Forgiving a Killer
Freedom from the past is possible in the present.
by Lynetta L. Smith
Something like the sound of firecrackers peppered the hot June afternoon as our house stirred with waking toddlers and preschoolers. “It’s a little early for fireworks,” I told my husband.
A few minutes later, more shots rang out. They sounded different than the first round. Panic filled me as I grasped the situation. Gunfire. Somewhere near our home on a safe Air Force base, someone was shooting.
“OK,” I said. “Time for cartoons.” My attempt at a calm demeanor couldn’t fool my two-year-old daughter and four daycare kids.
Five little ones gathered around the television. Questions they didn’t know how to ask filled their eyes. As The Flintstones filtered through our living room, I closed the blinds and began to pace.
I stepped outside after a few minutes to see airmen in white hospital uniforms walking down the streets.
“Back inside your house, Ma’am!” They shouted at everyone who opened their front doors.
I complied and went to go sit with the kids. The Flintstones was interrupted by a news brief. We all sat glued to the TV as reporters put bits and pieces together about Dean Melberg, who went on a killing spree at the base hospital just two blocks away. My daughter had been born there two years before.
I fought back tears as I looked at the youngest boy in my living room. His mother worked at the hospital.
Throughout the afternoon, stunned parents called to check on their children, and that evening clutched them into grateful hugs as they picked them up. I later learned that the psychologist I had once seen (for a gun phobia, ironically) had been shot and killed, along with several other hospital staff. Those last shots I heard were from a security police officer’s gun — the fatal shots that ended the rampage and Dean Melberg’s life.
As we sorted through the emotional wreckage, the hospital closed for renovations. They made plans to enclose the building within the fence of the base to prevent any more unauthorized entry into the hospital.
In the meantime, a fence crumbled from around my heart — the stone fence I had put up to imprison my emotions from another shooting. All the news and hoopla surrounding the Melberg killings chipped away at it until I could no longer avoid all the horrifying details of what happened in November 1990.
Another fateful day
The day after Thanksgiving, five years earlier, I was in my dorm room at Fort Lowry in Colorado. A knock sounded on the door. I opened it to see the CQ (squadron front desk runner) standing before me. She told me to report to the captain immediately.
It was a holiday, so hardly anyone was supposed to be on duty that day, much less the captain. My chest squeezed with dread as I followed her to the captain’s office.
The captain met me at her door and ushered me in. She was six feet tall with short blonde hair, and her intimidating reputation had preceded her. No one wanted to get on her bad side. I expected to stand at attention while she briefed me on whatever was going on. Instead, she told me, “Sit down.”
As I sat, the sick feeling in my gut increased even more. Instead of the gruff commander we’d all come to fear and respect, I saw a woman who was about to lose all of her professional composure. After a half-minute of wiping her palms on her pants, switching positions, and folding her hands, she simply said, “You need to call your family.”
Not knowing which family to call, since my parents were divorced, I dialed my mom. When I got her on the line, she said, “Oh, honey, did they tell you?”
That conversation was even more confusing than the one in the Captain’s office, but by now I knew that something horrible had happened and that no one could form the words to tell me what it was.
“Mom, what is going on?” I shouted into the payphone, drawing stares from other students in the squadron. The CQ cleared the area, but I was already in near hysterics as Mom tried to explain to me that my Aunt Beckie, her sister, and three of my cousins had been shot and killed. I continued to scream questions like “Why?” and “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Wyoming!”
The rest of the day was a blur. As I waited through the weekend to fly to Buffalo, Wyoming, where my family lived, my friends brought me food and tried to keep up a conversation. The captain came by and told them to make sure I wasn’t left alone.
The next day I had regained some composure and called my grandmother. “Did they find out who did it?” The answer had me reeling again. Beckie’s fifteen-year-old stepson had shot her and his three brothers with a twelve-gauge shotgun. His confession made things easy for the police but infinitely complicated life for the rest of us.
Aunt Beckie had been one of my favorite people. She loved life and laughed out loud often. Her sense of humor and practical jokes were legendary. In my childhood, I spent many happy summer nights at her house, playing in her huge backyard and lying in her hammock. We went shopping and to the movies.
Aunt Beckie dedicated her life to her family, nursing school, and the severely handicapped. Her compassion for others belied logic, especially where her stepson was concerned.
All that was cut short the morning after Thanksgiving Day by the one she’d tried to help the most.
Living with loss
The Melberg shooting on Fairchild AFB stirred up all those emotions again, and I couldn’t keep them from surfacing anymore. I eventually quit the daycare; I barely had the ability to meet the emotional needs of my own child, let alone other peoples’. Why did some people find it necessary to shoot and kill others?
Since my husband was working swing shift, I had way too many quiet hours after my little girl had gone to sleep each night. I sat up in bed, reading my Bible and praying that God would take away the pain.
The killings in my family were so senseless and wasteful; I hated the killer. A life sentence with the possibility of parole was way too good for him. I wanted him dead, just like my aunt and three cousins. Most of all, I wanted him to pay for hurting us so much.
Bitterness ate me alive, and I knew I could no longer go on as if I were over it.
Over and over, I asked God, “Why?” Searching for answers, I started reading the Bible from cover to cover.
One night I had gotten to the book of Chronicles when I finally cried out to God, “How can I forgive him? Do you really expect me to forgive a murderer? I hate him!”
Gently, God helped me picture Christ on the cross, where He’d forgiven those who murdered Him. I realized my hatred was no better than the hatred that caused this young man to pick up a gun and blow away his family. Hatred did nothing to bring them back; it only hurt me more. I could either let it consume me or let it go. In short, I could forgive because Christ forgave.
Eighteen years later, I still see that as a significant mile mark in my walk with Christ. I no longer harbor venomous thoughts toward the young man who murdered my relatives, nor do I wish him dead. Since he has still not expressed any remorse, I do feel he should be in jail and that justice must be served. But I am free from the bondage of bitterness.
Though I still tear up when I think of my aunt, especially on her birthday and Thanksgiving, my heart swells when I imagine seeing her again in eternity. It wouldn’t be like her to run up and hug me; she’d sneak behind and startle me with a loud “Boo!” Our reunion will be full of raucous laughter, I’m sure.
I still grieve for the families of those who died in the Fairchild AFB hospital that day. I know how they feel. Somehow one can’t fully comprehend that sort of pain unless they have gone through it.
As workers restored the hospital and declared it a place of healing and peace, so God did in my soul. With new carpet and new walls where bullet holes and blood had been, the staff could provide health and well-being to their patients. In the same way, God cut out the bitter black parts in my heart and replaced them with compassion and hope. What seemed impossible — forgiveness — God made into a beautiful reality.