Through the stories of Terri Roberts and the Pennsylvania Amish and Pornchai Moontri behind prison walls, Malcolm Farr maps a journey from sorrow to Divine Mercy.
Introduction by Father Gordon MacRae: No, I am not on extended vacation sunning myself on a beach somewhere. The following is Part Three of a series of posts about a story of immense importance that has been a major part of my life behind these stone walls. Part One, written by me, is “Pornchai Moontri: From Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.” It has thus far been TSW’s most read post of the year. Part Two, by Western Australia attorney Clare Farr is “When Justice Came to Pornchai Moontri, Mercy Followed.”
It is a privilege this week to present the third installment in this four-part series. Malcolm Farr, husband of Clare Farr, is principal attorney in the Intellectual Property Law Firm of Farr-IP in Western Australia. He and his wife, Clare Farr, have become instrumental in bringing justice to the incredible story of Pornchai Moontri.
Malcom’s previous guest for These Stone Walls was “Look at the Cosmos and See the Hand of God.” He holds advanced degrees in law, physics, and mathematics, and is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Freemantle, Australia. It is a privilege to present this post by Malcolm Farr.
THE PAIN OF SUFFERING AND THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS
I would like to say a few words about our friend Pornchai Moontri – most especially having regard to some of the things stated in his Victim’s Impact Statement, which was read to the Court at Richard Bailey’s plea deal-sentencing on September 12, 2018.
Richard Bailey had of course been Pornchai’s step-father, at least at a technical level. I say “at a technical level” because I am sure that all will understand how impossible it is for Pornchai to think of him as “family”. However, I think that it should be made clear that this man had been, both legally and morally, in a position of care over Pornchai and his brother, and this makes what happened to them all the more terrible.
Before I turn to Pornchai, I would first like to talk of some other people whose lives changed as a result of a truly awful event, now etched into American history. Their names were very much in the news both when this event unfolded and in its aftermath, although they have now largely disappeared from view. Please bear with me, for their story is ultimately quite relevant to that of Pornchai.
A little more than a year ago, a lady named Terri Roberts passed away at the age of 66. Neither famous nor infamous for anything she herself had done, I am sure you are asking, who the heck was Terri Roberts? Well, her son Charles Carl Roberts IV was the perpetrator of one of the most tragic events to have occurred in the United States this century: “the happening”, as locals call it, in which he took ten girls hostage at the West Nickel Mines PA Amish school on October 2, 2006, shooting all of them before taking his own life.
Five of those girls died: Marian Fisher, 13, and Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7, were declared dead at the scene; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, was declared dead on arrival at Lancaster PA General Hospital; sisters Mary Liz and Lena Miller, 7 and 8, died the following day at hospitals some 70 miles (112 km) apart, their parents being rushed in a police cavalcade from one hospital to the other so that the girls could pass away in their mother’s arms.
As an aside – it is not directly the subject matter of my post today, except for a connection to which I will return later – I would like to note the actions of the first of Roberts’ victims. Despite the atmosphere of innocence and non-violence in which she had been raised, young Marian Fisher realized that Roberts’ intentions were deadly and, in one of the truly great examples of modern Christian witness, she implored him in her halting English – her mother tongue was Pennsylvania Dutch – “Shoot me first, and let these others loose.”
Here was a girl, only 13 years old, offering her own life in the hope that her schoolmates might be spared; here was a girl who, despite her tender years, had such a maturity of faith that she had no hesitation in following the example of Christ’s sacrifice. If I may be forgiven for changing John 15:13 slightly to suit the circumstances: “No one can have greater love than to lay down her life for her friends”.
Back to Terri Roberts, what, then, of her? When the “happening” occurred, she was already undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually take her life. She was already suffering, but the “happening” could have made her suffering far worse. Yet it is here that we see suffering and forgiveness intersecting, for the Amish community at Nickel Mines took her to their hearts, as indeed they took all of the shooter’s family. Realizing that there would be hard times now that the family bread-winner was dead, they extended their charity to his widow and children, establishing a fund for them from part of the moneys donated by the wider public for the survivors’ medical treatments.
They visited with – they kept on visiting – the Roberts family, making it clear all the while that there was no feeling of ill-will toward them, or indeed toward Roberts himself, whom they forgave. In the immediate aftermath of the “happening,” an Amish elder is reported to have held Terri’s husband Chuck in a comforting bearhug for the better part of an hour while the poor man sobbed on his shoulder. Terri would find herself welcomed at the home of the youngest survivor, Rosanna King, 6.
Despite the comfort given to him by the Amish elder, Chuck Roberts could not but help thinking that he and Terri would become pariahs, despised because of their family association with the Nickel Mines shooter, and he decided there and then that it would be best for them to move and start a new life elsewhere. However, that same evening another Amish elder came to their house with a message of solidarity and compassion. And so they did not move away but instead formed bonds in the community which increasingly strengthened the ties between them. In one particularly beautiful instance, when Terri was in hospital for one of her cancer treatments barely two months after the happening, it was one of the surviving girls who came to help out at their home.
But the most wonderful thing for Terri was the bond she would form with the King family.
Little Rosanna had been shot in the head, suffering terrible injuries. With no expectation of her survival, and with the agreement of staff at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey PA, the Kings made the painful decision to take their daughter off life-support and bring her home so that she might pass away there, in the midst of her family. But, somehow, little Rosanna clung to life, although she was totally, permanently disabled. She seemed to recognize those around her but was unable to speak, unable to do anything independently. She often has fits and needs constant care.
Move forward some months, and Terri Roberts was hosting the Amish families in one of the tea parties and picnics that were beginning to become a regular event, when she found herself cradling Rosanna on her lap, gently rocking her and singing to her. The same happened again a few months later, but this time Terri worked up the courage to ask the girl’s mother Mary Liz if she could assist in her care on a regular basis. And it was a courageous thing to do, for Terri was wracked by guilt that she had raised a son who could do such a terrible thing to this sweet child.
It was an offer that was gratefully accepted, and from then onward, until her cancer had progressed to the point that made it no longer possible, Terri became a regular in the King household. She spent hours every Thursday bathing Rosanna, dressing her and attending to her many needs, or sometimes she would just sit with her and read to her from the Bible. Apart from the practical help it gave to the King family, it gave Terri a lot of solace, too. On the one hand, it eased her suffering; on the other, it helped her to endure the cancer that was steadily eating away at her. It also re-doubled her Christian faith, enabling her to cope with the tragedy her son had engineered. The spirit of forgiveness which was evident in the Amish taking her to their hearts played a huge part in this story.
INSPIRED BY DIVINE MERCY
People everywhere were amazed at the forgiveness extended by the Amish. Indeed, some felt it unnatural, believing that anger and outrage were the only reasonable responses – indeed, the only healthy responses. Against this, Terri Roberts said this:
“We live in a society that glorifies survival. That teaches us to seek revenge when wronged, to come out on top. I had braced myself for the inevitable hate and vengeance. Instead, I encountered love beyond understanding. Forgiveness from the very Amish families whose daughters my son had swept from their arms. And I discovered by their example that submission and surrender, love and forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the strength our world so desperately needs.”
Steven Nolt, co-author of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, described the Amish response as “decisional forgiveness”, a conscious answer to Jesus’ command in the Lord’s Prayer. Yet it is insufficient to focus only on the immediate, outward expression of such forgiveness, as most outsiders did, and to ignore the fact that it requires real effort to achieve it at the very deepest levels, not least when – as in the case of the King family – every moment caring for their daughter carries the emotional burden forward.
The Amish are prey to the same emotional responses as anyone else in this regard, but they actively work against them. This could be seen happening in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy when an Amish elder, the grandfather of one of the young victims, was overheard by evangelical pastor Rev. Robert Schenk counseling a group of boys, “We must not think evil of this man [Roberts].” The boys were being taught the first and most central lesson of forgiveness: that, to forgive, one must let go of hatred. In this regard, I should mention a crucial line of dialogue from the television movie Amish Grace which was based around the happening and, to some extent, on the above book. Here, the fictitious Gideon Graber states this: “Hate is a very big, very hungry thing, with lots of sharp teeth. It will eat up your whole heart, and leave no room for love.” Fictitious though this character may be, what he says is a valuable lesson for us all.
Yet it is a struggle – especially, as I mentioned, in a situation such as that of the King family, where no day can pass without being reminded constantly that a normal life was taken from little Rosanna. Her father, who rejoices in the name of Christ King, has acknowledged the ongoing battle to forgive as he attends every day to her needs: “We hope that we have forgiven, but there actually are times that we struggle with that, and I have to ask myself, ‘Have I really forgiven?’ Indeed, he is concerned that the Amish have been put on a pedestal that they do not entirely deserve: “We have a lot of work to do to live up to what we are bragged to be”, he said. The Amish are no less human than the rest of us, yet notwithstanding Mr. King’s reservations, it is clear – not least, from the response to the Roberts family, and Terri’s testimony about it – that their forgiveness, while a struggle, is very real indeed.
Whereas the world was amazed by Amish forgiveness in the wake of the West Nickel Mines PA shooting, what most horrified it was that the victims were children of a community dedicated to non-violence. It is no less horrifying that an innocent 12-year-old Thai boy and his brother were brought to the United States with promises of a wonderful new life, only to find within a fortnight of their arrival that they were now living in a nightmare.
Pornchai has just celebrated his 45th birthday. He has been in prison for 26 ½ years so that some 60% of his life has now been spent behind bars. We would struggle to imagine just how hard, how tough, how bad, these years have been for him. But they were not the worst years of his life. Imagine that – 26½ years in prison, but these have not been the worst years of his life.
And not just any prison. For the first seven years of his term, Pornchai was held in the Supermax prison in Maine. And not always amongst the general prison population there: as his Victim’s Impact Statement noted, he spent his time in solitary confinement because of “anger issues”. And those seven years were still not the worst years of his life. Imagine that – seven years in the Supermax prison, time in solitary confinement, but these were still not the worst years of his life.
[Editor: WGBH-PBS Frontline’s documentary “Locked Up in America – Solitary Nation” depicts the nightmare of Pornchai’s solitary confinement. The prisoners you see were in solitary with him in adjacent cells.
No, Pornchai’s few years in Richard Bailey’s “care”, enduring the unspeakable things that were forced upon him – these were the worst years of his life.
As stated in his Victim’s Impact Statement, those few awful years turned the young Pornchai, a lad full of hope for the brightest of futures, into the “angry, alienated, and despairing youth” who, in an intoxicated moment of fear, unfortunately lashed out at a man whom he did not even know. He took that man’s life.
As was stated in his Victim’s Impact Statement, Pornchai accepts responsibility for that crime; but he also stated that “the responsibility for turning [him into that] angry, alienated, and despairing youth … belongs to Richard Bailey.”
This is not in any sense an act of deflection: a child can never, ever be responsible for the mental injuries inflicted by an adult in whose care (s)he rests, but can only work later on – if at all – to heal those wounds. Unfortunately, Pornchai did not have time even to begin to heal before his own crime took place, and he has been paying for it in prison ever since. And that payment has involved things which could not have been foreseen, such as his inability to attend the funeral of his beloved mother Wannee after she had died unexpectedly, in circumstances as yet unexplained, in 2000.
Ever since he came into the “care” of Richard Bailey, Pornchai has endured a life of suffering. It has been different from the suffering experienced by the victims at West Nickel Mines PA and their families, but it has surely been no less painful for him to bear.
Yet, still in the depth of his suffering, something happened for Pornchai in which we can see reflected the words of Isaiah 55:8-9:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not my ways, declares Yahweh.
For the heavens are as high above earth
as my ways are above your ways,
my thoughts are above your thoughts.”
ON THE ROAD TO EMMAUS
Pornchai found himself sharing a cell with a certain Catholic priest, himself suffering by the unfairness of his conviction and imprisonment. At length, Father Gordon MacRae instilled Christian faith into him, and he was received into the Catholic Church. Interestingly, he took Saint Maximilian Kolbe to be his patron saint, his role model. And Saint Maximilian, of course, offered his own life in 1941 in the hellish concentration camp of Auschwitz so that another’s life might be spared – an offer reflected 65 years later in that of young Marian Fisher in hoping to spare the lives of her schoolmates.
The Catholic faith which took root and grew in Pornchai has not meant the end of his suffering – far from it. However, through God’s grace, he has found the true path through which he can endure it. Indeed, not merely to endure it, but more and more to let go of the “angry, alienated, and despairing youth” that he had been, to let go of the hatred he had felt, and move forward despite his continued imprisonment. More and more, he starved that “very big, very hungry thing, with lots of sharp teeth”, and allowed a future in the hope of Christ to grow within him in its place.
And what has been the result? After everything that he had endured, how did Pornchai conclude his Victim’s Impact Statement? He said, “I have worked hard to forgive Richard Bailey, and I do in fact forgive him”. As in the happening at West Nickel Mines PA, the grace of God has not merely permitted his suffering to be endured but has actively brought him to forgiveness.
It has come back to me that, on hearing these words read on Pornchai’s behalf, the judge was quite overwhelmed. Little wonder – I expect that not too many victims would be able to do this.
“I have worked hard to forgive Richard Bailey, and I do in fact forgive him.”
True, Pornchai added that extending his forgiveness to Bailey does not mean that he can forget the horrible things that happened to him, nor that Bailey should go unpunished. Pornchai still suffers, and in the same way, that little Rosanna’s father, Christ King, suffers. Moving to forgiveness takes continuing effort to overcome the most bitter and harrowing of memories.
Further, Pornchai asked for the Court to pass a “just sentence”. In the same way, that forgiveness does not require us to forget, neither does it entail a right to absolution in the eyes of the law. Indeed, quite the reverse. A person convicted of a crime may genuinely repent of the sin which it involved, but the punishment for the act should still stand. But that punishment must always be just. Pornchai was right, and he was fair.
‘I have worked hard to forgive Richard Bailey, and I do in fact forgive him.”
Pornchai’s act of forgiveness should move us no less than it moved the judge at Richard Bailey’s plea deal-sentencing. To be frank, it is a great lesson for me personally that someone in his position has been given the grace to do this when I, who suffers almost nothing at all by comparison, can still find myself holding onto things that I ought to let go, so that my soul is sometimes gnawed at by the “sharp teeth” of that “very big, very hungry thing” even though I know in my heart that I should be otherwise. I hope, I pray that I can be as grace-filled as Pornchai. I dare say, so should we all.
“I have worked hard to forgive Richard Bailey, and I do in fact forgive him.”
Little Rosanna’s father, Christ King, described Terri Roberts as being “strong enough, [having] enough of a backbone, to go out and become such a part of the life of a girl that her son tried to kill”. Having raised her son in a Christian family full of love, she really cannot be blamed at all for what he did on that awful day in West Nickel Mines PA. But, as is only natural, she blamed herself, and it took a lot of courage to go into the midst of the Amish community, to the King family, and give them what help she could. More courageous still is where the actual perpetrator is offered forgiveness and has the strength to accept it, for this requires a true acknowledgment of what (s)he has done and repentance.
At his plea deal-sentencing, Richard Bailey entered a “no contest” plea. He did not accept guilt but agreed to the terms imposed by the Court. Nevertheless, Pornchai’s forgiveness is there, and he knows it. I hope, I pray, that he can be courageous enough to accept it, and acknowledge, and be sorry for and repent, what he has done.
On October 1, 2016, the day before the tenth anniversary of the happening, and less than a year before Terri Roberts would pass away, the Washington Post published an article titled “Her son shot their daughters 10 years ago. Then, these Amish families embraced her as a friend”. Between the title and the text, there is a photograph. It shows her in the sun room of her home, holding a picture of her son. Light streams in through the windows, above which there is a word in beautifully formed cursive letters: “Forgiven.” But it is not so much that word which breathes the spirit of forgiveness; rather it is the room itself, which was built as a gift to her by her Amish neighbors.
The 60-square foot cell which Pornchai shares with Father Gordon in “these stone walls” is not a gift from anyone so kindly. Rather, given the dreadful experiences that formed him as a youth, one might say that his cell was Richard Bailey’s gift to him. A very sad gift indeed. But, by the grace of God, the spirit of forgiveness breathes just as strongly there as in Terri’s sun room. It is a spirit which visibly moved the judge hearing Pornchai’s Victim’s Impact Statement; it is one which should move us equally, too. For, despite all the suffering which he endured, Pornchai has turned his suffering into a remarkable tale of redemption, a remarkable tale of forgiveness,
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post. I thank Malcolm and Clare Farr, not only for their two excellent guest posts but for their years of reaching out through Divine Mercy to two souls trapped behind these stone walls on the far side of the world. You may wish to see these other posts about this amazing story of Divine Mercy at work: