An unfortunate and widely debated footnote to the history of Lew Wallace High School came to an end today, May 26, 2015.
According to local newspapers, former Lew Wallace student and convicted murderer Paula Cooper, age 45, was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound near an Indianapolis, Indiana, office building.
The sad story of Ms Cooper began on a school day in 1985, when she and some companions left the school campus on their lunch break. It was later determined that the group had used marijuana and wine to achieve a chemical high. They then obtained a knife and approached the home of Mrs. Ruth Pelke, who lived near the school on Adams Street.
Knocking on Mrs. Pelke’s door, the girls asked the 78 year-old Bible teacher to lead them in some Bible studies. Mrs. Pelke willingly admitted the girls to her home, but as soon as they were inside, according to trial records, the girls viciously attacked Mrs. Pelke, hitting her on the head with a vase and knocking her to the floor. They then demanded that she give them her money.
According to court records, when Mrs. Pelke admitted to having no money in the home, she was tortured with a butcher knife drawn across her chest multiple times. Ms Cooper was found to then have stabbed Mrs. Pelke approximately 33 times, with one wound completely penetrating the victim’s body and leaving a mark on the floor beneath her. Reportedly, as Mrs. Pelke lay dying, she recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The teens were arrested the next day after bragging to their friends about what they had done. The net monetary gain to the group was $10.
Even before Ms Cooper went to trial, Lew Wallace High School was thrust into the spotlight, according to former principal Christ Christoff. In his recollection, the local media hounded the school, blaming the administration and staff for allowing the group of students to leave the campus. Mr. Christoff noted how he finally contacted the editor of the most vociferous local newspaper and explained that a) Ms Cooper had transferred into Lew Wallace just a few days before the murder; b) with a campus encompassing the large land area that Lew Wallace’s did, it was impossible to know exactly where every student was at every moment of the day. (Author’s note: I can vouch for this, as in my four years at the school I remember leaving the campus - against regulations - almost daily during my lunch period.) After that, the negative publicity for the school quieted almost immediately.
In 1986, at the age of 16, Paula Cooper was convicted of the murder of Ruth Pelke and sentenced to death. Human rights activists demanded a commutation of her sentence to life in prison and there was even a plea for mercy from Pope John Paul II.
Shortly after the sentencing, the US Supreme Court ruled that individuals under the age of 16 at the time of their crime’s commission could not be sentenced to death because it was seen as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. In 1989, Cooper’s sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison. She received parole, among much public outcry, in June of 2013, having served 27 years of her sentence.
Ms. Cooper was reported to have made a remarkable personal turn-around during her years under incarceration; despite a 3 year sentence to solitary confinement for having assaulted a guard, she was said to have grown in maturity and stability. She earned both a GED and a bachelor’s degree during her time in prison.
She seemed to have avoided the public radar for the last 2 years, and one can only wonder what led this young woman - in her mid 40’s - to have taken her own life.
- Kim Steinert
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