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Teen-Ager Sentenced in Murder of Bible Studies Teacher

December 4, 1985

CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) _ A 15-year-old who claimed she was just tagging along when teen-age girlfriends stabbed a Bible studies teacher to death was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison.

Denise M. Thomas of Gary was convicted of murder in a retrial last month in the May 14 slaying of Ruth E. Pelke, 78, at the victim’s home.

Ms. Thomas, who could have been sentenced to 60 years in prison, received five years over the minimum 30-year penalty.

″From my observation, I do not observe a significant degree of remorse, but maybe immaturity,″ Lake County Superior Court Judge James Kimbrough said before passing sentence in this county seat just east of Chicago.

Ms. Thomas was the first and youngest of four teen-age Gary girls to face trial in the murder Mrs. Pelke.

If convicted, the remaining three could face the death penalty. All three are being held without bond, and trials for two have been set for early next year.

″A sentence of 35 years for a 15-year-old juvenile should indicate that young people who commit violent crimes will be dealt with severely by the criminal justice system,″ Prosecutor Jack Crawford said.

Police said Mrs. Pelke allowed the four into her home after one asked for information about a Bible study class.

Crawford said Paula R. Cooper, 16, allegedly stabbed the woman 33 times with a butcher knife, then ordered Karen D. Corder, 17, to hold the knife in the dying woman’s side while the others searched the house for money.

The teen-agers fled the house with $10 in cash and Mrs. Pelke’s car, Crawford alleged. They were arrested the next day after bragging to friends, police said.

Also charged in the case is April J. Beverly, 16.

At her trial, Ms. Thomas admitted she tagged along when her friends skipped afternoon classes at high school and went to Mrs. Pelke’s home, but denied any role in the killing.

She said she stayed in the house during the slaying, and did not report the crime because Ms. Cooper threatened to kill her.

But a classmate of Ms. Thomas testified that the defendant told her that she hit Mrs. Pelke on the head with a vase. A pathologist testified that the head injury would not have been fatal.

Investigators who interviewed relatives and friends of the defendants said the teen-agers allegedly planned the robbery during their lunch hour, believing Mrs. Pelke hid large sums of money in her modest, one-story frame home.

Ms. Thomas’s first trial in September ended in a mistrial because a policeman who took part in the investigation gave some of the jurors a ride home to nearby Merrillville.

Ms. Beverly is to be tried Jan. 27, while Ms. Corder’s trial is scheduled for Feb. 24. No date has been set for Ms. Cooper’s trial.

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