Infamous convicted murderer Paula Cooper who was once the youngest person on Death Row was found dead Tuesday morning. She died of an apparent suicide. Indianapolis Metropolitan police were called to the scene at the 9500 block of Angola Court, near the northwest Indianapolis-Carmel border. She was found outside of a technical school, lying near a tree. According to the Marion County coroners office she was pronounced dead at 7:38 in the morning, of what is believed to be a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head.
Cooper 45, garnered national attention when at the age of 15 her and three other girls murdered 78-year-old Ruth Pelke during a robbery. Cooper, identified by law enforcement as the ring leader in the brutal murder, and her accomplices went to the bible teacher’s home with a 12-inch butcher knife.
According to reports the girls were able to gain access to the elderly Pelke’s home by pretending to curious in Bible lessons. Once inside the home though, the girls knocked Pelke to the floor and Cooper climbed atop the woman.
Cooper in her own words admitted to sitting on Pelke and screaming at her, wanting to know where the woman’s money was and calling her derogatory names. She then stabbed the victim 33 times with the 12 inch butcher knife while her victim said the Lords Prayer. The girls then left the home with the $10 they had stolen and victim’s car.
The other three involved were convicted of murder or robbery and sentence to prison terms of 25 to 60 years. Cooper who admitted to the stabbing was sentenced to death by the electric chair.
In 1986 when she was convicted of murder at the age of 16, she infamously became the youngest person in the United States to be on Death Row. In Indian where the crime, trial and sentencing occurred she was the youngest to have ever received a sentence of death. Following her sentencing of capital punishment public sentiment swayed dramatically. The public became outraged with the idea of a state sponsored killing of someone who was so young. Cries of clemency from around the world were heard, including a plea from Pope John Paul II. The conviction of Cooper and her death sentence brought to light the disturbing fact that children as young as 10 could be sentenced to death in Indian, marking the state as having the lowest death penalty age in the country. The international criticism prompted Indian lawmakers to pass a bill that was authored by then, Rep. Earline Rogers, that raised the death penalty from the age of ten years old to 16 in 1987 . The Indian Supreme Court in 1989 ruled it unconstitutional to sentence any person who is under 16 to death, calling it “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court changed Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison. The law has since been changed from the age of 16 to 18.
Bill Pelke, the grandson of Cooper’s victim at first agreed with the sentence of death for Cooper, but soon came to realize that his grandmother would not have wanted Cooper to die. He worked with others to prevent her from being executed. He visited her in prison 14 times and they exchange e-mails for the last two years of her prison sentence. She had expressed a wish to help others who found themselves in her situation, as way to give back to society and make amends for her crimes. Cooper had been abused by her father when she was younger, and the anger she felt may have been a contributing factor to what she had done. She wanted to let others know that abuse does not have to lead to a life of violent crime.
Pelke had look forward to working with Cooper and was hoping that she could help with his organization, Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing. The organization supports alternatives to the death penalty. He and Cooper were not able to talk due to a condition of her parole which prevented her from contacting the family. They had planned to speak next month when she was released from parole. During one of their last conversation while she was in prison she expressed fear of life outside prison walls. She had never learned to write a check, pay a bill, and life outside of prison held so many things that were unknown to her. Pelke offered to help her in any way he could. Her death has been extremely upsetting to him.
Cooper had earned release from prison for good behavior, during her time of incarceration she had obtained her GED, numerous certificates, and a bachelor’s degree. After serving 28 years in prison she was released on June 17, 2013 from Rockville Correctional Facility. How the 45 year old spent her almost two years outside of prison is vague at this time.
Ronda Labroi her sister, released a statement on Tuesday saying that Cooper was sorry for the crime she committed, that she was loved and will be missed. Labroi asked for people to keep the Pelke family and her family in their prayers and for privacy while they grieve.
At this time it is unclear why the once infamous convicted murder who escape the fate of being the youngest Death Row inmate committed suicide, or how as a convicted felon she was able to obtain a fire arm. The case is still under investigation.
By Jessica Hamel
nwi.com: From Death Row to Freedom, Paula Cooper dead of Apparent Suicide
WFYI Indianapolis: Ex-Death Row Inmate Paula Cooper Found Dead of Apparent Suicide
IndyStar: Paula Cooper, Once Youngest Indian Death Row Inmate Found Dead
Photo of Bars Courtesy of Jenn Vargas’ Flickr Page-Creative Commons License
Photo of Protest Courtesy of javacolleen’s Flickr Page-Creative Commons License