Monday, June 21, 2010
Victim forgave the man who tortured him -- forgiveness is a trait of the truly strong
I had intended to write this story last week. But life intruded.
Followed, tragically, by the death of two veteran Winnipeg firefighters on Sunday night.
Given the story’s message, and what happened last weekend, maybe it was meant to be told now, rather than then.
It concerns a hellish happening in southern Manitoba’s Bible Belt, and how a 14-year boy went through the fire — both literally and figuratively — and grew up to become a Winnipeg firefighter.
But that’s not what it’s really about.
What it’s really about is forgiveness.
I first met Tyler Pelke seven years ago, when I wrote about the aftermath of a murder that happened in the fall of 1990.
Robin Klassen, Tyler’s then-single mother, had chosen to move to Altona, a deeply religious farming community of 4,000 just north of the U.S. border.
She thought Altona would be a safer, more peaceful community than Winnipeg for her son to live, and a place where Tyler might connect with God.
She was right about God.
Robin rented a house at 122 Second St. South East and enrolled her son at W.C. Miller Collegiate.
In the first few weeks they were there, Tyler managed to make a local hockey team as the backup goalie and become buddies with the first-string goalie, Curtis Klassen, a well-liked, athletically gifted boy who had earned the name “Pokey” in honour of the Winnipeg Jets goalie.
Then, “evil” made a house call. It was a Friday night.
Robin and a friend had gone shopping for the weekend in North Dakota.
Left behind for the night, 14-year-old Tyler had invited 15-year-old Curtis to keep him company at the house.
“Don’t worry, mom,” were Curtis’s last words to Milly Klassen.
The boys were watching The Hunt For Red October at Tyler’s place when a 17-year-old loner named Earl Hugh Giesbrecht showed up at the door.
He was carrying a duffle bag. Inside the bag was a roll of hockey tape, a can of gasoline, and a .357 Magnum.
Giesbrecht forced Tyler to tie up and blindfold Curtis with the hockey tape.
Then he bound the younger boy and moved Curtis into a different room. It was there that Giesbrecht cut his throat.
When it was Tyler’s turn, Giesbrecht sexually assaulted the bound boy. Then he tried to cut his throat. “Why won’t you die?” Giesbrecht ranted.
He tried something else. Giesbrecht doused a quilt with the gasoline.
And set Tyler on fire.
“I felt myself being burned,” Tyler told me later, “ and I just said, ‘OK, God. Come take me now.”
But God didn’t come for him.
Instead He spoke to him.
It wasn’t audible. It was more of an inner voice.
“I just heard, ‘Get up and go.’”
By that time, Giesbrecht had used the rest of the gasoline to torch the house. Tyler ran out of the burning house to a next-door neighbour’s home.
Tyler was rushed to hospital in critical condition, with burns to 25 per cent of his body, including a part of his face.
Most of the burns were third-degree.
Later, he would recall something he saw as he ran from the house, terrorized.
It was a dark figure standing by the garage, casually smoking a cigarette.
Earl Giesbrecht was watching the house burn.
Curtis Klassen’s charred remains were found the next day.
Miraculously, Tyler’s soul wasn’t so much as singed by the fire. He expressed no anger, even through the painful skin grafting. The emotion he had to deal with instead was fear.
The fear that Earl Giesbrecht would get out of jail and come after him again. It was soon apparent that Tyler’s mother wasn’t afraid.
Giesbrecht was tried as an adult and as he was being led out of court to serve a life sentence, Robin Klassen followed.
“I hope you burn in hell,” she spatted.
Over the years that followed our meeting in 1999, Tyler and I kept in touch. So I wasn’t surprised when he contacted me late last month and asked if I wanted to go for coffee.
It was while we were catching up that he mentioned that he and his wife Jennifer are expecting their first child.
Then he casually shared something else.
Just over a year ago, he went to see Earl Giesbrecht in prison.
Tyler had long felt that he would go there some day, but what it finally took was his mother, going first. Over the healing years, Robin Klassen had begun ministering to other prisoners.
When she finally went to spend a day-and-a-half with Giesbrecht at the federal prison in Drumheller, Alta, she knew exactly why she was going and what she needed to say first.
Forgiveness was at the top of the list.
But first she had to ask for his.
“I was going there to ask him for forgiveness,” Robin said. Forgiveness for telling him that she wanted him to burn in hell. Not surprisingly, Giesbrecht was shocked.
As he would be when she hugged him and offered her forgiveness to him.
When Tyler went, he didn’t have an agenda.
YEARS ago he told me that he had forgiven Giesbrecht, but that didn’t mean he wanted to visit him in prison. What had changed, beyond how overwhelmingly positive the experience had been for his mother, was the fear factor.
The man Tyler saw walk through the door of the large prison boardroom didn’t look like the person he’d known so briefly, so tragically and so long ago in Altona.
Giesbrecht was bald, and bulked up. But, for Tyler, he wasn’t the menacing presence he’d been as a teenager.
His head was bowed as he entered. Tyler was already seated with a pastor friend he’d brought along for support, as had Earl.
“I just kinda said, ‘Hi’. And he kinda said ‘Hi.’
You could tell he was way more nervous and scared than I was.”
Tyler could see beads of sweat trickling down Giesbrecht’s head.
Earl spoke first. “He said, ‘I just want you to know, I accept responsibility.’”
“I just said, I have only one thing to say. I just want you to know that I forgive you. I accept your apology.” But Tyler made it clear that he was only offering forgiveness for what happened to him.
He couldn’t speak for Curt’s family.
“I said, ‘We’re talking about me and you.”
Later, Tyler gave him a gift, a book he thought Earl might enjoy, and then he offered to bring him back anything he wanted for lunch.
“I said, ‘Tell me what you want.’ He said, ‘I’ve never tried one of those vanilla Cokes.’”
Earl wanted some fresh fruit, too, and Tyler brought him a platter.
Tyler and Earl met three times over two days, participating in what the corrections service calls restorative justice.
There were some things Earl didn’t want to discuss. And some things they agreed would stay in the room.
But Tyler was fascinated to hear about what happened from Earl’s perspective. What he was going through at the time he attacked the two boys — who had never harmed him; how for years afterward, he still blamed everyone else for his being in prison. And how he had gradually realized that, unlike so many others he saw come through prison, his parents had been loving and good to him.
Eventually, as they kept talking and sharing, Earl brought up the possibility of being paroled.
“I said, you know what, Earl — not that I’ve moved on — but in a sense I’ve moved on,” Tyler told him. “I don’t look in the mirror every morning and see you. And worry. And wonder…
“I have a life. I’m here, I’m healthy. It’s unfortunate what happened and that’s what we’re here talking about. But you don’t scare me. If you get out tomorrow you probably wouldn’t affect my life.”
Later, on the way home on the plane listening to U2 on his earphones, Tyler reflected on what he had just experienced with a man who had killed his friend and had tried to kill him.
“I just had a true sense that a chapter had been kind of closed. Now I had something that was bigger than me and bigger than the story and bigger than Earl and bigger than the whole situation.”
What Tyler meant was the feelings of peace and completeness that came from granting forgiveness wasn’t a credit to him or even his mother.
“God had been the one who had gotten my family and myself through this… I just got to be a part of it.”
Tyler went to see someone else last week.
Lionel Crowther was one of the firefighters hospitalized with burns from Sunday’s fire. He and Tyler had graduated in the same recruit class.
Lionel is not only struggling with the pain from his burned shoulders and arms, he’s struggling with survivor guilt because Howard Lessard, the fire captain he was with, didn’t make it out of the house alive.
Tyler felt the same way after he became a firefighter, whenever he thought about leaving Curtis behind in the fire.
“I wondered if I could have done more,” Tyler said.
He couldn’t have, any more than Lionel could have.
An autopsy long ago confirmed that Curtis died from his neck wound, not the fire.
Tyler understands, though, why Lionel is struggling with survivor guilt.
“But you gotta just let it go,” Tyler said. That’s how it happens.
That’s how you forgive yourself.
The same way you forgive others.
I commend this victim for his actions of forgiveness against his attacker. That shows his true character which is strong. I support restorative justice and am glad to see that both the victim and offender participated. This story gives me hope for humanity.