Mom Opens to Forgiveness After Son’s Murder

I don’t find forgiveness a very easy concept to deal with after the murder of my son. My 24-year-old son Peter was kicked to death by bouncers in Atlantic City, NJ, in July 2001 during a bachelor party. For reasons that remain unclear, one bouncer took Peter out of the club about 4:00 AM, roughed him up on the hood of a Honda, left him there.

When Peter tried to go back into the club, five men streamed out the door, knocked him to the ground, and continued to kick him even after he lost consciousness. Then they went back into the club, leaving Peter’s friend to begin CPR and to hail down a passing patrol car. My son was declared dead at the hospital within the hour. I will never understand this savagery of a group of bar employees.

We had our day in court. We faced the first of the perpetrators, the one charged with homicide for kicking Peter in the head and thereby causing his death. For three weeks, we listened to testimony about our son’s death. Then the judge called a mistrial. It took two and a half more years before the first defendant was sentenced to seven years, another year before the other four pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Hardly justice, in our eyes, yet that’s the way the system works. In the words of the prosecutor, “It’s a rotten system, but it’s better than any other.”

Of course, my church preaches forgiveness. It’s good for me, good for the other person. I know that. But to me, forgiveness is more than words, more than a gesture. I feel there needs to be some remorse before forgiveness means anything to victims of a crime.

In our case, the key perpetrator accused of kicking Peter in the head and thereby causing his death, never gave any explanation or acknowledged any guilt. Even during my victim-witness impact statement at sentencing―when I held up a picture of our family of five and said to his face, “This is what you took from us. Here’s the hole in my family.” ―he whimpered and mumbled, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” How a plea agreement had been reached, I’ll never understand.

Recently, I was asked to speak to the upper-school student body at the private school our kids attended, at an event sponsored by SADD which is now Students Against Destructive Decisions. In talking in advance with the deans and student leaders of SADD, it became clear to me that I was supposed to present my son as a poster child for destructive decisions. That made me uncomfortable. Only after long conversations with my husband, my daughters and a couple good friends could I begin to frame some remarks.

I said this to those high school students:

I do not blame Peter for his death.  We cannot play Blame the Victim in homicide, any more than we can blame a young woman for how she was dressed or who she was talking to in cases of rape. I blame the bouncers for Peter’s death.

Still, now, after nine years, I can acknowledge there were a series of disastrous decisions that night that made all the difference for Peter, the difference in his life. Those young men should never have gone to Atlantic City. They shouldn’t have gone to that club. Peter should have gone back to his hotel when most of the other guys did. His friends should have gotten him back to the hotel. Peter shouldn’t have stayed so late, drunk so much, or talked to the bouncer. Certainly, after he was expelled from the club, he should not have tried to go back in.

It’s the not knowing that grates. We will never know the words exchanged in the first place which provoked the bouncer to take Peter out of the club. We will never understand why the club didn’t just lock the door to prevent a patron from trying to re-enter.

But mystery is part of life, and even if the defendants would answer all my questions, I wouldn’t believe them. And I concede I probably wouldn’t have been happy with any sentencing, any punishment. Even though it hurt at the time to hear them, I can concede now that there is truth in the judge’s words at the sentencing: “It was a tragedy that began with alcohol, continued with anger, and ended in death.”

Forgiveness to me means more than giving a pass to the five men who kicked the life out of my son. I have had to forgive Peter for being himself, a normal, imperfect 24-year-old man out partying with his friends, drinking too much, making disastrous decisions. Still, it’s not blame exactly ― no matter how much he had drunk and no matter what he might have said to the bouncer, he didn’t deserve to die. A couple of bad decisions that fateful night do not justify his murder. In spite of his bad decisions, he remains a son we love.

And, even though I wasn’t there, I have managed in my grief to implicate myself. I am Peter’s mother; I was responsible for teaching him right from wrong; perhaps I failed my son. Rationally, however, I know that’s not so. With time and patience, I have come to forgive myself for not being a perfect mother, for being disappointed with the justice system, for being disappointed by friends or family who couldn’t deal with our grieving. Alas, no one is perfect.

Forgiveness to me is an ongoing process with which I’ll be dealing for a long time. It is a continuing realization of how much, really, is beyond my control. My son’s death that night in Atlantic City was beyond my realm of control. His murder was a vicious act of five men against one.

It is not my business to forgive the five men involved. It was their deed; forgiveness is their business. But my enduring love for my son inspires an open loving attitude of compassion toward him, those five men, and everyone else in this world. I am compelled to make something meaningful come from the atrocity. I owe this to my son.

Perhaps I will, one day, summon total forgiveness, but now now. Meanwhile, I will remain open to the possibility. For me, right now, it is enough that I am no longer preoccupied, indeed, consumed by anger and remorse over the death of my son. We choose to focus now on his life, not his death. Instead of hatred for the perpetrators, I feel love and gratitude for the 24 years of my son’s life. I am a survivor, not a victim.

With love and compassion for others, I remain open to forgiveness. In a few weeks, I’ll be one of a group of survivors of homicide going to go to a local prison to meet with perpetrators of violence in a program of “restorative justice.” I will listen closely, dig deep for compassion, and strive to understand. And we will see what happens.

Mary Westra 2011

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Mary Westra

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Mary Rondeau Westra grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. She graduated from Macalester College and taught French for eight years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. When her two daughters and son became teenagers, she went back to work, launching a 10-year career of fundraising for arts organizations. She retired from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2002, shortly after the murder of her son, Peter. She became a Master Gardener and museum guide and started writing. Mary continues to be inspired by Peter. Over the years since his murder, she has reached out to other parents of children who have been murdered — writing them letters or picking up the phone. She stays in contact with a number of Peter's close friends from childhood and Middlebury College. And every year on July 8, she and her husband, and any family or friends who are present, wake up early and go down to their dock on the lake, sitting together to mark the hour that Peter lived after the attack in Atlantic City. Mary and her husband, Mark, live in White Bear Lake, Minn. They bike and hike together, watch birds, play golf, and Mary tends the garden; they spend time with their adult daughters, and Mary has begun to knit for her first grandchild, born in 2010.

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  • I am so very sorry for the loss of your son Peter. My 24 yr old son died by suicide in 2004. Although the circumstances are different, I too had to work on forgiveness. You wrote a beautiful article. Thank you.

  • Frances Solis says:

    So sorry for Peter’s death….I know how you feel. By the grace of GOD you have survived.

    I feel my Son was indirectly killed and it is very hard for me to forgive….but I have to for the sake of my grandchildren. All four of them.

  • Shirley Wiles-Dickinson says:

    I am so very sorry for your loss. It will soon be 18 months since the day my sister was found brutally murdered in her home. Our family is still dealing with the justice system. It sure is a test of our patience.
    I’m thinking it’s way too soon for me to think about forgiveness. My sister did absolutely nothing wrong, like you said, it doesn’t matter what a person did or did not do, no one deserves to me murdered.
    The man arrested for the crime has been in jail for about a year, awaiting trial. He has shown no signs of remorse, he’s pleading not guilty. Like you, I want to know her last words. I want to know what happened, but also like you, even if he did speak to us, I wouldn’t believe anything he said.
    Thank you for the article. I’m sure I will re read it often.
    hugs to you
    Shirley

  • Jean Ann Williams says:

    Mary, you write bravely and honestly. Thank you for your words. Forgiveness seems to be a word repeated no matter how we lose our children. When our son died by suicide in March 2004, forgiveness screamed inside my head.

    Now, it is a word I turn sideways, upside down and backwards and consider. I connect forgiveness to the many circumstances that have left us without Joshua.

    God bless you, mother of Peter.

  • sue says:

    Mary,
    I understand your pain & I thank you for writing this article. My son recently died in Brazil (RIO), We have spent nine months dealing with the most corrupt Country in the world (cannot believe the Olympics & world Cup will be held here) and I have finally (9monts later) have come to terms with the fact my son’s death was covered up on day one & we will never know the truth of his death. He was working for an investment bank based out of United States (working in the Brazil office) for a couple who are both Wharton Graduates, he was recruited through Wharton Alumni Association, the company failed to obtain the proper visa, paid him cash under the table, and when he died sent their attorney friend to the scene (he died in the office while picking up cash on a Saturday), they quickly scrambled to cover up everything…..these are Wharton Graduates, not thugs/bouncers in a bar. Can you imagine your child dieing in an office and the company did not even call, send a card, flowers or acknowledge his death? We highly suspect they were involved in money laundering. In Brazil, police are corrupt and look for extra income through bribes. My son’s laptop given to him by the company, along with the backpack he is seen carrying in the security video disappeared, they never called the last person on his blackberry to see what the call was about, The United States Government sent a young inexperienced Consulate who was not permitted in the building, only called to tell us our son was dead and asked what things we would like returned. We did not receive one pair of my sons shoes, nice suites… basically my son was robbed in his death. Our government, our Senator, our State Department has done nothing to make this an easy process. We hired an attorney in Brazil who stole our money and told us nothing. We called Wharton who stated they have no control over Alumni clubs using their name to recruit and could do nothing for us. There are no pictures from the scene, Brazil did an autopsy without our permission and our government did nothing to notify us this was going to happen, we would have liked to have an autopsy performed in the United States, my son was returned with both hands bandaged…like he fought off someone, yet I will never…never know the truth nor will I ever face the people who took his life. I tell you this rambling story in order to help, I hope it does let you know you are not alone. I have tormented myself for 9 months trying to find answers, yet I know if I found out the truth, if someone was behind bars, I still would be missing my son. I can chose to continue the anger, or I can chose to accept that I will never see justice, I will destroy myself & my family if I continue this path. I believe the only peace I can find in this tragedy is my faith, and my belief that I will see my son in heaven….I need to put this in god’s hands, this one is too big for me. I can honor my son’s memory by living a good life, by becoming a better person from this, or I can chose bitterness which will only destroy me. This isn’t easy to do but this is my goal for the future. God bless you Mary.

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