TITLE: Thou Shalt Not Kill
By Terry Atchison
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Thou Shalt Not Kill
The cylinder turned one more 'click' and he pushed in another bullet with his shaking fingers. One more 'click', another bullet. Six holes filled with potential death. He snapped the barrel into place and held the pistol up in front of him at arm's length. Aiming at an invisible target, he acted out for the one thousandth time, his act of revenge. He could see the man in front of him. Slowly, he pulled the trigger and smoke fired out from where the hammer made contact. Fire streaks and smoke flashed out of the end of the barrel. The man turned his head towards the sound. There was really no expression on his face as the bullet hit him in the forehead, just above the eyes. Skin, bone, and blood shot out from the bullet's impact, kind of like in those pictures we have all seen of droplets of milk falling into a bowl of milk. The splatter goes out in all directions. His head snaps back, followed by the top half of his body. A quarter of the back of his skull disappears, along with a mixture of brains and blood as it all splatters against the wall. The body slides down to the floor, leaving an enormous curved red line on the wall. Five more bullets are shot into the already lifeless body. Three of them hit the abdomen area. One hits the heart, and the last one hits the mouth. Justice has been done, at last. Now his wife and little girl can rest in peace. Gene had never felt such a hate and anger in his life!
Memories of his life come and go in his mind. Some he actually lives because they seem so real to him. He feels, smells, touches, hears, and can talk to the memories. It's as if he is in a movie and each personage is a part of him. He lives each and every part of it; them.
"Daddy, push me harder! Harder! I want to go higher." Linda loved it when her daddy pushed her on the rope swing out in front of grandma's house. The swing made slow, lazy arcs back and forth under the elm tree. She could almost touch the leaves with her feet each time she went up frontwards.
"Push me higher, daddy. I want to touch the leaves." Her eight-year-old voice sounded delighted.
He did, of course, and she did, of course. Then June came out and ruined it all.
"Gene! Stop that right now! Get her down from there. Are you crazy, pushing her so high?"
"Mommy. I've done this before. Watch.”
"Yeah, honey. We've gone much higher than this." As he talked, Gene was slowing down the swing with each arc. Eyes of the husband and mother were locked. The fear in June's eyes gave way to a loving, warm stare. Each started to smile, then she stuck out her tongue at Gene.
'I love you', she mouthed with her lips.
"Can I have an ice cream now, mommy?"
"May I, and yes you may."
"Mr. Stern. Are you sure you want to see her? It's not very pretty."
Gene pushed the detective aside and made his way to the back of the mountain cabin. The freezer lid was open and a police photographer was taking pictures. He smelled of vomit because he had 'lost it' when he saw the little girl. Gene approached the freezer, took a deep breath, and slowly looked inside.
"Oh God" was all that he could utter. His baby girl was there, lying on the food, hands tied behind her back. The bruises on her body testified to the violence of the attack.
Gene could not cry. He just nodded yes, that it was her; his daughter that the police and himself had been searching for these past four days.
Click, a bullet; click, another bullet; click, another. Snap the barrel shut. Aim and... Over and over again the same scene passed before him. But he was a 'Christian', a part of him kept repeating. He closed his eyes and prayed that his wife would be found safe and sound. He thought about her soft voice and how wonderful and beautiful she is.
"I love you so much, Gene. God has been so good to us. Our life is blessed. Thank you Lord."
Gene, June and Linda had just attended Sunday services and were now going home to change, then to the lake for a picnic. The warm summer day here in the Colorado Mountains made them appreciate living 'their dream'. This wonderful life was a real change from what they had both known back in Mattoon, Illinois. God had blessed them with the life they had, and they worshiped Him everyday, thanking Him, and living their Christianity to the fullest. They were known, loved and respected in their community. The Stern's house was always open for those who needed spiritual support.
"Each day I thank the Lord for His sending you into my life, June. And I thank Him for our Linda. She amazes me sometimes when she talks about the Bible. Her understanding is greater than a lot of grown-ups that I know. Thank the Lord for guiding the education that we have given her."
The memories kept projecting themselves in his mind as the car went winding down the mountain road. Gene hadn't slept in days. He had been searching with the authorities since the day his wife and daughter had been kidnapped by the escaped prisoner. His friend, Mike, a detective on the Gunnison police force, and fellow Christian, had okayed his participation. Now his little baby was gone, and he was reliving over and over again the bullets being loaded and his pulling the trigger to end the life of the monster that had ruined his gift from God. From time to time, a word flashed by in his mind but it seemed so ridiculous that it hardly registered: 'forgive'.
Gene had never prayed so much or so sincerely in his whole Christian life. He didn't blame God for what had happened. He didn't understand and wasn't trying. He was only asking for strength to face each minute. But he still felt a kind of friction inside himself. He couldn't put his finger on it, but was sure that his baptism in faith would be an awesome thing. How easy it is to advise others to follow the teachings of God and to believe that each event in our lives, however good or painful, has a reason, and that we should not try to understand, but thank Him and trust in Him to show us our new direction to follow. Yes, how easy it is when it's someone else. But when it's you, it all takes on a whole different dimension.
"OK Tom. We should be there in about two hours. Help their boys keep it clean until the lab unit gets there. Try to set up a one-mile zone around the area. No one in or out. Yes, he's with us. Yeah, I know. I will. Thanks, later." Now the hard part.
"Gene." Mike pulled over and stopped the car. He turned his head towards the back seat. His eyes were like steel. The features on his face made Gene understand that the news wasn't going to be pleasant.
"Stop. Just tell me if she is there. If so, I know the rest." His heart was up in his throat as he waited for an answer.
"They found her about twenty minutes ago, in a house not far from interstate twenty-five in Trinidad. She didn't suffer, Gene. He shot her in the back of the head. He must be running for New Mexico. We have roadblocks set up in a perimeter of a hundred..."
'One bullet, then another, then another. Snap, aim, and one less monster on the earth! Forgive? Never! There are some things that you just can't forgive, even if you are a Christian. These crimes will be paid for, and I will be the one who does it.'
'Forgive', passed through his mind. There it was again! 'No, Never! Don't tell me to forgive. This is too hard. He will die and go to hell where he belongs.'
For almost two hours, Gene kept having this turmoil going on inside his mind. He never heard the detective talking to him. His mind was shut off from all external distractions. Wrestling with God and His Christiany was almost overbearing at this point in time. His emotions and beliefs were all mixed up, as if in a tornado. Nothing was clear. His whole spiritual being was being exposed for examination.
Multi-colored lights flashing from the police emergency vehicles indicated well in advance the location of the house. Gene knew from the detective's calls on the phone that his wife's body had been taken to the morgue. He wanted to see where it had happened. As they entered the police zone, Gene imagined what his wife must have felt as she arrived here earlier this evening. She must have known that she was going to die. Strong Christian as she was, he knew that she had been praying for her killer. Her faith was unyielding. She was an example.
And he was right. June had prayed for the man who had killed her, right up to the end. In front of him, on her knees, just before he shot her, she forgave him and prayed that God would come into his heart. The man had cried and told her that he was sorry. He had never wanted to kill her daughter, but she just wouldn't shut up. Once he started hitting her, he got carried away. He told her that it was too late now and that he hated himself. She tried to calm him by talking of Jesus and His love He has for everyone. 'It's too late now' was all he repeated. After shooting June, he put the pistol into his mouth, but couldn't pull the trigger. He screamed, shouted, and cried like a baby. He threw his gun against the wall and took off running into the night. Escape or life didn't mean anything to him anymore.
The lab team were still at work when Mike led Gene into the house. They followed a uniformed officer into the bedroom where they had found June's body. As they entered, Gene's eyes were attracted by the big cross hanging above the head of the bed. On the carpet at the end of the bed, bloodspatters revealed the outline of where she had been kneeling. There was a small bloodstain and just a few streaks of blood that ran down the cover at the end of the bed. Her body had fallen forward onto the bad. Gene instantly understood that his wife had been looking at the cross when she died. This did give him some kind of comfort.
"Gene, the lab boys say that she was facing towards the head of the bed. No apparent evidence of physical violence on her body, just one shot that surely killed her instantly. Buddy, you want to see her this evening or wait until tomorrow morning?"
Mike had put his arm around Gene's shoulders as he talked.
"This evening Mike." Gene's eyes were fixed on the cross as he spoke and left the room. It was if he were finding a small bit of peace out of all this destruction.
Outside the house, the two men prayed together for June.
"I don't know if this was such a good idea that you stayed with us all the way, Gene."
"Mike, I've seen much worse. You know that." Being a paramedic had hardened Gene's feelings towards accidents and death. But now, this touched him a little differently. It hurt. His heart ached.
"Well, you sure have kept your calm. You know of course, that when we get back home, you will have the church to count on. Everyone will be there for you, Gene. They are all praying for you at this moment, I'm sure."
"Thanks, Mike. What's going on? Do you really think that God just let this happen, or am I being punished for something?"
"Well, this is extremely hard, but there is a reason for all that happens in our lives. We both know that. This is really the worst moment to try to understand why. Only time will reveal His reason."
"I'm going to kill that guy, what's his name." One bullet, then another, one more. Snap the barrel in place, aim and fire.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. His name is Randall. Randall Kopeck. Here's the morgue, Gene. Are you sure that you are okay with this right now?"
"Yeah, let's do it. I want to see her.” His voice sounded tired and a little raspy. Fatigue was taking over his body.
White walls and floors, garnished with stainless steel objects that are usual in these places, greeted the two men as they entered the morgue. The place smelled of unidentifiable cleaning products. After signing the papers, they were led down a long corridor to a room with walls covered by refrigerator doors. The fluorescent lights seemed too bright for Gene's liking. They were led to number 127. Once opened, a long rack was pulled out, on which there was a covered body. Gene watched, as if in a dream, as his own hand reached down and uncovered her head. She was so beautiful. Her eyes were closed, as if asleep, and her face gave no hint that she had suffered. Gene was remembering that cross over the bed.
"This is my wife, Mrs. June Stern." Identification was a formality that had to be delt with, of course, but Gene just wanted to see her face again and give her one last kiss before the autopsy. 'I love you so much, darling. Now you are with our baby and Jesus. Each day I will pray for you two.'
'Forgive.' Did he really hear that, or was it a thought?
'What? Never! Once again, one more bullet, then another, then another, aim and boom. He's history!'
Gene and Mike prayed again together before getting into the car. At last Gene was crying. He felt shattered and now all the feelings he had been holding inside were released. Once in the car, he closed his eyes and prayed and prayed for guidance. Mike got a call from the local police. Kopeck had been caught. The state police got him on a country road a few miles out of town. They could now leave for Gunnison.
"They got him. We're going home." Mike's voice sounded relieved.
"I want to see him!" Gene's eyes were scary to look at.
"No way, Gene. He will be transported back to Gunnison tomorrow or the day after. You will see him at a later. He's not going anywhere. Try to rest now. We have a long drive back home."
"You're right. I have all my time now.” Staring into space, he loaded the bullets and fired, again and again, and again.
June and Linda were smiling and waving at him from behind a cloud. They were laughing and running after each other. They seemed to almost float through the air between the golden clouds. He waved to them and shouted that he loved them both. Linda was shouting back to him that she loved her daddy. June was coming closer and closer, with a big smile on her face. They were all so happy here in this paradise.
"Wha-a? Who said that?"
"Who said what, Gene? You were dreaming. We're almost home. It's four a.m. We all need some sleep."
"Yeah, okay. My car is at the police station. Just leave me there and I'll drive home."
"Are you sure? We can take you to your place and have someone bring you your car later on today."
No, I've rested enough to drive. Anyway, I don't think I'll be sleeping much."
Dawn. Funny sometimes, how it seems to come with a 'cutting edge' light. No color, really, just a gray, clear, stark light that is neither warm nor cold. This really wasn't the kind of dawn Gene preferred.
'What difference does it make, anyway? What difference does anything make anymore?' The drive home was slow. Partly because of his fatigue, but mostly because of memories at almost each corner he passed. The bike rides, soccer games, birthdays, walks, morning jogs, hamburgers eaten with the girl scouts, and on, and on. So many memories. He was too tired to feel the pain now, but woke up a little as he turned into his driveway. It looked like his whole front yard was filled with flowers. 'Wonder who will help me clean all this up?' He couldn't cry or feel much of anything as he made his way into the house. Gene was caught up in his memories and just shook his head from side to side.
'...will be transferred to Gunnison tomorrow afternoon or evening. Now let's go to Don for the weather. Thanks Sam. I hope you all had a ...'
'Yeah, you too'. Gene was thinking. He was sitting in his armchair, half watching the TV screen, dozing off and waking up. So Kopeck will be transferred tomorrow afternoon or evening. I don't really think that 'Mr. Killer' will ever make it to the courthouse tomorrow. He has an appointment with a friend of mine.
A bullet, then another, another, snap, aim, and.... "Daddy, Daddy! Watch out!" Just as he was ready to pull the trigger, he found himself aiming at his little girl! He couldn't stop the movement of his finger on the trigger, and he couldn't make any sound to warn her. As the bullet fired, Gene saw his wife snatch up their daughter from harms' way and fall into the arms of Kopeck. He was holding on to his wife and little girl and laughing. Gene started to walk towards him, but each foot seemed to be stuck in mud, or something that made him use all his strength with each step. As he advanced, they seemed to distance him farther and farther. His strength was diminishing with each effort. He knew that his efforts were for nothing and that Kopeck woul....
"...you there? Hey, Gene! Are you there, Gene? C'mon, answer, buddy." The answering machine woke him up from the nightmare.
"..back at the house, or you can call me at..."
Gene picked up the receiver.
"Yeah? I'm here."
His answering machine had been full of messages when he arrived home. Gene had erased them all.
"Gene, its Wes and John. We are just in front of your house." Brothers from church. Good friends.
"Oh, what time is it anyway?"
"Well, it's about 3:30 p.m., Gene."
"Guess I dozed off. C'mon in. Go through the garage. I'll open the door for you."
After greetings and hugs with words of comfort, the three men sat down around the kitchen table and prayed together. Over coffee, Gene started to at last talk of the hate that was consuming his soul. John and Wes let him speak and listened with no surprise to Gene's plans to avenge the murders. Minutes, then hours passed, as Gene worked himself up, talking about all that he had seen and felt these past few days. Both men knew that his wanting revenge was a normal human reaction, so were not at all surprised by Gene's plan to kill Kopeck. They just let him talk it all out. Gene fell asleep on the sofa in the afternoon, and was awakened in the evening by the aromas of Italian cooking coming from the kitchen. He almost called out to June to ask what was cooking, then realized who was there with him.
It was after eight p.m. as the three men once again sat around the table for prayer and having supper. Gene felt blessed to have such wonderful brothers in Christ. After eating, the men brought out their Bibles, searching the scriptures for answers concerning why and how God uses us the way he does, God's will, how death can be used for His work, revenge, His love for us, and the hardest topic for Gene at this moment; forgiveness. Their discussions were accented with some outbreaks of anger from Gene, followed by tears, as God's love filled his being. This was a long process, which lasted throughout the night. As dawn was breaking, most of Gene's anger and thoughts of revenge had been replaced by the Lord's instructions and love. His Christian reasoning was winning out over the hate that had been tormenting him. Forgive. He spelled it out in his mind. F-o-r-g-i-v-e. The word was ringing in his head. He knew that he must listen and try to understand. Sometimes following in God's footsteps seems more than we can ever bear as humans but, Jesus, was as us when He died on the cross, and He wants us to follow His example in all ways. He never asks the impossible. Never.
Randall Kopeck spent most of his time before the trial, pondering how he had ended up in this situation. Each day he relived the murders of little Linda and her mom, June. Each day he felt an indescribable pain inside his soul. There was no way to blot out the images. From morning until night, they tortured his spirit. He never would have imagined himself capable of such hideous crimes. Panic had overtaken his judgment. Randall would have done almost anything to keep from returning to the living hell of prison life. He remembered the events which led him to where he was today.
The accountant of the company where Randall worked had set him up. After working there for around six months as a junior accountant, he was arrested for stealing tens of thousands of dollars. The prosecutor had asked for twenty years. The judge sensed something wasn't right, but had to rule on the facts and proof. At twenty-three years old, Randall Kopeck was sentenced to a term of seventeen years of prison. Six months later, after being abused in ways that he never imagined possible, Kopeck escaped during a hospital visit. He was terrified by what he had experienced in prison, and preferred to die than to return. His escape led him from California to Gunnison, Colorado, where at a stop light, he had taken June and Linda as hostages. He had reasoned that the police would pay less attention to a family in a car.
Alone now, in his cell, Randall Kopeck knew that only forgiveness from the person that he had hurt the most would calm the terrible pain that tortured his soul. How could he ever ask for such a favor? Impossible.
Randall's health waned in jail, waiting for his trial. He became thin with dark circles under his eyes. Sleep was unattainable. His mental state was ruining his health. One day, he asked to meet with Pastor Yearwood, who visited the prisoners.
"Mr. Yearwood, please pray for me. I'm dying inside."
"Randall, why don't you just tell me everything that's bothering you? Have you already discussed your problems with someone other than your lawyer?"
"Never. My lawyer doesn't know of the pain that I carry inside. I only told him that I was guilty of my crimes and that I must pay for them."
"Randall, no matter what sins that you have committed, there is hope for your soul. God still loves you. Let's pray together now."
"Impossible! Are you crazy? I killed a little girl and her mother. God could never love me after that."
"Randall, God sees all, knows all, and understands all. There is a purpose for all things that come to pass on His Earth. Many times, we are not capable of understanding His ways of using us for His glory. The importance is to never forget that He loves us all. Now let's pray, and you can turn it all over to Him. Just speak what's on your heart and mind.”
After meeting with pastor Yearwood and many times and praying together, Randall started to change within. Life began to have meaning again. The horrible memories of his acts started to blot out in his mind enough for him to experience full nights of sleep. What a blessing. He thanked the Lord for His mercy. His days were taken up with praying and praising the Lord. The Bible, given to him by Pastor Yearwood, soon developed worn pages. Spiritual life was slowly taking over his body and soul. One evening, the pastor and Randall discussed God's pardon for sins and prayed for a very long time on their knees together in the jail cafeteria where they usually met. That evening, Randall Kopeck accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. He and the pastor hugged each other and cried, and praised the Lord. The impossible had come to pass. He was saved. A Christian.
'You must ask for pardon.' passed through his mind. He knew what this meant, and knew that Jesus would guide his every thought and word. Sometime, during his upcoming trial, he knew that he must ask for a meeting with Mr. Stern.
Towards the end of the first week of Randall Kopeck's trial, Gene's lawyer received a call from Randall's lawyer. “Would a meeting between the two of them be possible? He insists that he needs to talk with Mr. Stern.”
When Gene heard about the call, he became angry and started thinking...'one bullet, then another, then...' No! I must not imagine that ever again. I promised the Lord. But a meeting? How? As it was, he could just barely accept his presence in the courtroom. Only feeling the Lord's arms around him kept him from anger, but he felt that He was telling him that a meeting was necessary.
He asked his lawyer to set up a meeting through his pastor, then just stared into space, thinking.
When Randall heard the reply, he felt some relief.
The next few weeks were laborious and very difficult for both men. Hurt, pain, anger, mixed with thoughts of revenge and suicide crisscrossed both men's minds over and over again. Only thinking of God's love and the purpose He has for us, calmed their thoughts and brought them back to spiritual reality and peacefulness. One afternoon, their eyes met briefly for the first time since the trial had commenced. 'No, never, how? why?' flashed through their respective minds, and both men knew that they only had one recourse: 'listen to the Lord and do as He would do'. Sounds simple, but what a test these two hurting men were facing!
Then a Saturday morning, the day chosen for their meeting, came shining through.
'Couldn't have picked a more beautiful Lord's day', passed through Gene's mind as he pulled into the courthouse parking with pastor Yates, from his church.
"I can't believe that I am actually doing this."
"Are you going to be OK, Gene?"
"Oh yeah, just thinking out loud. I know that this is what He wants me to do."
"I'm sure that this is not easy for you. Let's pray before we go in there."
“No. You are right. This is the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life! I wonder what this man has to say to me?”
Moments later, they found themselves in the jail cafeteria with two guards. Gene prayed a silent prayer. 'Lord, I don't understand why I am here today, but I know that this is Your will. Thank You for keeping me from committing a stupid, irreversible act. Oh Lord, please give me the strength, courage and control to make it through this meeting.'
A door opened, and in walked two guards with Kopeck and Pastor Yearwood. Kopeck kept his head looking down towards the floor. The four guards stood by the two doors of the room, while the four other men positioned themselves around a table, facing each other. Randall Kopeck kept his head bowed, not looking up to Gene or pastor Yates.
"How are you today Gene, pastor Yates? As I have told you, Randall here has something that he would like to share with you."
Randall Kopeck finally lifts his head. His eyes sparkled and seemed to project some kind of warmth.
'He actually looks happy.' Gene felt a 'flash' go through his body. 'Control, Gene, control.'
"Mr. Stern, pastor Yates. You will now understand how much your being here means to me."
Gene listened, astounded at what he was hearing. Randall told them his whole story about being arrested, what he endured in prison, his escape, his crimes on Gene's loved ones, and his being saved. Then, with tears rolling down his cheeks, Randall fixed Gene in the eyes and spoke softly and slowly.
"Mr. Stern, this seems like an impossible task to ask of you, but I will never be at peace with the Lord until I do His bidding I was horribly wrong to commit the acts that I did. Today I have given my life to God. Forgive me, sir. I am asking you sincerely, from my heart, as a believer, for your pardon for the crimes that I committed that have hurt you so deeply. I will understand if you cannot bring yourself to do this.”
SILENCE.....A dead, empty silence engulfed the room.....
All eyes were focused on Gene Stern. At that moment, even the four guards had left the doors and moved up closer behind the four other men. The silence seemed never-ending. Gene's eyes and Kopeck's eyes were fixed on each other.
'Never, brother, I hate you, yes Lord, forgive, killer, die, Jesus forgave them, and on and on.....'
The contradicting thoughts seemed to resound so loud in his head, that Gene was sure the others could hear what he was thinking. He shut his eyes and prayed a silent prayer.
F-O-R-G-I-V-E came into his mind. 'FORGIVE. I forgive you.'
Gene slowly opened his eyes. The three men sitting on the chairs and the four guards standing behind them were staring intently at him. He looked upward towards the ceiling and shut his eyes again. A warmth, like sunshine, slowly passed through his body, descending from his head all the way down to his feet. It was indescribable! All thoughts of revenge or hate were dissipated and a sweet feeling of peace and well-being filled his body and soul. The Holy Spirit had taken possession of him like never before. Love and humbleness were flowing through his veins. Gene opened his eyes and there was a totally different Randall Kopeck before him. Amazing how he now saw him as a brother in Christ! 'So, it is possible to forgive,' he was thinking.
"Randall Kopeck, I forgive you for what you did, as our Father forgave them."
The quiet words seemed to echo, with softness, around the room. The guards were stunned and just looked on with their eyes and mouths wide open. Randall Kopeck fell to his knees between the two pastors, crying and thanking the Lord and Gene. Kopeck then stood up and offered his hand to Gene. He was still crying and thanking Gene over and over. Gene was astounded to feel an overwhelming sense of well-being flowing through his body. He then slowly reached out and shook Randall Kopeck's hand.
The men then parted ways.
During the ride home, Gene thought about this awesome feeling inside of him. How did this happen? What does it all mean? He had forgiven the killer of his family and now the bullets, the gun and images of revenge were gone. Yes, it was an awesome feeling all right, and he had forgiven only one person. He was now thinking of Jesus, who had forgiven them ALL.
By Terry L. Atchison
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