participate in the ransacking of the victim’s house.
At one point in the proceeding, the trial supervisor and prosecutor in the case made it clear regarding the prosecution’s intentions regarding sentencing. “There was no plea agreement whatsoever,” said James McNew, who argued for the death penalty for Corder before Judge Kimbrough, a staunch opponent of the death penalty. It was because of the judge’s attitude that Corder’s attorney, David Olson, decided to take the case directly before the judge rather than risk going before a jury.
“It was one of the worst cases you could imagine,” said the attorney, “and there was no chance of winning it.” He pointed out that there were 282 young people on record in the U.S. as having been executed for crimes committed while they were minors, and only nine of them have been female. An expert brought into court by the attorney said that no female minor had been executed in the U.S. since 1912, when a 17-year-old laundry girl named Virginia Christian was hanged in Virginia for murdering a 60-year-old customer. The expert, a law professor, said that Indiana has the lowest minimum age for the death penalty at 10 years old.
“Indiana is completely off the map” he said. “Giving the ultimate adult sentence to someone everyone agrees is not an adult is so out of line with any place else in the world that no one can say this is business as usual.”
Attorney David Olson agreed, and argued that the criminal justice system shouldn’t give up on young criminals. “If you can’t rehabilitate a juvenile, who can you rehabilitate?” he asked.
“Society has done precisely what it should not do and given near immunity to juveniles,” said another law professor on behalf of the prosecution, countering defense arguments by offering the premise that if juvenile offenders were punished with the same severity and equality as adult offenders, crime would be reduced significantly. “They know they can do things they could never get away with if they were adults,” he said, adding that a majority of crimes are committed by teenagers.
“Contrary to what prosecutors often say,” countered the professor for the defense side, “twenty or thirty years in Indiana Women’s Prison is not getting off.”
After finding that Karen Corder had been under the “extreme domination” of Paula Cooper with regard to Ruth Pelke’s murder, Judge Kimbrough sentenced her to 60 years in prison.
A short time later, in a plea-bargain agreement, April Beverly pleaded guilty to robbery before Judge Kimbrough and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
When Denise Thomas went to trial in November 1985, prosecutors originally intended to seek the death penalty (that had also been their intentions in Karen Corder’s and April Beverly’s cases until plea bargaining involving guilty pleas was agreed upon). But as the case unfolded, the evidence showed that Thomas did not do any of the stabbing. Her attorneys had relied on this lack of evidence when they decided to go to trial and bring the case before a jury. Thomas, who was pregnant, stood a better chance with a jury than with merely facing a judge, they reasoned. In short, her attorneys hoped that a jury would not convict a 14-year-old pregnant girl of murder.
However, on November 8th, after hearing all the evidence, the jury convicted Denise Thomas of felony murder. According to Jack Crawford, Lake County prosecuting attorney, Thomas became the youngest female convicted of murder charges in Indiana. Prior to sentencing, Thomas wrote a letter to the judge expressing some remorse and asked for forgiveness, calling the crime “dumb and stupid.” The following month Thomas was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Prosecutors pointed out that under Indiana law she, Karen Corder and April Beverly will be required to serve at least half their terms before they can become eligible for parole.
Because prosecutors clearly showed that Paula Cooper was the driving force behind the crime that so viciously and mercilessly took Ruth Pelke’s life, and because they were so adamant in seeking the death penalty against her, Paula Cooper’s case became headline news and drew worldwide attention. She appeared in an interview on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” and appeared in a similar interview on West German television. As a result, she receives letters, almost daily, through her attorney from people in Belgium, Italy, France, and other countries. In addition, a composer said he was writing a song about her, and a writer has already begun work on a book about her. She had become a celebrity of sorts, but in the words of prosecutors and local citizenry she was an undeserving one.
Although some of the furor over Pelke’s death had subsided somewhat, Cooper continued to make headline news in the local papers prior to trial. She had been caught, for instance, engaging in sex in her cell with several jail guards in what some said was an attempt to become pregnant to avoid the death penalty. However, subsequent pregnancy tests proved negative, quickly ending such speculation.
On April 21, 1986 Paula Cooper went before Judge Kimbrough with her attorney, Kevin Relphorde. Because of the overwhelming evidence against her, Cooper pleaded guilty to murder on the advice of her attorney to avoid trial and to try and sidestep the possibility of the death penalty.
At a sentencing hearing, the judge heard testimony from the prosecution and the defense. According to prosecution testimony, Cooper, shortly after her arrest, attacked several detention officers at a juvenile facility and had to be transferred to the county jail along with Karen Corder. At the jail, a corrections officer testified, she bragged about killing Ruth Pelke and said she would stab her again if she could. She also said, according to the officer’s testimony, that she would stab the officer’s grandmother, too, if she had the chance. Other officers testified that she and Corder set fire to their cells and each taunted the jailers by saying, “Give me the electric chair. Give that shock.”
“People show more compassion for insects than she showed for Mrs. Pelke,” said Prosecutor McNew, in arguing for the death penalty.
Her attorney, Kevin Relphorde, outlined Cooper’s unfortunate childhood which included beatings with belts and extension cords, as well as the attempt on her life by a relative. He also pointed out her chronic runaway behavior, and the fact that she’d lived in a string of foster homes and juvenile centers. He eventually placed Cooper on the stand to testify.
“I didn’t go there to take somebody’s life,” she said to a filled courtroom. “It happened. It just happened. Something — it wasn’t planned. We didn’t sit up and say we was going to go and kill this innocent old lady. We didn’t even know the lady. Everybody put the blame on me.” Cooper told members of Pelke’s family, present in the courtroom, that she was sorry for what had occurred, and she begged the judge to spare her life.
In a statement prior to meting out sentence, Judge Kimbrough said he had not been convinced that Paula Cooper’s unfortunate childhood justified her behavior. “We would not want our children to be beaten with extension cords,” said the judge, “but we would not expect them to go out and kill little old ladies because of it.” Unable to ignore “the wantonness and brutality of the crime” and saying that Cooper was “old enough and had the sense enough to be as cold as she was,” Judge Kimbrough sentenced Cooper to death in the electric chair.
“The court today (July 11, 1986) has made a courageous and historic, yet very difficult, decision,” said Lake County prosecutor Jack Crawford. “She is the first juvenile ever to receive the death penalty, and the youngest person ever to be sentenced to death in modern American legal history…The sentence was just. This was a terrible and senseless crime.”
“If she had killed somebody twenty miles down the road,” said an opponent of the death penalty, “she wouldn’t have got the death penalty, because it’s illegal for minors in Illinois.”
Pointing out that half of all death sentences are reversed, primarily on technical grounds, Cooper’s attorney remained confident that an appeal would be granted and that public pressure would block the execution. “Somewhere down the line, somebody is going to say, we can’t kill this girl,” he said.
For now, Paula Cooper sits in her cell on Indiana’s death row, awaiting a decision by the courts on whether or not her execution will be carried out.

1 comment:

  1. May 24, 2015, Paula Cooper commits suicide on an Indianapolis street, I wonder if we'll ever know why.