Bill Pelke: From Violence to Healing

Bill’s story is the story of a common man, in whose life a terrible event sparked a great change for him and for the whole anti-death penalty movement. Earlier in life, Bill had approved of the death sentence for the young woman who had killed his grandmother, but a year later his mind changed radically, bringing him to become one of the major protagonists in the fight against capital punishment in the world.  Paula Cooper, then fifteen years old and struggling with alcohol and drugs, and three friends went to Ruth Pelke’s house in May of 1985. The elderly catechism teacher welcomed them, thinking she might tell them about the Bible. But the girls sought money, and so struck her, killing her, and escaped with $10, leaving Ruth dead on the ground. When the trial ended a year later, Paula, considered the leader of the group, was condemned to death, notwithstanding her young age.  Bill shared, “At the beginning, I thought it was the right decision: nobody should have taken away the angel that was my grandmother, it is right punishment. But on November 2 of the same year, God touched my heart. I realized that my grandmother would never have been able to stand a young woman being killed. I remembered the words of Jesus, “forgive and you will be forgiven.”  From there began my fight against the death penalty in the world, beginning precisely from Paula, with whom I began to exchange letters and then met on death row. This was followed by a great movement, when everyone learned that I, Ruth’s grandson, was against the death penalty for the girl.”  Thanks to Bill Pelke’s efforts, through Journey of Hope, a movement of reconciliation between condemned and victims was born.

Many people want to remember him.


A life spent against the death penalty, step by step, “What good can come from Gary?” Nathanael would say about Bill Pelke, born in that little town of Indiana on Lake Michigan. He had come back alive from the War in Vietnam, but he didn’t like to talk about it. He was a crane worker in a steel plant competing with Arcelor Mittal, nearby.  In that area, in 1919, the State had imposed martial law to repress the demands of workers who worked as in a hell.

Bill Pelke: baby faced with a forelock, large build, black t-shirt with green logo.  His was a  Journey of Hope, from violence to healing. He died in front of his house last week, shoveling snow, a humble giant of the battle against the death penalty. Co-founder of the Journeys of Hope and the Victims Movement for Reconciliation, he traveled through 40 American states and through continents, offering true stories about healing from hatred. He was not an orator, but was contagious all the same.

On March 14, 1985, four young girls, Paula Cooper, 15, Denise, 14, Karen, 16, and April, 15, rang the doorbell of a 72-year-old in the neighborhood, Ruth Pelke, Bill’s grandmother who taught the Bible, hHappy to open to four teenagers. But Paula and her friends were looking for money. Grandmother Pelke died after 33 stab wounds with the Jesus prayer: “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”  And all for ten dollars.

The year after, Paula Cooper became the youngest sentenced to death in America: 16 years old. Bill saw his father cleaning blood from the walls of the house. His father dreamed of death in Paula Cooper’s electric chair, and so did Bill. But on a crane at Betlehem Steel, he remembered the things his grandmother had taught him.  “I was thinking not about how she died, but what she fought for. And about the hatred that had exploded in the city, in the newspapers, after that horror. My grandmother didn’t want all that hatred.” It was his conversion. For the Feast of Thanksgiving, he sent a basket of fruit to Paula Cooper’s grandfather, who raised her after her parents’ violence, and wrote the first of endless letters to Paula. His father did not forgiven him for that forgiveness for years. Bill started and won the legal battle first to prevent children from being sentenced to death in Indiana and then to stop the execution of Paula, who had become an international disgrace. Italy played a decisive role. More than a million signatures were  collected to stop that horror. So Paula, his “adopted daughter”, remained alive, grew up as an extraordinary woman, a lawyer, changed even if with a weight inside which crushed her when she became free at 43 in a strange world.

Bill Pelke dedicated his life to Journey of Hope. He gave voice to the families of victims who do not want another death, to true stories of healing from pain and hatred.  On a green bus. Throughout America, one town square at a time.

An entire generation of pioneers of the battle against the death penalty got on that green bus, eating sandwiches and sleeping wherever possible. Without a dollar, talking on the street, in a basement, in Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, often with just ten curious and hostile people in front of him, and singing “Step by step”. “One step at a time / every hour / it’s a victory to be together / good people / things will change / good people will change them / don’t turn your back good people / there’s a race we have to run”. Thousands of times. At the Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome with this writer, with sister Helen Préjean and George White, thousands of students fell silent suddenly: “Only forgiveness heals us from pain and violence,” his simple truth. He loved Italy and talking to young people, thousands of kilometers here, too, for the Cities for Life. A humble giant of human rights and the beauty of the Gospel. He’s going to be driving a green bus with Grandma and Paula Cooper to Heaven now.



From Suezanne Bosler, victim’s family member:

“Love and Compassion for ALL Humanity”
Bill Pelke my dear brother, loved his family so much, his friends….
He was my icon, my confidante, my best friend (31 years), my teacher, my advisor, my counselor, my companion, my spiritual leader..
Bill said, ” I want people to remember me in a happy way, I would like everyone to, smile, laugh, dance and party ‘and to especially continue our dp work’… (and as you see in the pic)..he cracked up when I said, and ‘cheers to Bill with a ‘Sunkist’ in your name’…. He continued saying ‘celebrate my life journeys and peaceful vigils, singing, holding hands, traveling to spread the word of teasuring life, forgivness and healing and save lives, … “, I add to that.. Bill is loving, compassionate, unconditional love, no walls up, kind, humble, serene, positive to no end, Abolish Death Penalty Patriarch, simple and kind, generous Human….
Instant acceptance from every country/State he shared his story too. Bill made Everyone feel like his best friend, remember he said “I will accept every invitation to speak” which he did….
Lastly, (as I cry in love and missing Bill) we will celebrate our dear Bills journey in this world by continuing in his name, his message and his Christlike spirit…
He did agree ‘that we were allowed to cry a little or a short time, celebrate and get back to work to abolish the death penalty’
This picture I will cherish of our happy go lucky, loving, Bill Pelke …and continue his work’ Bill Pelke a disciple of Jesus….We all remember and honor Bill in a ‘loving and compassionate’way… He was greeted by Nana, Paula Cooper and more…His earthly body is not alive but, his soul of humanity will be our earth angel and with us forever.
Hugs and love to his dear family, friends and worldwide dp friends and associates…