On April 7, 1990, Jeanne Bishop felt overjoyed for her sister Nancy and brother-in-law Richard, who had just announced they were pregnant with their first child. But the next morning, that joy turned to devastation when Jeanne, while singing in her church choir, received a call saying that Nancy, Richard, and their unborn child had been murdered.
Heartbroken and filled with anger at God for allowing this to happen, Jeanne just wanted the killer to be caught and locked away for life. But as time passed, her faith – and the insights of many people she respected – led her to practice mercy in an almost superhuman way. And eventually, she chronicled another story of Christlike forgiveness involving this country’s deadliest domestic terror attack.
Jeanne tells these stories in her personal memoir “Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer” – and in the Christopher Award-winning book “Grace From the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation After the Oklahoma City Bombing.” We discussed both books recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below).
The details that first came in about Nancy and Richard’s murder made the news all the more horrifying. Richard had been executed with a bullet to the back of the head, dying immediately. Nancy was shot in the stomach and died over a period of several minutes. Nothing was stolen from their home, and they had no enemies or criminal ties.
Jeanne sobbed in the immediate aftermath of the news, and raged at God, “Where were You when this happened? Why didn’t You protect her?”
It was only after police revealed a particular detail about the crime scene that Jeanne moved beyond her anger at God. She explained, “In Nancy’s last moments, she had dragged herself across this basement floor where they’d been shot…And next to where her husband lay dead, she had dipped her finger in her own blood and written the shape of a heart and the letter U, next to him: Love you. And I knew that nothing but the presence of God in her last moments could explain the serenity and the love and the strength to do that. And that God was there weeping just as God was when God’s own child, Jesus, was dying on the cross. That changed everything for me. I knew the response to this could not be hate. It had to be something so much bigger, something that would honor Nancy and her baby and Richard and their lives and the God who gave me this gift of life.”
It took six months for the killer, David Biro, to be caught. He was only 16 years old. At the time, Jeanne and her family supported the prosecutor pursuing a sentence of life without parole. Jeanne noted, “I had always opposed the death penalty, and I opposed the death penalty after my sister’s murder, even more because I saw that shedding more blood and digging another grave and creating another grieving family like mine was never going to heal us, that it was only going to drag me closer to who the murderer was, this deliberate taker of human life, and away from who Nancy was, this life-loving person.”
Life without parole is the sentence that was handed down when Biro was found guilty. Then, Jeanne knew that she needed to do something to keep Biro from constantly occupying space in her brain. She said, “I vowed that I would forgive him in my own mind and heart – and not saying ‘I forgive you’ to him. I didn’t know him. He hadn’t asked for forgiveness, I felt like he didn’t deserve it. So my forgiveness was for God, for Nancy, for me. It was that saying that hating another person is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I wasn’t going to give him that power over me.”
But over the course of 20 years, Jeanne herself began to evolve. She began work as a public defender in Cook County, Chicago, and kept running into people and situations that prompted her to think about mercy more deeply.
One day, she passed a church service taking place on a beach and heard the preacher talking about how all of humanity is a mess, but God responds to our messiness with “mercy, mercy, mercy.”
That led Jeanne to reconsider her support of life without parole sentences for juveniles because it is “merciless. It forecloses any possibility of redemption, change, and remorse.” And when she once described Biro as “remorseless” in a conversation with legal scholar Mark Osler, he responded, “How do you know? You’ve never even spoken to him.”
On top of that, one day she overheard her two young sons talking about the idea of loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength – and loving your neighbor as yourself. One boy asked his 11-year-old brother, “Well, what about the man who killed Aunt Nancy?”
The boy responded, “We can hate what he did, but we can’t hate him because God made him for a purpose.”
Jeanne was stunned by her son’s insight. And despite not feeling like reaching out to Biro, she engaged in a massive act of self-denial by doing it anyway for a higher purpose. She explained, “It truly was realizing that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was praying for the people who were in the process of killing Him, who had not apologized, who weren’t sorry. And this was completely an act of trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.”
Twenty-three years after the murder, Jeanne mailed Biro a letter saying, “I forgave you a long time ago, and I never told you…I waited all these years for you to apologize to me. I’ll go first. I’m sorry. And I’ll come see you if you want.”
Jeanne wasn’t sure what kind of response she would receive, if any. But Biro answered her letter with his own. Jeanne recalled, “It was his confession for the first time ever, and this expression of deep remorse, shame, regret, heartbreak. He had waited to hear from me because he didn’t want to traumatize me by reaching out and having to see his name in the mailbox unexpected. It was his expression of empathy for my family over how heartbroken and baffled we must have been. And inviting me to come and talk to him about what happened.”
Jeanne felt nervous and conflicted before their meeting, thinking, “I’m going to be shaking the hand that held that gun that killed my sister. And I did. What’s been amazing is that – at first the guards didn’t know…that I am the family member of the murder victims that brought [Biro] to that prison. Some of the guards have asked me about it, and I’ve gotten to give my Christian witness to them about this forgiveness about why I was there. And the other prisoners that are with him have heard who I am, same thing. I sent a copy of [my book ‘Change of Heart’] to David Biro and now it’s made its rounds around the prison. The prisoners have written to me saying, ‘It’s given me hope that I can reach out, truly apologize to my victim, survivors. Hope to be forgiven.'”
Not everyone responds to Jeanne’s sense of mercy in a positive way, especially when it comes to her opposition to juvenile life sentences without parole. She once received an angry nine-page letter from a couple whose daughter was murdered. They claimed Jeanne was “spitting on the grave” of her sister and husband through her advocacy.
Seeing this letter as a “howl of agony from a couple that is in deep pain over their daughter’s death,” Jeanne chose not to respond in kind. Instead, she wrote them back a letter saying she was sorry for their loss and made a donation to the foundation they had created in their daughter’s name. Jeanne’s kindness mitigated the couple’s own anger, and led to a more civil relationship when they met in person.
Jeanne explained, “It was the perfect example of how…[turning] the other cheek…is not an act of weakness. It’s an act that says, ‘I know that you’re in pain and I’m going to just stand here…I’m not going to strike you back. And then we’ll talk.’ And that’s the thing that is at the heart of my book, ‘Grace from the Rubble,’ about the empathy between two fathers, one already grieving the loss of a child – and one about to grieve the loss of his child.”
“Grace From the Rubble” presents a powerful story itself, and it was inspired by Jeanne’s friendship with Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh in the hopes of inspiring a revolution against the US government, the attack killed 168 people, including many children, and was at the time the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. Jeanne notes that it remains, “the deadliest single act of domestic terrorism in the history of this country.”
Bud Welch was especially close to his daughter Julie, whose Catholic faith became increasingly important to her in the two years leading up to the bombing. She attended Mass and received the Eucharist daily, either before work or after. Her goal in life was to help others, which is what she was doing in her job at the Social Security Administration in the Murrah building.
After the bombing, Bud was heartbroken and filled with hate for Timothy McVeigh, who he hoped would be assassinated by someone Jack Ruby-style. Bud began “blackout drinking” every day, noted Jeanne, and the friends who knew him from running the local gas station claimed he looked “lost. The customers at his station would say, ‘Bud, you are killing yourself with this hate.’ And he said, ‘Well, the sooner I die, the sooner I get to Heaven to see my daughter Julie again.'”
Jeanne continued, “After a time, [Bud] saw that they were right, that the grief and the rage were consuming him. So he started reflecting, ‘Why had Timothy McVeigh done this?’ That’s when he discovered it was all about retaliation and revenge. And he thought, ‘Well, that’s futile, and if we kill him, if we execute him, that’s just more retaliation, more revenge, more bloodshed. Where does this cycle end? It has to stop. It has to stop with me.”
That epiphany led Bud to more deeply embrace his own lifelong Catholic faith, as well as vocally oppose the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. He also felt motivated to reach out to Bill McVeigh, Timothy’s father, who lived near Buffalo, New York, and was also a Catholic.
With help from a nun named Sister Roz, Bud traveled to Bill’s home and came to know him as a quiet, humble man who was shocked and appalled by what his son had done. Timothy had grown up as an average, unremarkable kid who never got in trouble. But he got radicalized after joining the military and befriending the two other men who would be his co-conspirators.
Bud was able to tell Bill, “I don’t hate your son. I don’t want him to die. I don’t hate you. I don’t blame you as a father for what he did, and I’m going to do everything I can to try to stop this killing in my daughter’s name.”
Bill deeply appreciated this because he didn’t want his son to die. He understood that Timothy deserved life in prison, but his heart broke at the thought of him being executed.
Jeanne said, “[Bill] totally cooperated with the FBI in every way. He’s still friends with the lead investigator from the FBI that was doing the manhunt that led to his son’s arrest. His public position always was, ‘I will never understand why [Tim] did this. I am so sorry for all the victims and everyone who loved them. But this is my son, and I love him. And I always will.'”
In the end, Bud Welch and Bill McVeigh’s efforts to spare Timothy from execution proved futile. An argument can be made that he got what he deserved, but Jeanne offers a counterpoint: “I knew that what you need to do with someone like Timothy McVeigh is lock him away forever because his whole purpose in doing this was to have this…uprising in the country, to throw off the shackles of the federal government. And of course, that all came to naught. It only destroyed the happiness of all the people who loved those who perished in that building. I knew that at some point on reflection after 10, 20, 30 years in prison, [Timothy] was going to say, ‘Wow, this was wrong. This was a mistake. I should not have done this.’ Instead, we executed him before he had a chance to be sorry, to express that remorse, because he never did. He went to his death not expressing the least bit of remorse.”
The story of Bud and Bill – and even moreso, Jeanne’s experience with David Biro –
find their roots in Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Jeanne concluded, “Once when I was talking on the radio about this story, this woman called in very angry, and she said, ‘You’re telling me I have to forgive, and I never forgive the person who murdered my brother. And I hope he dies and rots in hell, and I’m happy.’ And I said, ‘I’m not telling you, you have to forgive. I’m telling you I had to forgive.’ I don’t know how people do this without that Holy Spirit of God working on your heart and changing it. I can only tell you, I don’t think I could have done it without that.”
(To listen to my full interview with Jeanne Bishop, click the podcast links):