Eleven years ago, when shots rang through a small Amish community in Nickel Mines, Penn., the entire town fell to its knees. Charlie Roberts, the gunman, killed five girls in West Nickel Mines School, an Amish schoolhouse, and then himself.
On Oct. 2, 2006, when Terri Roberts received the call about Charlie, her son, she told Woman’s Day that all her husband, Chuck, said was to drive to Charlie’s house. On her way there, she heard on the radio that a shooting had taken place at the school and a terrifying thought gripped her: what if Charlie had been killed helping the children in the shooting? It was only in front of her dead son’s home that she learned Charlie was the perpetrator himself.
She curled up on the ground and wailed. She cried for the children, for her anger at God, and, heaviest of all, for Charlie. Because Terri didn’t know Charlie as the ruthless, deranged killer that splintered families and weighed down coffins. She knew him as her son.
The Amish community made a choice that the Roberts didn’t expect.
An unlikely visit came from Henry Stoltzfoos, the Roberts’ neighbor.
“Mind you, Henry had friends and relatives whose daughters had died in that schoolhouse, at the hands of our son,” wrote Terri. “Like all the Amish, he had every reason to hate us.”
Instead, when Henry knocked on the front door and entered their home, he walked over to Terri’s husband and said, “Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing. You must not blame yourself.”
However, for the parents of a man who robbed innocent children of their futures, blame and guilt can fester. It becomes a hopeless guessing game, trying to pinpoint the exact moment something shifted in their child, allowing for hatred and anger to swell up out of control.
Charlie slaughtered five lives and irrevocably damaged even more. Rosanna King, 16, was only 6 when she was shot in the head. She survived, but now is confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak. Her father, Christ King, is angry. He told the Washington Post that he lost his daughter the day Charlie Roberts entered West Nickel Mines School. But every day, through his anger, King makes the choice to forgive.
“We are so sorry for your loss.”
The Amish community made the same choice. Instead of insults and rage, they insisted that a portion of the money raised for victims’ families be donated to Charlie’s wife and children as well. They shielded the Roberts’ family during the funeral for Charlie. As Terri described it, “All at once, at least 30 Amish emerged from behind a shed, the men in their tall, wide-brimmed hats, the women in white bonnets. The group fanned out into a crescent between the grave site and the photographers, their backs offering a solid wall of black to the cameras.”
Chris and Rachel Miller, whose daughters had died in their arms, approached the Roberts afterward and murmured, “We are so sorry for your loss.”
Healing was slow. The shooting sliced deep through the heart of a pious, gentle community. Healing came in the form of compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. It came when Henry Stoltzfoos knocked on the Roberts’ front door. It came when the Amish community shielded Charlie’s funeral from the mob of reporters.
It came when, nine months after the shooting, Terri invited the Amish families to her home, and she met Rosanna. In her arms she held Rosanna, her silence a living consequence of her own son’s actions, and while rocking her gently, sang her a lullaby.
She asked if she could help care for the wheelchair-bound girl, and her family said yes. Terri spent nearly every Thursday at the family farm for years, and it made an impact on Rosanna’s father.
“She’s strong enough, has enough of a backbone, to go out and become such a part of the life of a girl that her son tried to kill. She’s so much a part of our routine that there’s something missing when she’s not there. She’s welcome here anytime,” King said.
Top image credits: (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) and (Photo by Pennsylvania State Police via Getty Images)