Printed in the Fall 2017 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bruce, David, "Vengeance or Justice?" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 16-19
By David Bruce
A father learns how to forgive his son’s murderer.
Theosophical literature has much to say on the subject of karma, the universal law of cause and effect, which is closely related to the concepts of justice and fairness. As a child, I had the wonderful opportunity to come into contact with teachings of the Ageless Wisdom tradition through my parents, both of whom were members of the Theosophical Society in America. Consequently, my worldview was shaped and influenced in large part by them, as well as by the many Theosophical books in their home library. The conversations I had with my mother, a teacher by profession, and the knowledge I absorbed from my parents’ Theosophical library became a part of me and informed my outlook on life.
Then, as an adult many years later, I found my Theosophical worldview put to the test. It was the evening of September 26, 1996. At that time I was married, with one child, a boy named Robert, who was a month shy of his nineteenth birthday.
I had met my first wife, Chong, while serving in the U.S. Army in South Korea. When my tour of duty was completed in 1971, I brought my wife-to-be home with me to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She found a job making printed circuit boards in an assembly plant that contracted with the military, while I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to pursue my teaching degree in musical education. Within five years we had our first and only child, a handsome lad with distinct Asian facial features and a gentle temperament. When Robert was a teenager, I enrolled him in a martial-arts school where we both eventually achieved our black belts in the Korean style known as Tae Kwon Do. As an adult black belt, I was expected to teach the colored-belt class, which generally consisted of younger students, and that is what I was doing on the fateful night of September 26, 1996. On the way home, I received a panic-stricken call from Chong: one of Robert’s friends had called her and told her that Robert was hurt and was taken to the hospital. We had no more details at that time, but it was enough to send my wife and me into a state of alarm.
When I heard the news, a cold chill went down my back, and I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. I hurried home, picked up Chong, and sped to the hospital, not caring that I was exceeding the speed limit by at least twenty miles per hour. Having arrived safely at the hospital, we were ushered into a small room, where we were greeted by a detective from the Milwaukee police department. He had that no-nonsense, weary look that is often found on those who see death on a daily basis. He informed us that Robert had been shot and unfortunately had died before the ambulance could get him to the hospital.
I felt as if something had snapped inside of me. A few hours ago, Robert was alive and well, intending to play basketball with his friends at one of the school playgrounds. Now my wife and I were told that we would never again see Robert’s smile, never again hear his laughter, or feel the touch of his hand or his warm embrace. How do you process something like that? It’s like having the bottom of your world suddenly yanked out from under you, violently, irrevocably. As a parent, how do you deal with this sudden, brutal reality of knowing that your only child is gone—forever?
I have watched enough detective shows to know that people process grief in different ways. My wife’s reaction was immediate—tears, uncontrollable sobbing, outright hysteria. My reaction was also immediate, but with far different emotions. An uncontrollable rage swept over me. “Anger” is too weak a word to describe the powerful intensity of my emotions at that time, which were an eruption of white-hot, seething rage, the likes of which I had never before experienced. I kept it contained while talking to the detective, but just barely. The rage was there, under the surface, gaining strength and just waiting to explode. The tears and sorrow came later in the days that followed, but at that fateful moment I was a keg of dynamite. I wanted to get my hands on whoever was responsible for killing our son. I remember feeling an irresistible and overwhelming urge to inflict severe bodily harm on whoever had done this. Put me in a room with them—alone—for just five minutes. I was primed for retribution!
After the detective had finished asking us questions, we drove home from the hospital, our world shattered, Chong sobbing uncontrollably, my desire for righteous vengeance still churning inside, building in its power and intensity. Somebody had to pay!
But what happened to me that night as we lay in bed, hoping in vain that sleep would wash away this horrible nightmare, was quite remarkable. After I lay in bed for hours, still not able to fall asleep, the cyclone of emotions tapered off, leaving me in a state of exhaustion. Just as I was about to drift into sleep, a distinct voice, seemingly out of nowhere, spoke words to this effect: “You’ve been studying Theosophy all your life and this is how you’re going to react?”
That was the turning point. I remembered that it was wrong to return evil for evil, to react to violence with more violence; that it was wrong to take the law into my own hands. As a Theosophist, I knew that I should trust the divine law of karma to hold the perpetrator, or perpetrators, accountable for what happened. It also became crystal-clear that harboring anger would poison my soul and turn me into something I didn’t want to be. Moreover, how could I possibly support and care for my grieving wife if I allowed myself to be consumed by rage and hatred? So, in light of these realizations, I did the only thing that I could do, and I did it in a heartbeat: I simply let go of my anger—just like that—in an instant.
How was it possible to turn on a dime, going from an emotional cyclone to a state of mind that was calm, resolute, and devoid of anger? It had to be on account of my many years of meditation practice and Theosophical study. It was as though my higher Self had issued a mandate to trust in divine justice (karma) and remember that everything happens for a reason. Repeatedly, over the weeks and months that followed, I reminded myself of these things, and the anger never returned—not even once. I say this not for the purpose of self-congratulation, but as a simple fact illustrating the power of Theosophy.
While my anger never returned―not even when I was seated in the courtroom months later facing the murderers―a profound sense of grief and unspeakable sorrow soon filled the emotional vacuum. My wife, Chong, was hit particularly hard, as would be the case with any parent. Her whole life had revolved largely around her son, and without having the support of a religious or philosophical background, she soon drifted into chronic depression, which was only relieved by her covert trips to the local gambling casino in the months and years that followed. As for me, I relied heavily upon Theosophical teachings in order to bear the ordeal. I knew that the death of the body did not mean the death of the soul, and in fact I had several meditation sessions in the days that followed where I detected the presence of Robert. Another thing that helped me was the fact that each day, each week, hundreds of other parents in this country lose a child. The knowledge that many others had experienced what Chong and I were experiencing somehow made my sorrow easier to bear. However, we both wanted the perpetrators to be caught and face justice in a court of law. Our hopes were soon answered.
Within a few days of Robert’s murder, we learned from the police what had happened. Robert had driven his car into the driveway of his friend Jose, stopping there only to pick him up in order to go play basketball. It was a rough neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee, an area known for gang activity. I was never comfortable with Robert driving around that part of town. Earlier that week there had been a shooting on the street where Jose lived, and consequently members of the Spanish Cobras, a gang on the south side of Milwaukee, were on full alert. Two of them observed Robert pull into the driveway with two of his friends with him in the car. One of the gang members asked Robert, who by this time was getting out of the car, what the hell he was doing in their neighborhood. My son, a second-degree black belt and not knowing who they were, told them to buzz off. The two gang members responded by pulling out their nine-millimeter handguns and shooting in Robert’s direction. Bullets flew through the back windshield as shattered glass showered over the passenger in the back seat. Robert turned away and tried to run, but a bullet caught him in the back of the neck, severing his carotenoid artery. The other passenger in Robert’s car, having stepped out of the car with him, was hit in the leg by a bullet, which cut through an artery. The ambulance managed to get him to the hospital before he bled to death, but Robert died en route. Jose was about to walk out the side door of his apartment when stray bullets pierced the wooden door, mere inches in front of him. Had he stepped outside, Jose might have been a casualty too. During the investigation, the police found bullets in the kitchen wall of a house located a block away. It was total mayhem for a few fatal seconds, leaving one person dead, another severely wounded, and friends and family in shock.
Within days, the police had identified the two shooters. Within two months, the suspects were apprehended and brought into custody. One was a fifteen-year-old boy named Adam Procell, who had once been on the school honor roll, but was now a member of the Spanish Cobras. The other was a twenty-one-year-old named Victor Cruz. During Victor’s trial, I wondered how his parents felt: their only other child was already incarcerated and serving a lengthy sentence. The police also arrested the leader of the Spanish Cobras, assuming that he may have ordered the hit. A jury later acquitted him on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but the two shooters were found guilty and were both sentenced to forty years, the maximum allowed in Wisconsin. But before we reached that point, Chong and I had to endure the long, painful ordeal of the legal system at work, which meant sitting through three separate trials, one for each of the youths. Over and over we had to return to the courthouse. Again and again, we had to relive the circumstances of Robert’s murder. It was not easy. At times we even feared for our safety because of the presence of other gang members attending the trials. Fortunately, none of them ever did more than glance at us with their arrogant and intimidating sneers.
During the sentencing phase, the judge gave me a chance to speak before the court. This would have been my opportunity to get on the soapbox and tell those two kids what despicable human beings they were, and that I hoped they would rot in hell. As a Theosophist, I could not do that. I did not want to be an instrument of hatred and bitterness. Instead, I spoke quietly, soberly, telling each of them that what they had done was so very wrong, and that now they were about to face the consequences. I implored each of them to use their time in prison wisely, to reflect upon their actions and try to be a better person. After my remarks, the judge said that she’d never heard such a remarkable statement from a member of a victim’s family before.
During Adam’s sentencing phase, I actually felt a bit sorry for this fifteen-year-old youth who came from a broken home. Neither of his parents showed during trial or for the sentencing, which I found to be incomprehensible and profoundly pathetic. Yes, I still wanted Adam to face justice, but I couldn’t help wondering how lonely and abandoned he must feel. None of the gang members showed up for his sentencing, which tells you something about gang loyalty. The only person who was there for Adam was a scrawny girl, who appeared to be no more than thirteen or fourteen years old and looked as clueless as he did.
Immediately after Robert’s murder, my wife and I took a leave of absence from work, very much needing the opportunity to grieve with family and friends, all of whom were very supportive. Within ten days, I made the decision to return to my normal routine, which meant returning to work, resuming my martial-arts classes, and attending the meetings of the Theosophical Society in Milwaukee. My attitude was that although somebody had snuffed out the life of our son, I was not about to let them destroy mine! I’ve seen plenty of parents who, having lost a child to violence, continue to carry the anger and bitterness around with them for years and years. They are never quite the same. It’s very understandable, and I’m not judging those who react in this manner, but I was fiercely resolved not to let that happen to me. For me, the best way to deal with grief is to immerse myself in my work, not to sit at home and wallow in misery and self-pity. I returned to my Tae Kwon Do classes and passed my third-degree black-belt examination in November. Returning to my sales job and talking to customers over the phone was difficult, but when the tears welled up without warning, I discreetly disappeared into the men’s room, where I would remain until I regained my composure.
One person that helped me through this time of grieving was Dora Kunz, a noted clairvoyant and former president of the TSA. Ed Abdill, another member, had suggested that I give her a call and ask her if she could tell me anything about Robert’s condition on the other side. I hesitated for several days, not knowing Dora personally. Eventually I found the nerve to call her. After listening to my request, she paused for no more than a few seconds and then gave me a detailed report on Robert’s situation. I don’t know how she did this; she had never met Robert and she really didn’t know me, although I had passed her in the hallway a few times when attending programs at Olcott. Dora informed me that Robert was on the astral plane with other youngsters who had recently lost their lives. They were all being watched over by an older and wiser being, and she assured me that they were in good hands. I had no way of verifying this, but I wanted it to be true, and it certainly provided me with a measure of solace during the darkest period of my life.
Sadly, my wife was not able to process Robert’s death very well. She became another person, almost a stranger, one who had lost the zest for life and who succumbed to long bouts of depression. She closed the living-room curtains, shutting out the sunlight, and drifted off into a gambling addiction that lasted for years before I knew about it, and which resulted in eventual bankruptcy and the loss of our home and marriage.
Three years later my mother gave me a newspaper clipping from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The story was about the youngest male ever to be sent to the “supermax” prison in Boscobel, Wisconsin. It was Adam Procell, the boy who had murdered my son. Adam had been fighting with guards and other prisoners, so the authorities sent him to a maximum-security prison, where he would be held in an isolation cell all day except for one hour of solitary exercise.
By August 2007, I was working at the national center of the Theosophical Society when my mother mailed me another newspaper clipping. Again, it was about Adam, but this time the article was upbeat, describing how Adam had turned his life around after a few rebellious years in prison, and was now tutoring other prisoners and counseling them to stay out of gangs. This impressed me so much that I sent Adam a short note of encouragement. He returned the favor with a long and moving letter, expressing his sorrow and regret for his actions on the night of September 26.
In October 2011, I received an official apology letter from Adam, a step that was necessary as part of his parole process. It was a sincere and heartfelt letter, expressing profound regret for his past actions and the pain he had caused. Four more years passed, and in June 2015 a package was delivered to my apartment. It was a book written by Adam and sent to me by his uncle, who lived in Colorado. The book, Anatomizing the Gang Culture, was Adam’s 552-page effort at atonement, the express purpose of the book being to discourage young men from joining gangs. Again, I was favorably impressed with this young man’s effort to turn his life around, so I wrote him a letter of appreciation, letting him know that I held no malice in my heart for what he had done some nineteen years ago, and that I hoped he would continue his good work while in prison.
What is justice? To some people, justice is an eye for an eye, tit for tat. You took a life, therefore you do not deserve to live. This view sees justice as a form of revenge, of retribution. Others see it in strictly legal terms, where a criminal must be held accountable and serve the appropriate amount of time in prison. But a prisoner can serve thirty or forty years and emerge from prison worse off than he was before entry. Or a prisoner can use the experience of incarceration as a wake-up call and take steps to change the direction of his life. As a Theosophist, I naturally think in terms of karma and the evolution of the soul. It is said that life is a great school to which we return again and again. We make mistakes, some of them quite serious and life-changing. Don’t get me wrong. There are some criminals who need to stay behind bars, because they have been and continue to be a menace to society. But there are others who wake up and begin to change their lives, something that is quite possible with younger prisoners who have not yet become hardened. Adam Procell is a case in point. His crime was committed when he was a mere fifteen years old. Today, twenty-one years later, he is no longer a boy, but a man, one who has done intense soul searching and found the strength not only to express regret for his crime, but to reach out to other prisoners and help them set their feet upon a better path. I have written twice to the Wisconsin parole board, telling them that I feel Adam has served enough time (twenty-one years to date) and that he should be given another chance at returning to society.
I don’t know how much weight my letters have with the board, but I have made it clear that I believe that the Adam Procell of 2017 is a far different person from that Adam Procell of 1996, and that I would certainly support their decision to grant him parole.
Today David Bruce lives happily with his wife, Donna Wimberley, who is also a longtime Theosophist and former secretary to TSA presidents Dorothy Abbenhouse, John Algeo, and Betty Bland. David works full-time at the national center of the TSA, where he serves as national secretary and supervises the TSA Prison Program.