The (Nearly) Unbearable Grief of Rape and Murder: Tony’s Story
Lois Anne Purnell grew up as a “missionary kid”. Her parents were missionaries for many years in Thailand and Lois and her siblings spent most of their childhood overseas. When Lois was a teenager, her family moved back to the United States.
Lois’ younger brother Tom was a good friend of mine from church and he introduced us in 1982. After 3 years of dating, we were married in May of 1985. Our plan was that we would finish college together and then try to start a family.
Lois was 26 and working as a sales representative for Kinemetrics in Pasadena, California. She was also attending Cal State LA, part-time, working towards a Master’s Degree in Psychology. I was attending Cal Poly Pomona working towards my bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Biology. We were a young couple living in a small rental back house in Pasadena.
Lois was an intelligent, genuine, loving wife with a contagious smile. She had a good sense of humor and a soft heart for animals, even skunks. Her joy was playing the piano and singing her favorite hymns and songs. Growing up in Thailand, Lois adopted a deep appreciation for the Thai culture and loved cooking great Thai dishes. Deep down, Lois always felt that Thailand was home. Her love for God and people was evident in the way she connected with individuals with warmth and sincere interest.
It was October 18, 1988 and the baseball play-offs were occurring for the American and National leagues. Most baseball loyalists spent the evening home watching the game on TV. That evening, Lois went out to get a baby shower gift for a friend at work at a local mall. I was at Cal Poly working on a research paper. I called home at around 9 pm that night from school. No one answered so I left a message that I was still at school.
By the time I arrived home at around 9:30 pm, there was melted ice cream on the counter and a note written by Lois saying she would be back soon from the Pasadena Mall. It was unlike Lois to be late. I had first called her parents, who lived locally. Her mother informed me she had not stopped by or seen Lois that evening. I then called my parents who lived about 20 minutes away to see if she had stopped by to see them. They had not heard from her either.
I then thought she might be at her work, possibly picking up something she forgot. As I drove to her work, my legs began to shake and I could feel the dread that something was not right. My first thought was that she might have been in a car accident. But I didn’t want to consider the worst.
When I returned to the house, I phoned my mother-in-law who came immediately over to the house after I told her that I could not find Lois. While at my house, my mother-in-law called the police to report her missing. She began to call area hospitals to see if anyone had been brought in from a car accident.
I went to the underground parking lot at the mall to see if her car was there, but there was no sign of her or our vehicle. When I returned to the house, my mother-in-law was told that a missing person report could not be filed until 48 hours later. By this time, it was close to 11:00 pm. A detective somehow got ear of our phone calls to police and area hospitals. He had seen a woman brought in to one of the hospitals, filed as a Jane Doe. The detective called back and asked to speak to me about the description of my wife and what she wore that day. I continued to believe that she was in a car accident. I described her flowered jumpsuit that she wore that day and other details. The detective informed me that he would come to the house within the hour.
It seemed like eternity waiting for the detectives to arrive. It wasn’t until about 1:00 am when the detectives finally arrived. We were informed that Lois had been the victim of homicide. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They had me identify some blood stained white rose bud earrings and a bracelet that I had given her for a birthday present. They asked me what kind of car we drove and the license plate number. Then they told me that she had been shot in the head and left to die under a bridge near the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
Police that happened to be patrolling that area spotted her body lying in the dirt, barely breathing. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. They asked me if I could go to the police station to positively identify her body. I was in shock and could not bring myself to face her dead body. My brother in-law, Mark volunteered to identify her body. On October 18th, our worst nightmare came true. Family members and some friends were with us that night as we all wept in disbelief.
The night seemed to never end and my mom stayed with me until morning. The bed was void of Lois’ presence as I wished I could just fall asleep and wake up from this living nightmare.
There were no words, no Bible versus, no theology, no comfort that night, just a tremendous sense of loss knowing I would never see Lois on this earth again. Yes, there was knowledge of hope that someday I would see her again, nevertheless, it didn’t take away the empty space I felt at my core, a longing to see her one more time. There was also the question that was on all of our minds, “Why, why Lois?”
The following day I woke up in a fog. I went to her closet to smell her robe, her slippers, anything that would give me a sense of her presence.
Devastated, it was nearly impossible to eat for days. I had lost nearly 10 lbs within a few weeks.
The day after her murder, detectives came to the house to tell us that they had caught one of the suspects. He was spotted with our stolen car by a rookie police officer. The patrolling officer followed the suspect to his residence. A “back-up” was dispatched as the officer monitored the suspect. He was arrested in his apartment with Lois’ credit cards and other evidence. Through him, the other suspect was apprehended soon after.
Detectives interrogated the suspects following their arrest. Taped confessions were made to their kidnapping Lois at the mall at gunpoint, robbing her, sexually and physically assaulting her, raping her, and finally shooting her in the head while she knelt on her knees, begging for her life. Her plea to the kidnappers was, “just take me home.” Before she was shot, the two men argued over who would kill her. Because of the rape and the possibility of Lois identifying them, they decided to end her life.
This was just the beginning of over three years of criminal trials, each suspect tried separately. During that time, our families attended every trial day, holding back our anger, pain, and suffering, as we relived details and evidence of that one heinous night.
At 27 years old, I never thought I would be planning a funeral for my wife. Hundreds of people attended her funeral and many more who knew of her internationally gave their condolences. Our pastor at the time spoke about the spiritual aspect of her death, that even though she is gone from this world, the spark of God’s love would not be extinguished here on earth.
Many people were well intentioned with their encouragement, however, the people who helped me the most were the ones who just listened. My counselor was very instrumental in my healing, helping me process my feelings and thoughts without judgment or scripture antidotes to make me feel better about the tragedy that occurred. My therapist just validated my process of grief and sorrow.
Other well-intentioned Christians tried to explain to me that God would show me the purpose for my wife’s death or make something good of it. One couple had the audacity to say that it was because of our sin that Lois was killed. Some Christians will come up with crazy explanations for things they really don’t understand or can’t fix through a spiritual and theological explanation. Can good come out of tragedy? Yes. Does that minimize the loss? The answer for me is no. There was no logical explanation for what happened to Lois. My faith in God would never be the same. This side of heaven, I will never get over what happened to my dear wife who meant everything to me.
I have continued to live life. I have forgiven the two men who killed my wife in that I no longer allow them power over my mind, body or spirit. I have resolved that God will be their judge and deal with them in His way.
I am now a Licensed Professional Counselor in Oregon, happily re-married, and have two beautiful girls. Our firstborn daughter was given the middle name of Lois. My gracious wife wanted to honor Lois by passing her name down to our child.
Over the years, I have learned much about grief and my faith, both through my own experience and also through the experiences of my clients. It’s a privilege to walk with them through their loss, just as my counselor had walked with me. I love my profession and have come to a deep appreciation for our humanity.
Often, people are judged by what they see on the outside, but there’s so much more to a person than what we see on the surface. Everybody has a story and at some point in our lives, we will all experience loss. I believe that best thing we can do, the best way we can love, is to be fully present with those who grieve and listen with our hearts.
I first heard the abstract of Tony’s story from a comment he left at my “Even Jesus Wept” feature at Relevant Magazine. I asked him if he’d be willing to share the whole story in a blog post and he graciously obliged.
After reading Tony’s story how do you feel? It’s such a heavy story that I encourage you to process your reaction.