I never thought I would be telling this story publicly — let alone living it. I pray that it may speak to your heart on this Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing.
My sister Laura was abducted and murdered in 1997 by a serial rapist and murderer. I was 9 years old at the time, and Laura was about to turn 13.
This was the most traumatic event in my life, and for a long time I was very angry at the man who killed my sister. I used to fantasize about doing horrible things to him, and if I ever actually got the chance, it’s very likely that I too would have become a murderer.
We were virtually certain of who the perpetrator was; however, due to complications in Laura’s case, we couldn’t get a charge, let alone a conviction, against William Lewis Reece. We agonized over the lack of justice, but we took comfort knowing that Reece was back in prison after having been found guilty in another kidnapping case.
The phrase “Justice for Laura” haunted us for years. My parents were especially fixated on the desire to see legal justice served. I also wanted to see temporal justice for my sister, but 10 years after Laura’s murder I converted to Catholicism and started to see things differently. I also began to work through my anger and resentment in light of Christ’s Divine Mercy.
I started asking myself the question: What would God’s justice be for Laura? Justice has been classically understood as “giving each his due.” It’s easy to understand the conclusion that what is “due” to Bill Reece is an eternity of torment in hell. But then again, absent God’s grace, isn’t that what we’re all due?
Mercy for Murder
I began to ask: What is due to God? Since he created us, we all belong to him — rapists and murderers included. Furthermore, the Parable of the Prodigal Son makes it clear that the Father of Mercies desires his wayward children not to perish, but to return home.
With this in mind, real “Justice for Laura” — justice from God’s perspective, rather than ours — would require giving back to God what he is due. What God is due is Bill Reece’s soul. For Reece to suffer eternal punishment would not return God’s due, but would, rather, be a reminder of the loss of another soul and a cause for mourning. For even if we would celebrate Reece’s punishment on earth as a legitimate form of retributive justice in time, as Christians we would be obliged to mourn the loss of his soul for eternity. For the Father wants the prodigal to return.
For Reece to give his own soul back to God — to return to the Creator what he is due — would require Reece’s sincere repentance, conversion and ultimately his salvation. For Reece to go to heaven, not hell, would be real justice for Laura, because only then would God receive back what is rightfully his — his own beautiful image in the soul of Bill Reece. This would be a great cause to rejoice.
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7).
There is, of course, plenty of biblical and philosophical warrant for demanding punishment for sin, whether the sinner repents or not. But the central message of the Gospel seems to be that there is also an abundance of mercy, and therefore salvation, available for truly repentant sinners. I began to hope that Reece would be awakened to this amazing grace.
In 2009, less than a year after I converted to Catholicism, I wrote a novena to pray for Reece’s conversion and salvation, and my family invited the public to pray with us. We found the experience of praying for Reece so powerful that we repeated the novena every year after that. Many hundreds of people joined us over the following years.
Time passed, and as an avid reader of philosophy and theology, I discovered the work of Eleonore Stump of St. Louis University. Professor Stump gave a brilliant and beautiful lecture at the Thomistic Institute on the topics of “Atonement and Forgiveness,” and it’s no exaggeration to say that this lecture changed my life.
Stump argued that forgiveness is basically a species of love. Namely, forgiveness is the form that love takes toward someone who has wronged us. She argued furthermore — basing her analysis on the thought of my all-time-favorite philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas — that love, to be authentic, requires, among other things, a desire for some form of union with the beloved. And therefore, forgiveness requires the desire for union with the forgiven person.
Letters to Prison
The precise form that this desire for union takes may be as diverse as the number of crimes and corresponding acts of forgiveness. There are circumstances in which it is not possible — nor prudent — to be “united” (let alone to be in close approximation) to those who have committed serious crimes against us. Yet love is obligatory for Christians, and the demands of love still hold even in those situations in which it may be imprudent to seek union with a wrongdoer. At the very least we must desire that those whom we forgive will attain eternal beatitude and that we will be united to them in the communion of saints in heaven. As Christians, we must desire this for everyone, even those who have hurt us the most.
I wrote a letter to Reece, expressing forgiveness toward him and calling him to Christ. I told him that God loves him and wants him to come home, and that no matter how evil his actions have been, the Father’s heart is the only place where he could ever find true joy, and that God greatly desired to give him this joy. I told Reece that no matter what has happened in the past, he could still rejoice in God, and that God would be overjoyed to receive him. I also exhorted him, in his sincere repentance, to confess his crimes and to cooperate with law enforcement so that the families he has so gravely harmed can at least receive a measure of justice. The letter was delivered to him, but I gave no return address for him to communicate back to me.
While I was taking these further steps in my forgiveness toward Reece, law enforcement was taking major steps in Laura’s case, as well as other cold cases that Reece was connected to. Reece has been known to law enforcement for years as a pathological liar who never once took responsibility for any of his many crimes. Starting in 2016 — after I recited seven consecutive novenas — he started opening up, and in the end, he confessed to several murders, including Laura’s.
Mystery of Prayer
I’ll never know for certain if my extending forgiveness toward Reece influenced his confessions, but I like to think that he experienced something of the love of Christ and was so moved as to finally do the right thing. In any case, his final confession in Laura’s case came shortly after he received my letter. This was a cause of great joy for our family and several others!
More time passed, and I continued to reflect on all of this. Desiring heaven for someone who has wronged us is difficult enough; it is a desire to be united to that wrongdoer forever in the communion of saints. But I discerned that the Lord was inviting me to take an even more radical step in my forgiveness toward Bill Reece. I was being called to a union with him here and now, on earth.
I wrote another letter to Reece, and I thanked him for telling the truth and confessing to Laura’s murder. I told him it’s hard to admit when you’ve done something wrong but that he did the right thing by confessing. I reiterated my forgiveness to him. I also asked him to forgive me for holding hatred in my heart for so many years and for resenting him. I told him I know he’s been through a lot these past few years with all the new case developments.
This time, I invited him to write me back and gave him a pre-stamped envelope with a real address to reach me. I told him he could share his pain with me; tell me what he’s been going through; and tell me about himself, his life, his childhood and family. I told him that I would always write him back, that we could be “pen pals,” and that I was offering him genuine friendship.
He wrote me back within a week. Parts of his reply were strange and disjointed, as you can only imagine that the letter of such a profoundly wounded man would be. But there is hope in the darkness. Not only did he accept my forgiveness, but he said that he prays for my family and the families of all of his victims, and he wishes he could go back and make things right. He knows that what he did was wrong, and he is trying in these last years of his life to make things right as much as he can. He’s trying to get his soul right with God while he still has time.
Our correspondence has only just begun, and I really don’t know how it’s going to progress, but my plan is to keep calling him to Christ, to the joy of knowing and loving God, and telling him about God’s limitless love and mercy.
Why did I become pen pals with this serial killer, whose actions caused me the worst pain of my life? The answer, in one word, is Christ.
Absent God’s grace, every one of us really does deserve hell. We are born into a broken world, and we’re the ones who broke it. That’s the mystery and problem of evil in a nutshell — the human condition. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is the solution to the human condition. By living a sinless life and dying a perfectly sacrificial death, he paid the debt we could not possibly pay.
As amazing as this already is, Christ goes way beyond merely “settling accounts” for us: He opens to us the possibility of atonement with God. The very word “atonement” was coined by theologians to express this ineffable reality, as professor Stump explains in her extraordinary new book, Atonement. But I also see atonement another way — literally. Atonement is also at-one-ment, the open doorway to the fulfillment of our deepest longings and the very reason God created us: to rejoice in union with him and with the communion of saints forever in heaven!
This is why St. Paul can exhort the Philippians, despite his own suffering of persecution and imprisonment, to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice” (4:4). This is what I’ve been trying to communicate to Reece, and I share it with you now as a Christmas blessing.
David A. Smither writes from Texas.