Murder and Mercy: Inside a Teenage Death-Penalty Case That Shocked the World
Alex Mar’s new book Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy tells the story of one of the youngest people sentenced to death in this country’s history: a 15-year-old girl named Paula Cooper. In the spring of 1985 in Gary, Indiana, she and three other girls skip their afternoon classes and talk their way into the home of elderly Bible teacher Ruth Pelke in order to rob her; when they leave, she is dead, stabbed 33 times by Paula’s hand. Hers is a violent crime that shocks the state of Indiana, and there are no protests in the region when she is handed the death penalty — a tenth-grader sent to death row.
But the tide begins to shift when the victim’s grandson Bill forgives the girl, against the wishes of his family and community. He reaches out to Paula — the start of a relationship, in a county with a history of segregation, between a 40-year-old white steel worker and a teenage Black runaway — and campaigns to spare her life. This tragedy in a midwestern steel town soon reverberates across the United States and around the world — reaching as far away as the Vatican — as newspapers in Europe cover the story on their front pages and millions sign petitions in support of Paula. At the same time, a powerful collective is forming in this country with a single goal: to end the death penalty for kids under 18.
As Bill and Paula’s friendship deepens, and as Bill discovers others who have chosen to forgive after terrible violence, their story asks what radical acts of empathy anyone might be capable of. As Paula waits on death row, her fate raises vital questions: What are we demanding when we call for justice? Is forgiveness a deluded and desperate choice or an act of bravery?
Culled from the book’s first chapters, the following excerpt tells of Paula’s chaotic childhood, her close relationship to her older sister Rhonda (Rhonda would call her sister “the love of my life”), and the terrible spring afternoon in 1985 that forever changed the course of numerous lives.
One house of the many that make up a city: a pale‐yellow house, an hour after sunup in Gary, Indiana. A woman lives here, on Wisconsin Street, with her two daughters. Rhonda is twelve, her sister Paula is nine. It is 1979.
Their mother — her name is Gloria — hustles them outside into the morning light, and then into the dark of the garage and the back seat of her red Chevy Vega. The girls are very young, and they are powerfully tired. They understand what their mother intends to do — she has kept them up all night softly talking then shouting then whimpering to them about where they’ll be traveling together, about what must happen next—and they are no longer resistant.
With her daughters inside, Gloria tugs at the garage door until it slides down to meet the concrete. She slips into the driver’s side, rolls down the windows, turns the key in the ignition: the engine gives off a deep, thrumming sound. Then she waits for them to close their eyes and fall into that steady rhythm; she can see their faces in the rearview mirror, small and brown and perfect. All three are still, their limbs grown heavy as if underwater.
The engine continues running; the minutes accumulate; the air thickens.
Outside the garage, the neighborhood is awakening. Inside the garage, the girls are passing into an unnatural sleep.
What Rhonda remembers next: she and Paula laying side by side on their bottom bunk, not knowing how they got there. They have not exited the world. Gloria is leaning over them, her daughters: they will be all right, she says. Just before leaving.
Rhonda does not know how much time has passed before she is able to move her body. She rises slowly. A letter is taped to the door, from their mother: She is finishing what she set out to do. Rhonda rushes to the kitchen and calls her aunt, who tells her to run, get their neighbor. Through the window, she thinks she sees exhaust seeping out from under the garage door, into the bright daylight.
Mr. Hollis drags Gloria out of the garage and lays her on her back on the lawn. He drops to his knees and with elbows locked, hand over hand, pushes hard on her chest. Again and again. The neighbor across the street, a nurse, rushes over and takes her turn trying to pump breath back into Gloria’s body.
The ambulance arrives, and the fire department, and a medic becomes the third person in line to tend to Gloria. By now, Paula is standing outside, watching. Rhonda sees her younger sister grow hysterical at the sight of this stranger bearing down on their mother’s chest, and Gloria not responding, not responding.
Something Rhonda will not forget: no one examines them, the girls. The firemen, the medics—no one so much as takes their pulse. When Gloria is swept off to the hospital, the sisters go stay with their aunt. When after a week their mother checks herself out early, no one asks any questions; when she comes to retrieve her daughters, no one stops her.
For years, Rhonda has said that she does not know what transformed her sister. But now she tells me, as if untangling the question aloud, that this was it. This must have been the start of a change in Paula. “Because you have to understand: We were all supposed to have been dead. That’s what we were expecting, that’s what we were hoping.” But they were still alive. And what now—another day in the yellow house?
The house stands in Marshalltown, a subdivision of the Pulaski neighborhood, integrated by Black working‐class families in the 1950s. Theirs is one of a collection of streets lined with neat, ranch‐style homes, single‐family, with small front yards.About a mile west of here is Midtown, or the Central District, once the sole, clearly delineated quarter of Gary’s entire Black community. And a mile into Midtown is Broadway, which runs north‐south the entire length of the city. That four‐lane street leads you north into downtown, where the architecture collapses time: an ornate brick department store, now boarded up; a children’s clothing store, now boarded up; the former headquarters of a major regional bank, its Greco‐Roman façade left to grow tarnished. People still shop here, but more and more, steel accordion gates have been pulled shut across entranceways and display windows and left that way. More and more, businesses have closed up or moved south, into the malls of the white suburbs.
Of the two sisters in the yellow house, Paula is a much gentler girl, a wuss, a baby, the biggest chicken—that’s how her sister thinks of her—and Rhonda is the boss. They live around the corner from Bethune Elementary, where they’re both enrolled, a quick run from door to door. Which is helpful, because Paula gets into fights after school. That is, she starts something she can’t finish, and then she races back home with two or three angry girls in pursuit, and she runs them toward her big sister, and Rhonda has to do the fighting.
Paula can’t fight, but she can dance. Whenever it’s just the two of them in the house, they play music all the time. Rhonda has a Jackson 5 record from the back of a cereal box, and they play it over and over. Paula tries to teach her sister new moves, but it’s a crack‐up. “No, Rhonda, the beat is over here. It’s over here. Come over here, Rhonda, and get on the beat!”
They like the neighborhood: so many kids around, riding their bikes after school or playing on the block. But the sisters are kept apart from the others. No one is allowed over to the house, and they are not allowed to visit other kids’ homes; they can only sit inside. And so they make up games that can be played with friends from their doorway.
Most days and nights, Rhonda is expected to babysit Paula while their mother works long hours as a lab technician at Methodist Hospital and their father Herman is nowhere to be found. She gets Paula up and dressed for school; she makes biscuits for breakfast; she sets a time for homework and cooks dinner.
Herman Cooper disappears for weeks at a time; he comes and goes when he feels like it. When he is home, he repeatedly beats the girls—with an electrical cord or a belt or his fists. He calls to them in their bedroom and orders them to come out with all their clothes off—that way, he says, they’ll really feel it when he whips them. Gloria is drinking heavily. On the occasions when she locks him out, the stepfather breaks in. Late at night, Paula and Rhonda listen to their shouting through the wall.
Gloria and her husband make a habit of separating then getting back together. It is during one of their breakups that Gloria, in the early morning, leads the girls out to the garage, ushers them into the car, and runs the engine. And it is months later that Rhonda learns Herman is not her father, that her father is “Uncle” Ron, a nice man who’s come by a few times. The abuse has been focused on her, and now Rhonda thinks she understands: Herman treats her this way because she is not actually his child; he does not feel obliged to be careful with her.
Rhonda and Paula run away,, only to be returned to Gloria by the police. More escape attempts follow, and the girls are placed, together, in a string of homes. There is the Thelma Marshall Children’s Home, three and a half blocks from the Jackson 5 family house, there are emergency shelters and foster homes. Every placement is temporary. This is the design of the system, based on the belief that a child’s parents are their best caretakers, and reliant upon government employees who are often overwhelmed. When Rhonda’s father asks their caseworker how he can adopt the sisters himself, she tells him that the Cooper parents are “crazy,” and that she does not want any complications to interfere with her own retirement, six months away.
Finally, when Rhonda is fourteen, she moves in with her father, and Gloria does not try to stop her. Rhonda leaves the yellow house, without her younger sister. She will not return.
Paula begins skipping classes and fighting girls at school—at one school after another, transferring two or three times a year. And with Rhonda gone, Herman turns his attention to his daughter.
She learns to run away on her own. And on one of those nights, after a beating from her father, Paula runs all the way to the police station and begs to be given somewhere to live other than home.
Paula is thirteen. She will be passed from stranger to stranger for the next two years—foster homes, shelters, juvenile detention. But these stays are punctuated by time with her parents, a few weeks or months at a stretch, miserable.
One morning at home, soon after turning fourteen, Paula does not get out of bed. Does not talk to anyone. Does not open her eyes. She seems completely catatonic, and nothing Gloria says or does can stir her. Eventually, her mother cannot ignore how bad the situation looks and decides to take her for an evaluation. Paula is placed in a mental health center in East Chicago for observation.
After four days, she will be released. She will be released, again, into the care of her parents.
It is lunch break on a Tuesday morning, and Paula Cooper, fifteen now, walks out with Karen and April. In the pocket of her white denim jacket, she has a prescription and a note from her mother: permission to leave early today to refill her birth control pills. The three tenth graders decide to head over to Candyland Arcade around the corner.
Paula has been at Lew Wallace for just a few weeks—it’s her fourth high school—and Karen is her best friend here. At sixteen, Karen’s a large girl, often out of breath; everyone calls her Pooky, maybe because of her sweet face (in spite of the scar through her eyebrow). She has a child, who’s three, and he mostly stays at home with her godmother. April’s about to have the same problem—though she can still hide it at seven months.
The girls walk a few long blocks through Glen Park, down 45th to Broadway. At the arcade, they play games, talk to boys, buy candy. Not much is happening; everyone is growing bored.
They decide to skip school for the rest of the afternoon. April invites along a younger girl the others don’t really know — Denise, who’s fourteen, a freshman — and together they walk the three blocks to the house where April stays with her siblings, to sit on her porch and drink Wild Irish Rose. Earlier in the week, the girls had robbed a neighbor — broke a window near the back door, slipped in, and came away with ninety dollars — but they’ve spent most of that money. After buying candy, they’re down to a few quarters between them.
April mentions an old woman who lives in the house just behind hers. “Remember that lady we saw standing out back?” Paula and Karen remember her. “Well, we could go over to her house,” she says. “Because she has a lot of money and jewelry and different things.”
The place the girls are talking about across the alley, the bright white house with the columns out front, is the home of Ruth Pelke. What they know about Mrs. Pelke is what April tells them: she is a Bible teacher, she is elderly, and she lives alone. The key to getting into her house, April says, is to ask about Bible study.
It’s after 3 p.m. and hot when Paula, Denise, and Karen leave April’s porch to visit the Bible teacher. They cross the alley behind the white house on Adams Street.
They walk across the stretch of flat, no‐fuss lawn and up the front steps. They pass between a pair of neatly tended ferns with drippy tendrils, under the archway, two columns on either side, and crowd onto the porch.
Karen rings the bell.
Paula listens: the sound of slow steps across the floorboards; she can see movement behind the glass panel. Mrs. Pelke opens the door. From behind Karen, Paula looks at the lady for the first time. Mrs. Pelke may have grown up on farm and factory work, but she is an elegant woman, with a slim white neck. Her hair is set in bright white curls, and her eyeglasses curve upward at either end; the look in her eyes is gentle and steady. She’s only slightly shorter than Paula, but she looks so much smaller. She is someone’s good grandmother, somebody’s soft mother.
“My auntie would like to know about Bible classes,” Karen says. “When you all hold them.”
“Well, now’s not a good time,” the lady says. “But if you and your auntie come over on a Saturday, I can give you both some information.” And Mrs. Pelke closes the door.
Slowly, the girls turn around and file back down the walkway as they came.
“Well, you could scare the lady with this” — that’s what April says to Paula back at her house. They are standing in the kitchen, and she’s pulled a knife out of a drawer. The blade is wide and twelve inches long. A butcher knife.
This time, April says, they should go to the lady’s house and tell her they need all the information about the classes written down—dates, address, phone number. Paula removes her white denim jacket and wraps the knife inside.
And so they cross the alley and, once again, they round the corner and file up that walkway on Adams Street.
Once again, Karen rings the bell.
Once again, Mrs. Pelke comes to the door. Paula stands behind the others, gripping her jacket to her chest. Mrs. Pelke opens the screen door. And one, two, three: the girls each step across the threshold.
They enter the living room, with its large fireplace. An ivy‐like pattern covers the walls; the davenport is printed with leaves. Here and there are hung small pictures of modest landscapes, a barn covered in snow. Paula carefully sets her jacket down on the sofa.
They trail the old woman into the dining room, where there is a large table, a pump organ, and a writing desk. Above the desk is a black‐and‐ white photograph of her son Oscar as a boy, standing beside a horse—not that the girls would know who he is, why his picture matters in this house. Mrs. Pelke pauses at the desk and pulls a pen and pad out of the drawer: she will write a note for the girls, all they need to know. The lady leans over—and Paula comes up from behind and knocks her down.
Mrs. Pelke lands seated on the carpet, legs splayed in front of her, the tips of her thick‐soled shoes pointed toward the ceiling. Just within reach, on the table, is a glass paperweight: Paula picks it up and brings it down hard on the lady’s head.
For a moment, nothing moves. And then it springs forth from the woman’s head: a red rush of blood. The blood spills out, true red against white hair.
Mrs. Pelke does not stir. Paula looks down at the lady. She has never before laid someone low like this, not an adult.
Paula will remember what comes next like this: that suddenly, there on the tabletop, is the knife. Right there, within reach. And she reaches for it.
Her movements are exaggerated now, double time. She slashes at the lady—little sideways cuts, at her arms, her legs. She is shouting: “Where’s the money, bitch?” She shouts it again, then again, slashing at the woman’s dress, growing more determined, cutting through skin. Paula climbs on top of her. From this vantage point, peering down at the lady’s face, straddling her thighs, she sees Mrs. Pelke’s earrings, like silver buttons, and the blood trapped under the rim of her glasses, and those dark freckles that old people get on their skin. She can hear sounds coming from the lady’s mouth, a stream of words. Paula can just make them out: “If you do this, you’ll be sorry.”
A key deep inside Paula turns and catches, and she is set in motion. She stabs the woman in her chest; she pulls out the knife; she stabs her again. Her hand comes down more than thirty times before she stops, leaving the blade in Mrs. Pelke’s stomach.
Paula is finally used up. She looks at Denise—she’s been standing there the whole time, her back against the wall. “Come here,” Paula says, “and hold the knife.”
Denise shakes, every part of her: she can’t—she’s a baby. Karen will do it. Paula gets up to let her take her place.
But Karen pauses. “I can’t look at the lady.” She leaves the dining room, then returns with a bath towel. Karen drops it, that piece of white terry cloth, over Mrs. Pelke’s face. Now she can sit across the legs of the dying woman.
Paula and Denise search the house. April arrives and joins them. They drag bags and hangers and blankets out of the bedroom closet, pull out dresser drawers and sofa cushions, and they find: ten dollars. During the time the search takes, Karen remains crouched over Mrs. Pelke, holding on to the knife. And after the first fifteen minutes have passed, Karen decides to test something: she wants to see if the blade will go in deeper. So she shoves it in. She pushes it down, through the woman’s chest, until the tip comes out the other side — out through her back, through the carpet, and into the wooden floorboard below. And then she rocks the handle from side to side, feeling how the point is now fixed in place.
Ruth is pinned like a specimen to her own dining-room floor, and she can see nothing. She will die soon, and the young girls are still circling, stalking, moving through the house, overturning the photos of the grandkids and touching and tossing aside Oscar’s things. These are children, like the hundreds of others who’ve passed through Ruth’s house. That was why she’d let them in.
Within days, all four of the girls will be arrested, and Lake County prosecutor Jack Crawford will seek the death penalty for Paula Cooper. About a year later, having turned sixteen in jail, Paula will be sentenced to death in a packed courtroom. Crawford will say to the press, “The law provides that, for certain kinds of crimes, people even as young as fifteen must pay the ultimate price.” But within a few months, Bill Pelke will decide to forgive the girl who killed his grandmother. And he will reach out to her on death row: “I feel as if I must write to you, Paula…I believe everything happens for a reason…”
From SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN by Alex Mar, to be published on March 28 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Alex Mar. Order a copy of Seventy Times Seven here.