Guilty and forgiven
SEARCY, Ark. — A stunned silence fell over the daily…
Easter Sunday 1995 was a beautiful day for Roy and Jeanie Willmon.
Blue sky. Temperatures in the 70s. Their daughter, Carla, home for the weekend.
The 20-year-old junior at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., had made the 250-mile drive to East Texas to celebrate the holiday with her family.
Her parents bought her a new pink outfit, which she wore to worship with the North Ridge Church of Christ in Mount Pleasant. The town of 16,000 is just off Interstate 30, about 65 miles west of the Arkansas state line.
Laughs were plentiful that weekend, as they tended to be when Carla was around.
“Her older brother, Curtis, came up. We were all together, and it was a very sweet weekend,” Jeanie said. “She was just always a joy to be around. She said funny things without even meaning to.”
Before returning to Harding that afternoon, Carla hugged her mother. Then she hugged her again. And again and again.
Finally, she got into her white 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier and pulled out of the driveway.
As she turned toward the highway, the junior education major glanced at her parents through the side mirror and smiled.
It was the last time they’d see her alive.
“I don’t know,” Roy said. “It’s just — it’s a picture frozen in my mind.”
That Monday night — April 17, 1995 — Carla left her books open, a lamp on and a drink out in her Harding dormitory.
She apparently decided she needed something from Walmart.
She was last seen at the store about 8:30 that night. The next afternoon, authorities discovered her lifeless body several miles away in the trunk of her abandoned car.
According to court records, Carla was abducted, taken to a trailer house and raped. She had tape placed over her mouth and nose. She died from asphyxiation and strangulation.
Her parents were devastated.
“It was a really dark time for us, a hard time,” Jeanie said.
That Wednesday, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City delivered a gut punch to America. The blast claimed 168 lives, including 19 children, and dominated headlines for weeks.
But the national tragedy failed even to register with the Willmons. Their own indescribable grief engulfed them. And it would for years.
That Friday, more than 600 people — many of them Harding classmates — crowded into the North Ridge church to remember Carla.
The Christian university’s chorus came and sang hymns such as “Where The Roses Never Fade.”
“Please pray that our hearts will not be filled with anger or hate but that we can some day, in some way, find the strength and peace of God to forgive.”
In the church bulletin a few weeks after Carla’s death, the Willmons thanked their home congregation for its outpouring of love and comfort.
“We do not understand why Carla was taken away so soon and in such a tragic way,” Roy wrote. “We miss her so very much and wonder how we can cope with our broken hearts. But God has given Jeanie and me such a wonderful church family.”
At the end of the letter, Roy added, “Please pray that our hearts will not be filled with anger or hate but that we can some day, in some way, find the strength and peace of God to forgive.”
Two men were implicated in the kidnapping and murder: Patric Dean Patterson and Mitchell Wade Skinner.
When Jeanie saw the suspects’ pictures in the newspaper, their faces surprised her.
“I thought they’d be monsters, and they were men,” she said. “And that was kind of a revelation for me.”
“I thought they’d be monsters, and they were men. And that was kind of a revelation for me.”
Patterson, then 26, and Skinner, 31, admitted using crystal methamphetamine the night of Carla’s slaying.
Facing the death penalty if convicted, each pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The months leading up to the pleas — Patterson in October 1995 and Skinner in January 1996 — were difficult for the Willmons.
Carla’s parents supported sparing the killers’ lives, but forgiving Patterson and Skinner was a different story.
Related: Guilty and forgiven
“I knew I needed to forgive them,” Jeanie said. “And I had in a way because I wasn’t seeking revenge on them.”
Said Roy: “I think we thought in our hearts that maybe we had forgiven them. But the way that I dealt with it was just to try to put them out of my mind and stuff them into some dark corner of my heart and pretend that they didn’t exist.”
By the start of 2015, nearly 20 years had passed since Carla’s death.
Roy, by then a North Ridge church elder and grandfather of three, had forgotten about his long-ago prayer request for “the strength and peace of God to forgive.”
But after two decades, Roy, a retired U.S. Agriculture Department district director, and Jeanie, a retired teacher, said they felt the Holy Spirit leading them to “officially tell” Patterson and Skinner they forgave them.
Surrendering to what the couple considered God’s will, Roy penned letters dated Feb. 12, 2015, to both killers.
“To forgive someone is not to say that what that person did is OK; it simply means (at least to me it means) abandoning the desire for retaliation and revenge, and granting forgiveness along with concern for that person’s future welfare,” Roy said in the letters.
“So in your case, although justice must be served and your fate in this life is set,” he added, “Jeanie and I have a true concern and desire for you to have a better life beyond the grave.”
The letters met with immediate skepticism.
“He told me he and his wife had forgiven me, but I didn’t believe it,” said Patterson, incarcerated at the Ouachita River prison in Malvern, Ark. “I thought they wanted to cause me more pain or something.”
Skinner said his first thought was of the old saying that “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
“I mean, how could they forgive me when I couldn’t even forgive myself?” said Skinner, who is serving his sentence at the Cummins prison in Gould, Ark. “I believe that’s how I worded it in my response to their letter.”
Letter by letter, though, the prisoners came to recognize that the Willmons were sincere.
Roy offered to study the Bible with both inmates via regular written correspondence, and each accepted.
Since that February, Carla’s father has written each of his daughter’s killers every two weeks.
Related: A baptism, then a murder confession
They send him letters in the in-between weeks.
“You can’t fathom it,” said Roy, now 76. “That’s what’s so amazing about this whole thing that has transpired is the change from darkness to light of the two men.”
Behind prison walls, both men decided to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
“Thank you for all the love you have shown me and for all the spiritual guidance you give,” Patterson wrote in a letter to the Willmons. “You’ve shown me how alive the Lord is in the life we live. How His love is showing by his life and the lives of those who love Him.
“Thank you for saving my life by showing me my worth in Christ Jesus. What a gift!”
Roy praises prison ministers associated with Churches of Christ — including Randy Hughes and Brad Frost — for helping develop the inmates’ faith.
Both Patterson, now 51, and Skinner, 56, have become leaders in their prison congregations.
Patterson has converted and baptized more than a dozen inmates. Skinner leads singing every Sunday. Both teach the Gospel to fellow prisoners and ask what Roy describes as “serious biblical questions” in their letters.
As a result of the love and example shown to him by the Willmons, Skinner said he was able to forgive the man who killed his brother.
“Forgiveness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It all started on the cross when Jesus asked our father to forgive us because we didn’t know what we were doing.”
“Forgiveness is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Skinner said in a testimony shared by Hughes. “It all started on the cross when Jesus asked our father to forgive us because we didn’t know what we were doing.
“Allowing the love of Christ to shine through our self-centered flesh is the key,” he added. “I know firsthand how life-changing God’s grace is.”
A talented artist, Skinner asked after a lesson on giving if he could establish a scholarship in Carla’s honor at Harding and donate 70 percent of his proceeds from pencil-and-ink drawings to it.
“I can give through my artwork,” Skinner said.
As a result, the Carla J. Willmon Memorial Endowed Scholarship was created. Her parents urge donations to the scholarship fund as a way to remember Carla.
A year ago, Harding President Bruce McLarty invited Roy to speak in the university’s two daily chapel assemblies about “the transforming power of forgiveness.”
Roy had never preached a sermon, but he welcomed the opportunity to share his family’s story at a place that meant so much to his daughter.
“I don’t know how much impact it had on others — hopefully a lot — but it had an enormous impact on me,” he said of recounting his journey in such a public forum, with his wife in the audience.
To McLarty, the silence when Roy finished talking spoke volumes.
“The most impressive response to his words,” the Harding president said, “was the many times I heard students and faculty say, ‘I need to forgive someone in my life because of the example of Roy and Jeanie’s forgiveness.’”
“The most impressive response to his words was the many times I heard students and faculty say, ‘I need to forgive someone in my life because of the example of Roy and Jeanie’s forgiveness.’”
The Willmons have no special plans for the 25th anniversary of Carla’s death.
They’ll thank God for their church family, which has supported them through all the tears.
They’ll read the cards that loved ones send year after year and smell the flowers that a Harding suitemate of Carla’s always has delivered.
They’ll reflect on the peace that forgiveness has brought them and their daughter’s killers.
And they’ll remember a time before their lives changed forever — that beautiful Easter Sunday 1995.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
Donations to the Carla J. Willmon Memorial Endowed Scholarship may be sent to Harding University, Box 12238, Searcy, AR 72149.
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