Befriending killers

To err is human; to forgive, divine. But to become friends with someone who took the life of a loved one is another matter. What motivates people whose empathy knows no bounds?

Winifred Potenza, right, spent years trying to free her friend William Ernst, left, the man who killed her son while driving drunk.

Winifred Potenza, right, spent years trying to free her friend William Ernst, left, the man who killed her son while driving drunk.

When Douglas Mickey showed up at Eric Hansen’s home outside of Auburn on a September night in 1980, Hansen let him right in. Mickey regularly bought pot from Hansen, who was a well-known local grower. The two men, both in their early 30s, had been friends for several years. Hansen had no idea, however, that Mickey had become gripped by a delusional paranoia. Mickey was convinced that Hansen was taking control of his mind and had to be killed.

The two sat and talked awhile, and then Mickey suddenly pulled out a knife and drove it into Hansen. His screams awoke Catherine Blount, 19, a friend of Hansen’s who was sleeping in the next room. When she ran in to see what was going on, Mickey stabbed her several times. He fled but eventually was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

At the time, no one wanted to see him executed more than Blount’s mother, Aba Gayle. Gayle is a lively, silver-haired grandmother of five with little oval glasses framing her gray-blue eyes. She recently retired from a career in health care. For 12 years after the death of her daughter, Gayle was submerged in a miasma of depression and rage. “I actually lusted after revenge,” she said.

But then one night, in a moment of epiphany, she was amazed to discover that she had forgiven Mickey. She wrote him a letter saying so. From his cell on San Quentin’s death row, where he has been since 1982, Mickey wrote back, full of remorse. The two started corresponding, which led to Gayle visiting him. That led to more visits and to a lively correspondence. Today, Gayle said unabashedly, “I consider Douglas a good friend. He’s such a wonderful man.”

Gayle’s story is extraordinary by anybody’s standards. But what’s even more surprising is that it’s not unique. She is one of a small but resolute society of individuals who have had a beloved relative murdered and have gone on to befriend the murderer.

I met Gayle through a national anti-death-penalty organization called Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. It has some 5,000 members, and it seems safe to assume there are other murder victims’ relatives who oppose capital punishment but aren’t affiliated with the group. Out of those many thousands, there are a much smaller number who say they have found it in their hearts to forgive the killer. And there’s an even smaller subset of those who have gone a step further, by actively supporting and befriending the person who took the life of someone they loved.

There’s no way of knowing just how many people have made this bewildering emotional leap. When I started researching this story after meeting Gayle, I thought I’d find perhaps two or three. But each one I met knew of one or two others, and so on, until I had collected a list of more than a dozen names. Renny Cushing, executive director of the Murder Victims Families group (who, incidentally, is not interested in forgiving the man who killed his father), estimates there are probably “scores” of them.

There’s the San Diego investment banker who wants to see the man who gunned down his son released from Pelican Bay State Prison. The Connecticut reverend who helped get his son’s murderer out of the penitentiary and later officiated at his wedding. The Kansas housewife who sent birthday gifts to her stepfather’s slayer and tearfully witnessed his execution last year. The Alaskan retired steelworker who helped get the girl who butchered his grandmother off of death row and now writes the girl regular letters. The Texas machinist who visited his sister’s killer, Karla Faye Tucker, in prison; spoke out on her behalf; and went to her execution as a friend. It’s not even an exclusively domestic phenomenon: After Newport Beach native Amy Biehl was beaten to death by a mob in South Africa in 1993, her parents hired two of the convicted murderers to work for the foundation they had started in her name.

Most people consider the ability to forgive a generally positive trait. We don’t tend to think highly of someone who holds a grudge against a co-worker who snagged the choice office, the in-laws who gave a cheap wedding present, or the ex-wife who made off with the Loretta Lynn boxed CD set. The fact that these exceptional survivors exist answers one question: Can a person forgive someone who has killed someone the person loves? But it also forces us to think about other questions, about the nature and meaning of forgiveness, its possibilities and limits—and whether it’s always a good thing.

These survivors—let’s call them “befrienders,” for convenience’s sake—are doing something beyond just holding fast to an abstract opposition to capital punishment or a belief in forgiveness. Forging a caring personal connection with someone you have every reason and right to hate is evidence of something much deeper—although what, exactly, isn’t clear. Are these people proof of the human spirit’s powers of mercy, of the infinite possibility of redemption or of the existence

of God’s love in this world? Are they born with an extra impulse to kindness, the opposite of whatever equally inscrutable impulse to evil drives a similarly small group of individuals to open fire on their high-school classmates?

Aba Gayle (at the podium above) originally lusted for revenge against the man who killed her daughter Catherine Blount (below, left), but now she campaigns for forgiveness.

Courtesy Of Aba Gayle

Or, are they just plain nuts?

Gayle recounted her story last fall in Cincinnati in a convent meeting room half-filled with retired nuns. Her lecture was part of “Journey of Hope”—a speaking tour of anti-death-penalty family members of murder victims that goes on the road in a different state more or less every year. The tour is not exactly a popular attraction.

Over the course of the few days in which I tagged along, most of the journey’s events were attended by no more than a few dozen people, generally at churches or religious schools. That didn’t bother Gayle. Despite having told her tale countless times, she delivered it to the nuns with verve.

When she learned Catherine had been murdered, Gayle told them, she was shattered. She was a middle-class housewife, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin with two other children, who had just finished medical school. She had never dealt with anything like this before. “I can tell you, I know what it’s like to be temporarily insane,” she said. “I was so full of rage.” She’d thought of Mickey as nothing but a “terrible monster” and had intended to witness his execution, she said. She passed around a picture of Catherine at 19—a pretty brunette, smiling—for the nuns to admire.

Gayle said she stayed sunken in fury and misery for years, until she eventually started reading books on world religions and spirituality. She wasn’t observant—she didn’t even believe in God at that point, she said—but something in those books spoke to her pain. She was especially taken with one called A Course in Miracles, which stressed “the healing power of forgiveness.” Gayle said she soon found a study group that used the book as its foundation. Her beliefs began to change. “I learned one very important lesson,” she told the nuns. “That we are here to love one another.” Then, one day in her car, she said, she suddenly heard a voice saying: You must forgive him! And you must let him know!

“That voice was so loud and so clear and so persuasive, it wouldn’t let me sleep that night,” she said. “It had me out of bed at 4 in the morning, typing a letter to the man who murdered my daughter.” In that letter, Gayle told Mickey that after the murder, she had wanted to see him punished; but then, to her surprise, she found she could forgive him. “This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened,” she wrote. “What I learned is this: You are a divine child of God. … The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you.”

Within weeks, Mickey wrote her back, expressing repentance for his crime—and inviting her to come visit him in San Quentin. Gayle had never been anywhere near a prison before, but she accepted. “We sat together that first visit and cried,” she said. They cried for Gayle’s loss, and for Catherine’s and for Mickey’s—because, as Gayle said she realized, he, too, had lost his future the night Catherine died.

The two have stayed in close touch ever since then. Since she moved to Oregon from Santa Rosa a few years ago, she can’t visit in person as often, but the two trade regular letters and phone calls. She has become a voice not only for Mickey but also against the death penalty in general, giving similar talks around the country.

“I’d like to see him released,” Gayle told me later. “He has paid his debt to society. He’s totally rehabilitated. It serves no purpose for him to be sitting on death row. It doesn’t change what happened. It’s a total waste of his life and of taxpayers’ money.”

There doesn’t seem to be any one common factor to explain why a person would befriend his or her loved one’s killer. “Sometimes, it comes at the initiation of the [victim’s relative]. Sometimes, it starts with the killer reaching out to family members,” said Cushing, the leader of the Murder Victims Families group. “For some, it comes from faith. For others, not.”

Many of the befrienders say their actions were guided by their Christian beliefs, which emphasize forgiveness of even the worst sinners. After all, the story of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a father forgiving and continuing to love those who killed his only son.

That’s how Bill Pelke sees it, anyway. Pelke is a retired steelworker who is now a full-time organizer with Journey of Hope. He is a craggy, barrel-bodied man with a demeanor somewhere between those of Johnny Cash and Chris Cooper, exuding a palpable gravity and warmth tempered by deep sorrow.

Bill Pelke, the co-founder of Journey of Hope, helped to have the death sentence commuted of the young woman who killed his grandmother.

Courtesy Of Bill Pelke

Pelke’s grandmother was robbed and stabbed to death in her home by a 15-year-old girl, Paula Cooper, who had tricked her into thinking she wanted to come in for Bible lessons. Cooper became the youngest person sentenced to death in the United States. At the time, that was fine with Pelke. But many months later, moved by his faith and a vision he experienced of his grandmother one night, Pelke forgave Cooper and launched an ultimately successful campaign to have her death sentence commuted to 60 years. The two still keep up a warm correspondence.

“If Jesus loved Paula Cooper enough to die for her sins, who was I to say she should die?” said Pelke.

But Christian notions of forgiveness certainly don’t motivate all the befrienders. Azim Khamisa, the San Diego investment banker whose 20-year-old son, Tariq, was shot dead while delivering a pizza, reached out to the shooter and, in 2001, unsuccessfully petitioned then Governor Gray Davis to commute his sentence. Khamisa is a Muslim. Winifred Potenza campaigned for years to free the man who killed her son in a drunken-driving accident, and she is now close with him and his family. She is not particularly religious at all. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said simply.

Whatever the motive, befriending a loved one’s killer often divides the befriender from other survivors. Pelke and Potenza, for example, had bitter falling-outs with other family members over their embrace of the killers.

One thing these befrienders have in common is their down-home, small-town, Middle American normalness. Almost everyone on Journey of Hope fits a similar profile. They are not the dreadlocked students, stylish movie stars or earnest clergy one usually sees protesting the death penalty. They are flyover-state folks, living in unglamorous towns and holding humdrum jobs. Their commonness bespeaks the commonness of murder in America. Every year, more than 16,000 people die at the hands of others in this country. That’s an average of close to 45 murders a day.

Those homicides inexorably create a permanent link between the killer and the victim’s family. Most victims’ families simply ignore that link, hope that the killer is caught and punished and try to move on. Others feel it acutely and react to the pain it causes by lashing back, making it their mission to see the killer punished as harshly as possible. The befrienders, on the other hand, try to turn that unwanted but inescapable bond into something positive.

Such befriending requires not only a survivor willing to reach out to his or her loved one’s killer, but also for the killer to have certain attributes. The killer has to be willing to meet the family member, and many are not. (If you have even the tiniest shred of conscience, surely one of the hardest things imaginable is to meet a relative of someone you have murdered.) The killer has to be remorseful. William Ernst, the man who slammed his car into Potenza’s son, was willing to meet with her despite his tremendous feelings of guilt. “I wouldn’t be free, or deserving of freedom, without Winifred’s involvement,” Ernst said recently, out after seven years behind bars. “Without the love I got in that visiting room [from her], I wouldn’t have become deserving of another chance.” He now runs a prospering plumbing business and has a wife and five children of his own.

It also seems to help if the killer has what, in death-penalty cases, are called “mitigating factors”—youth, a history of mental illness or abuse, and so on. Mickey, for instance, was, by all accounts, mentally ill. Tony Hicks, the boy who shot Tariq, was only 14 at the time. “I see Tariq as the victim of his assailant, and his assailant as a victim of society,” said Khamisa, a neatly coiffed man with a calm, thoughtful manner, seated in his spotless home in a cookie-cutter housing development. “I’m angry not at him but at the circumstances that push children into joining gangs, that put a young boy on a dark street with a handgun.”

Several befrienders say forgiving turned out to be something they did as much for themselves as for the killer. It’s a way of putting the whole thing behind them, of laying down at least part of the hideous burden of grief and loss they’ll be carrying for the rest of their lives—of obtaining something like closure. “Forgiveness frees the forgiver,” said Khamisa. “You do it for yourself. It’s essentially a selfish thing.”

After Tariq was murdered, Khamisa started a foundation dedicated to reducing youth violence. He now spends much of his free time giving talks at schools, churches and anywhere else he can—often accompanied by Ples Felix, the grandfather of the boy who shot Tariq. For Khamisa, that’s a far worthier way of honoring his son’s memory than seeking vengeance would be. “You can become bitter and angry, but what kind of life is that? If I’d gone that way, where would I be today?” he asked. “Eight years ago, I was emptied of all joy and filled with despair. I found a way back through my response to tragedy.”

I asked Pelke whether he was concerned that Cooper might just be taking advantage of him to boost her chances of getting paroled—something she will be eligible for after serving 30 years of her sentence. “Forgiving her did more for me than for her,” he said, without hesitation. “Regardless of whether she’s sincere, I did the right thing.” (He does, incidentally, think she is remorseful and a changed person.) “It’s not forgive-and-forget,” he said. “I’ll never forget what happened to Grandma. But it’s the getting rid of the desire to get even. If you hold onto that, it will destroy you.”

But it’s one thing to let go of hate and anger so that you can move on with your life. It’s another order of magnitude to do what Pelke did. His grandmother was stabbed 33 times with a 12-inch butcher knife. She was found in a pool of blood in the dining room where the family had gathered every year for holidays. Yet Pelke went to meet the attacker in prison, looked her in the eye and said, “I forgive you, and I love you.” He went on to prove it by helping to save her life.

Aba Gayle, whose daughter Catherine Blount was murdered near Auburn in 1980, now lectures as part of the Journey of Hope speaking tour.

Courtesy Of American Friends Service Committee

To Sharon Tewksbury, that’s not evidence that Pelke is a man of compassion. It’s a sign that he’s crazy. “To forgive is one thing, but to become involved like that with the murderer is insanity,” she said. Tewksbury, wearing jeans and a sweater embroidered with the U.S. flag, has a certain authority on the subject. In 1983, her husband was knifed in the Ohio convenience store where he worked. He managed to stagger out to a pay phone and call her; she arrived in time to ride with him in the ambulance to the hospital. He died within hours. She had no qualms when his killer was executed.

Tewksbury works at Parents of Murdered Children, a nationwide group that operates out of two cramped rooms at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The office’s walls are plastered with hundreds of photos, mostly of children and young people: a teenage boy in a graduation gown, a smiling little girl holding a cat, a youthful mother feeding her baby with a bottle, and on and on. All of them were murdered.

The handful of staff and volunteers there are not big on forgiveness. Their main mission is support to homicide victims’ loved ones through a network of chapters in 24 states. One of their signature programs involves circulating petitions opposing the release of murderers when they become eligible for parole.

“My church taught that unless you forgive, you are not forgiven,” said Tewksbury. “But for me to say that to the killer would be like saying, ‘It’s OK that you did this. My husband’s life didn’t matter.’ It’s not for me to forgive; it’s for God. My gut feeling is that many people say they forgive because of outside pressure—because it’s what’s expected of them, it’s what their faith requires.”

As for taking the next step and actually befriending your loved one’s killer: “I think there must some emotional, psychological reason for that, and it can’t be good,” she said.

Certainly, losing a loved one to murder is, to put it mildly, destabilizing. In a major study of family survivors of homicide by the Medical University of South Carolina, the authors note that “clinicians and criminal justice professionals are often staggered by the depth of emotional suffering experienced by survivors … the sheer magnitude of distress and the need to ventilate deeply rageful and fearful feelings.” The study found that survivors typically display “intense, overwhelming levels” of “rage, terror, numbness and depression … disturbances in sleep and appetite, increased heart rate, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, and increased startle responses.” Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder also are common.

Given all of that, it’s not surprising that some experts, like Dr. Paul Berg, an Oakland-based psychologist who testifies often in death-penalty cases, think befrienders are acting not compassionately but pathologically. Berg sees it as an example of “cathexis”—the transferring of one’s emotional energy from its appropriate object, such as the person’s wife, to someone else, such as her murderer. “Some psychiatrists will tell you forgiveness is healing. I don’t believe it. I think it’s overrated,” Berg said.

The emotional-transference hypothesis certainly could explain the case of Potenza, a slender, middle-aged artist with mournful brown eyes who lives in a wood-shingled home on a quiet street in Santa Rosa. In September 1989, just a few blocks from her place, a drunken man doing 70 miles per hour plowed into the car carrying her 21-year-old son, Jonathan, and his fiancée, Lisa Rodriguez. Both were killed instantly. The drunken driver, Ernst, had been convicted once already of driving under the influence. He was almost exactly Jonathan’s age.

“I went nuts. I wanted him to suffer,” Potenza said. “I would have killed my neighbor if I thought it would bring back my kid.” Potenza spent months lobbying the district attorney to prosecute Ernst for murder, not the manslaughter charge such killings usually receive. She got her wish: Ernst was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.

But just as the judge pronounced the sentence, Potenza said, she had a stunning emotional insight. There in the courtroom, with Ernst’s weeping mother just a few yards away, she saw him as a person for the first time and realized the whole thing was a tragic accident. “It was like waking up,” she said. “I thought, ‘Of course I forgive him.’” She found herself getting up, embracing Ernst and telling him so. “It felt beautiful. I forgave him completely. I’ve never held it against him since.”

Then, she said, she had to make amends. For the next seven years, Potenza became Ernst’s staunchest advocate, visiting him weekly in prison and lobbying all the officials she could find to release him. He finally was paroled. He and Potenza remain close friends and visit each other often.

Berg sees such relationships as evidence that the relative is clinging to a sense of connection with the murdered family member. If befrienders do, indeed, suffer from an inability to stop fixating on a dead loved one, then the loved one’s killers can be prime enablers of an obsession. “By the time I went to San Quentin, everyone was tired of talking about Catherine with me,” Gayle said. “Everyone had moved on, but Douglas would let me talk all day about her.”

There may be other unhealthy explanations. Families of murder victims—especially parents—often are wracked with guilt. A mother or brother or granddaughter of a murdered man might be left asking, “Why didn’t I apologize for that argument last Christmas?” “Why didn’t I tell him I loved him more often?” or perhaps most piercingly, “Why couldn’t I protect him from this?” From that perspective, it seems plausible that some befrienders feel that by forgiving the killer, they themselves become worthy of absolution. Pelke, for instance, had his breakthrough moment about Cooper at a moment of great personal distress: he was divorced and bankrupt and recently had broken up with his girlfriend. Perhaps he felt in need of compassion himself and externalized that desire.

It’s also common for murder victims’ relatives to feel distressingly powerless vis-à-vis the killer. Here is a person who has caused you unimaginable pain—and you can do nothing to them. Could it be that forgiving the killer, much like prosecuting them, is a way of asserting power over them, a way of redressing that sense of imbalance? To err, after all, is human, but to forgive is divine. Forgiveness is something only God and someone who loved the victim truly can give. To absolve a murderer is almost the reverse of taking his or her life.

How you explain the befrienders probably reflects your own preconceptions about culpability and forgiveness—your own answer to the question “Are human beings basically good creatures who sometimes do terrible things, or are some of us just fundamentally bad?” If you, like a Catholic nun, believe that even a murderer is a human being deserving of empathy, redeemable no matter what his or her sins, then the befrienders look like saints, beings of exemplary compassion. But if you believe that a murderer is, by definition, an evil person, then the befrienders look like lunatics, self-deluding saps out of touch with reality.

Most of us have fairly fixed notions about these things. We imagine we would have a pretty clear idea of our answer to the question “How would you react if someone you love were murdered?” It’s a safe bet you wouldn’t say, “I’d make friends with the murderer.” What, then, does it mean that a substantial number of people have done exactly that?