The Cost of Forgiveness

If you're lucky, once in your life you'll meet a real life, bonafide saint. About six years ago, my former colleague Craig Pinley and I met three of them: Herb, Bruce and Barbara Baehr of Baldwinsville, New York, on the outskirts of Syracuase. By saint, I mean some who not claims to believe in God but lives like they believe in God.

Here's their story:

The Covenant Companion
July 2000
Bob Smietana and Craig Pinley

On December 6, 1997, Mary "Lily" Baehr of Baldwinsville, New York, was murdered in the home she shared with her husband Herb, and their son and daughter-in law. Lily's son, Bruce, serves as the associate pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Clay, New York.

On March 17, 1999, Kenneth Hobart, a career criminal, confessed to killing eighty-year-old Lily Baehr during an attempted burglary. On January 19, 2000, Hobart was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for murdering Lily Baehr. At Hobart's sentencing, Bruce Baehr looked the man who had killed his mother in the eye, and read this statement:

"We want you to know that when you killed Mary Lily Baehr, you took a life that was cherished by her husband, family, and friends. To have her physical life taken by you in such a cruel and unnecessary way has caused great sorrow and pain in the lives of those who loved her so much. We often think of her and miss her....Perhaps part of the good that will come from such a terrible crime is for you to hear what Mary Lily Baehr would have wanted us to say to you today. We want to tell you that we forgive you. We can say this with sincerity, because we have received God's forgiveness for the wrong things we have done."

Bruce Baehr remembers that he was in a hurry the day that his mother died. Bruce and his wife, Barbara, were headed to Chicago to see their son Jason, a student at North Park University, and they were running late. So Bruce headed out the door without kissing his eighty-year-old mother good-bye.

Barb stopped him. "Bruce," she said, "you didn't say good-bye to Mom."
"I turned and went back," Bruce recalls, "and said, 'Mom, I love you,' and gave her a hug and a kiss and then we went out the door."
That was the last time that any family member saw her alive.

Bruce and Barb left their home at approximately 8:30 a.m., on Saturday, December 6, 1997. Soon after they left, a group of men approached the Baehr family home in rural Baldwinsville, New York, about fifteen miles northwest of Syracuse. They had been casing the house for some time, and believed they would find a large sum of money in the house. They also believed that no one would be home. When they found Lily Baehr and only a few hundred dollars in the house, they slit her throat and left her to die on the laundry room floor.

At 9:45 a.m., eighty-one-year-old Herb Baehr returned home from a Saturday morning prayer meeting. It took him some time to figure out that something was wrong. "There was a bit of snow on the ground that day," he says. "When I arrived, I noticed that the outside door was open. I thought, well that's strange, but maybe Lily was baking something and maybe wanted to get a little smoke out. I thought no more of it."

As Herb walked from the garage to the house, he noticed that there were several skid marks in the driveway. "I thought, well, Bruce must've been late for his plane and took off in a hurry."

Then he noticed a second door leading into the kitchen was open as well. Herb walked past the laundry room door, and noticed that several things looked out of place.

There was a pan of quiche on the kitchen counter, with a fork, a plate, and a glass of orange juice next to it. He heard the television on in the living room, but no one was there. He stopped in his bedroom and noticed that the money he kept there was missing. He checked the whole first floor of the house, but there was no sign of Lily.

"I called, 'Lil,' to see if she was upstairs and there was no answer," says Herb, "so then I really was getting concerned. I went into the kitchen and then I went into the laundry room and there she was. I went back to the bedroom and called 911, and they said to go check if she's still breathing. So I went into the [laundry] room and I looked and I felt her shoulder, and it was already starting to get cool, so I knew she wasn't breathing. I checked her body motion and there was no breath, of course. Then I went back in (to the phone) and I said 'She's not breathing.' [They said] to go back again and see if her heart is beating, so I went back in and felt her wrists and felt her pulse and, of course, there was no pulse. That dear woman was in glory."

The rescue squad arrived moments later and tried desperately to revive Lily. The police came a few minutes later. According to the Syracuse Post Standard, more than thirty officers searched the Baehrs' house and farm for the next two days, looking for clues to help them find out who killed Lily Baehr.

They found very little to go on.
"It's one of those cases you don't often see in police work," says Steve Dougherty, chief assistant district attorney (DA) for Onondaga County. "You had a crime that was committed, one of the most vicious homicides you could have, a burglary in the middle of the country, with no suspects. From the outset we were stumped. There was no motive and no suspects."

a cloud of suspicion
suspicion turned immediately to Herb Baehr. He was questioned for some time on the day of the murder - first at the house and later at the police station. He says they asked him where he had been and when he had left the house. They also wanted to know how much insurance Herb carried on his wife.

"We had a terminal policy for Lily, just a small one, $2,500, for terminal expenses," says Herb. "That's all there was. And I couldn't even get that. On the death certificate, they would not put the cause of death. So I could not get the insurance, even for my wife's burial expenses. They weren't sure I hadn't done it."

While Herb was being questioned by police, Bruce and Barb were in Chicago. When they arrived at O'Hare Airport, they were surprised to hear they names paged. They were met by a Chicago police officer, who escorted them to a conference room in the basement of the airport. They called home and talked to one of the officers at the scene, who put Herb on the phone. Herb told them that Lily was dead.

Bruce and Barb spent several minutes trying to piece together what could have happened. Herb had told them that the back door of the house was open and that Lily had died in the laundry room.

"I called back and I got [one of the officers] on the phone," Bruce says, "and I told him, 'I think we have it figured out. I think my mom was probably feeding the cat, [tripped] and hit her head on the laundry room floor.' His words to me were, 'Mr. Baehr, your mother was murdered.' That was the end of the conversation."

Bruce and Barb knew that they needed to get back home as soon as possible. After booking a 6 p.m. flight to Syracuse, they called their son Jason to tell him what happened. They also called David Lysack, a family friend, and asked him to be with Herb until they arrived.

When they arrived at the Syracuse airport, officer Renee Roberts was waiting for them. "We knew that we were going to be met at the airport by the detective," Bruce says, "and they had already told us that we were going to be questioned as soon as we got back."

As Roberts drove the Baehrs to the police station, Barb realized that they were already being interrogated. "She [was] asking questions and wondering if I did this," Barb says. "We were babes in the woods. We had no idea that we would be considered suspects."

When they arrived at the police station, Herb had already gone home with Lysack. Bruce and Barb's daughter Jessica, nineteen, was also being questioned.

"I kept saying, 'I want to see my daughter,' " Barb says, "and they said, 'she's being questioned, you can see her when we are done.' When I was done [being questioned] I asked where my daughter was and they told me she was gone. I tore down the back stairs and she was [driving away] in a police car." Barbara was not able to reach Jessica until the next morning.

Bruce and Barb were questioned until about 1 a.m. When they were finally allowed to leave, they faced a new problem - where to go. They couldn't go home as their house was still considered a crime scene. They ended up at the Lysacks' house. Herb was there, along with a number of friends from church, who had come to support them.

God went before us
The Baehrs say that the thing that got them through this time of their life was a sense that God was in control. They saw this first in the response from their church. Many people brought meals, or just spent time with them. One couple, Herb and Donna James, took the Baehrs into their home.

"They just took over," Barb recalls. "They said, 'You are coming home with us.' Their presence normalized things, because there's no place that you can make this fit in your life - this doesn't have anything to do with what you have ever experienced."

Several days later, Bruce was finally able to go back to the house. It was a mess. Most of the house was covered in a gray dust used for fingerprinting. There were muddy footprints from officers who had been searching the farm, and much of the house was taped off. Still, Bruce says that he saw God at work.

Before being called as the associate pastor at Grace Covenant, Bruce had worked for nearly twenty years at a local adoption agency. The first person he met at the house was an evidence technician who also happened to be an adoptive dad. Years earlier, Bruce had placed two children from Russia with him.

"He came to the door," Bruce says, "and I could see tears in his eyes. He said, 'Don't worry Bruce. I told all of the evidence technicians to be careful. It was sitting at this kitchen table that I saw my son and daughter for the first time. Your house is in good hands.' "

In the earliest days of the investigation, Don Hilton, a member of the Syracuse police department and of Grace Covenant, called the sheriff's office and told them to start looking outside the family for a suspect. Hilton also placed a call to Mary Lawrence, who directs the victim's advocate program for the Onondaga County DA's office. She visited the house, and spent some time talking with Herb. She was also able to help him clear up Lily's death certificate, which allowed Herb to collect the insurance money for his wife's funeral.

Lawrence, who lost her own brother in a murder ten years ago, works with the New York Crime Victim's board to provide counseling, assistance with burial expenses, and other services for victims' families. She talked about some of the hardships that a family faces after a loved one is killed.

"Aside from losing someone violently and suddenly," Lawrence says, "they also find themselves in a system that's focused on the perpetrator - looking for the perpetrator or building a case....You want some respect - that this happened to your life, this is about you, and you have absolutely no control. The media's in your face, the police are in your face, the DA's office wants all their facts, and all of this is out of your control. You can't get a life insurance policy, everything's held up. It's almost like your grief is kind of stopped until, and even after, a sentencing."

coming home
After three weeks, the Baehrs were allowed to move back into their house. At first, Barb and Herb weren't sure they wanted to go back. Besides getting past the trauma that came with Lily being murdered in the house, the Baehrs feared that they would lose the house as a place of ministry. They bought the house in June of 1977, after Bruce and Barb moved to the area to work at a local adoption agency. Herb and Lily moved in that October, after Herb retired as an assistant school superintendent in Valley Stream, New York. Besides their children Nathan, Jason, and Jessica, the Baehrs shared their home with five children from Vietnam: Tuan, Hai, Linh, Loan, and Hoai Nguyen. (Eventually they helped the Nguyens' mother move from Vietnam as well.) They had also welcomed a number of single mothers to live with them, and had often invited adoptive parents and people from church to the house.

"At one point," Barb says, "I thought that maybe no one will ever want to come to our house again. In the third week of January some of the women from church came and they had a little birthday party, and it was so comforting to know that people would still want to come here." A few weeks later, a dozen men from Grace Covenant held a day-long retreat at the Baehrs' house.

Still, everywhere they looked, the Baehrs were reminded of Lily's absence. Lily had decorated much of the house, including a wallpaper border in the kitchen she had put up in the weeks before she died. Barb says that she got mad every time she heard Lily described as an "elderly woman."

"I would not describe her as elderly," says Barb. "She was up [on a ladder] wallpapering. The last thing we did together was put border around the kitchen ceiling. We were laughing hysterically and insisting the men leave the room, and no comments. Our favorite hobby was making fun of Dad. We wanted it to go on and on."

She describes Lily as having a "can-do'' spirit. "If there was a problem like sewing or anything, she would figure out how it could be done," she recalls. "When I think about her life, it wasn't a life that ended tragically in her old age. Her life was snuffed out. She was going full-tilt for the Lord, she was a volunteer, she was an active grandmother and wife, a mother-in-law, and mother. It wasn't like she was petering out at all. She had plans for things we were going to do."

solving the case
While the Baehrs were adjusting to living back at home and Lily's absence from their lives, they were still under a cloud of suspicion. As of April 1998, five months after the murder, they were still the primary suspects.

Steve Dougherty says that while investigating the family may seem harsh, it was necessary, especially in this case.

"You have to look at the family," he says, "and it's so uncomfortable. If you don't turn over a rock, it's going to come out later that you didn't turn that rock over and it can be part of the defense of the person who actually did it or it may lead to the person who actually did it."

The focus of the investigation began to change when Chuck Florczyk, a detective with the Onondaga sheriff, was assigned to the Baehr case. During the initial investigation, Florczyk had been assigned to a federal narcotics task force.

"It looked rather bleak when I came on board," Florczyk says. "It appeared as though there wasn't much of anything that they [missed]. But it just took some time, talking to the right people and asking the right questions."

After reviewing the case and talking with the family members, Florczyk became convinced that they were not involved in the murder. That conclusion was corroborated when both Bruce and Barb passed polygraph tests.

Taking the polygraph test proved to be a frustrating experience for the Baehrs, in part because the polygraph operator led them to believe that new evidence had been uncovered. This angered Bruce, as he had been assured by Captain Gene Conway of the sheriff's office that they would be notified of any new evidence immediately. That, on top of being asked if he killed his mother or knew anything about the crime, was too much to for Bruce. He stormed out of the room once the test was over, and ignoring the operator's instructions, told Barb what to expect during the test.

"I was so angry," Bruce says. "I was angry at Gene Conway, I was angry at the polygraph operator. [I was so angry that] I could not have a quiet time, I could not read my Bible, I could not pray. I realized that I had to ask Gene Conway to forgive me for my anger at him."

So, the next Monday morning, Bruce called Conway and asked him to come out to the house. When Conway arrived, Bruce apologized for his behavior, and asked Conway to forgive him.

"I think that was the one time that I saw tears welling up in his eyes," Bruce says. "His comment was, 'Bruce, you don't need to say that you are sorry to us. We need to [apologize] to you, but to be thorough we had to do this. I knew in my heart that you weren't involved but still procedurally we had to do that.'"

That conversation marked a change in the relationship between the Baehrs and the police officers involved in the case. Several of them have become especially close to Herb. Conway stops in on a regular basis to talk, while Florczyk stops in for a cup of tea every week. Bruce says that the family is thankful for all the work that the detectives have put in, and tries to pray for and encourage the officers involved in the case.

Florczyk and his partner Richard "Chris" Simone worked on the case full-time, often working overtime. Several sources pointed towards Kenneth Ho-bart, thirty-four, a career criminal with a number of arrests for burglary and assault. The two detectives questioned Hobart and talked with many of his associates. "Every day [Hobart] woke up," says Florczyk, "he was talking to someone that was telling him that they had a visit by the police. That's the price you pay when you are involved in this crime."

At first, Hobart denied any involvement in the crime. As the investigation continued, Hobart began to get very nervous. At one point, Hobart begged him to give Florczyk a polygraph test, to prove that he was not involved in the crime. Florczyk arranged two polygraphs for Hobart. He failed both times.

The detectives also conducted several searches, and found a number of pieces of evidence. They also found about a pound of marijuana among Hobart belongings and arrested him for possession.

Eventually, detectives began to suspect that someone close to Hobart might have been in the car while Hobart and others robbed the Baehr house. Dougherty thinks this played a role in Hobart's decision to come forward and confess. On March 17, 1999, Hobart and his lawyer came to the DA's office and agreed to a plea bargain. He gave detectives a written statement the next day.

"[We think] that Hobart's conscience may have gotten the better of him," Dougherty says. "We'd like to think there was some divine intervention. Whether he was doing this to protect someone, we don't know. But he came forward with an attorney and he gave us a full confession. In return for not seeking murder in the first degree, which can lead to the death penalty, we said that if he gave us a written statement we'd drop the charge to murder in the second degree and the maximum sentence, which is twenty-five years to life."

Both Dougherty and Florczyk say that given the lack of physical evidence or witnesses, it was doubtful that Hobart would have been convicted without the confession. "I do give him some credit for facing up to this, for whatever reason," says Florczyk.

Hobart also gave police the identities of several of the other people who were involved in the murder. The other suspects were not arrested immediately because Hobart's confession was not considered sufficient evidence. He did, however, point the police in the right direction. "They have solved the case," Bruce says. "Now all they have to do is prove it." In May, Angel Perez was indicted by a grand jury for his role in the murder of Lily Baehr.

Florczyk says that he feels a sense of accomplishment about solving the case, in part because of his relationship with Herb. "I made a commitment the day that I started this case," says Florczyk. "I promised Herb Baehr that if nothing else, I would provide him and his family with an explanation. I was able to provide this explanation to eliminate all that doubt - that way they weren't going to be pointing the finger at each other in the family. That was a major relief and I think that helped [Herb]."

the road to forgiveness
Bruce says that he is not a forgiving person by nature. But he knew even at Lily's memorial service that he wanted to forgive whoever had killed her.

"You think I may have been early to forgive," Bruce says. "Mom would have been before me. I remember [when I was] a young child, she was going to work on Long Island and she got knocked down and somebody stole her purse. And she never had an unkind word to say about that person. When she came home, I asked her what happened. She said, 'Someone must've needed some money because they took my purse.'

"That's the way she was, she was gentle and kind and could find the good in any person so as I reflect back on this,

I know that forgiveness would have been what she desired for all of us. She really tried to live her life as Christ would live."

Mary Lawrence says she was struck by how soon after the murder the Baehrs were talking about forgiveness. She says that one of the first things that Bruce said to her was, "I forgive this person."

"I told him, 'You don't even know who this person is,' " Lawrence says, "and he said, 'I know, but I forgive this person.' That was within the first days, he still wasn't even back in his home yet. I've been doing this for eight years, and I have never seen [that so early]. I've seen the rage, I've seen the intense grief, I've seen families torn apart, I've seen families pulled together, but I've never had anybody come to me in such a short time and say 'I forgive this person' and not even know [who the person was.]"

Barb says that she knew when she saw Hobart's picture that she had to forgive him. "There was just no question that this is someone God loved," says Barb, "and someone who had led a miserable life and had spread plenty of misery to others. And yet, we [felt] we had no choice."

Forgiveness came hardest for Herb. He spent a lot of time talking with both Bruce, and his younger son Rick about it. He says that since he knew that God had forgiven him, he had to forgive Lily's killer. "I had quite a struggle," he admits. "It was very difficult for me to overcome the fact that my partner of fifty-eight years was taken from me. But I truly can say that I have forgiven him."

the courtroom

The Baehrs worked on the statement they would give at Hobart's sentencing for several months. Barb wrote the first draft. Herb and Bruce revised it. Bruce also called Dougherty and several of the officers ahead of time, to let them know what he was doing. "I did not want anything I had to take away from the wonderful job they did to solve this crime," he says.

Florczyk says that as the sentencing approached, he started to get anxious to hear what Bruce was going to say. After thirty-one years and hundreds of investigations, this was the first time he had heard the family of a victim forgive a murderer.

"[That day] I lost my sense of being in a courtroom," Florczyk recalls. "At one point I thought I was actually in a church, because it seemed like the atmosphere in the courtroom transformed into a church....As a matter of fact, you could see the defendant, Kenny Hobart, actually overwhelmed. I think his original intention was to address the court, but I don't think that he could do it. He was just overcome by the emotion.

"I don't know too many people that could do what Bruce did. I am still talking to people today about this. Most people I deal with find it very difficult to forgive at that level."

Bill Walsh, who represented Hobart at the sentencing, says the act of forgiveness by Baehr still amazes him.

"Hobart did say on the day of the sentencing that he was sorry," said Walsh. "And I don't care how cold your heart is...it's got to affect you. I think he was surprised by the compassion [of] the family. He knew that the family was a churchgoing, Christian family, but in a later conversation, he was still genuinely surprised. And it certainly wasn't a hollow statement by Bruce Baehr. It came from the heart. [Lily Baehr's murder] was a savage act of violence, with no rhyme or reason. For the family to forgive him, I was just astounded."

Dougherty says that the sentencing is the one time where a family can address the perpetrator. He has seen families give a range of responses, from hostility to, in rare cases, forgiveness.

Dougherty says that he was moved by both Bruce's statement and Hobart's response. "When Bruce was reading the statement, [Hobart] was crying." he says. "This is a guy who's got his own children and family. Crack cocaine has gotten the better of Kenny Hobart by leaps and bounds and he did the most unthinkable thing you could do, but still in there was a person with a conscience that came forward and confessed. At least there was some light in his head to come and do the right thing."

Dougherty says that seeing the Baehrs' forgiveness has stuck with him.

"I come from a social-work background, I worked with kids who had a lot of problems, and that has always been a part of my makeup," Dougherty says. "Unfortunately, it gets you a little jaded because what we see [in the DA's office] is a lot of bad stuff. But when you hear someone that comes in and is as refreshing as Bruce is, it makes you walk a little lighter, and for more than just a day. It's great to see the good in people...it makes me feel a bit better inside."

Lawrence, who was in the courtroom that day as well, says that because Syracuse is a smaller city (pop. 164,000), sometimes a victim's family has a connection with a perpetrator, either through family or a neighborhood connection. "But for Bruce and his family," Lawrence says, "it was a total stranger coming into his home and devastating his whole family. And it wasn't just the homicide they were dealing with, it was not just their mother's death, it was all this turmoil they had to face and the scrutiny they were under. And he was [still] saying, 'I forgive this person.' I've never forgotten that. I carry it with me."

Lawrence says that people can confuse forgiveness with saying that what the murderer did didn't matter, that "It's okay what you did."

"Bruce was never saying that," she says. "He was saying, 'I forgive this person, and I hate what he did. My mother's gone forever and we have to deal with my father being a widower in what should be his last, wonderful years.' "

Having a strong faith seems to be a key component for families that have been able to forgive, says Lawrence. She says that faith helps people deal with the pain and the loss.

"It's always a process," she says, "and people who have a strong faith sometimes even question their faith. They tell me, 'I am questioning God, I am questioning my faith, I feel like I am on very shaky ground.' But they always come back to their faith and usually stronger. And they learn to appreciate things more. Life is more precious to them, but so is the void - there is a person missing from their life and that void sometimes becomes huge."

Dorine Hanevy, who covered the sentencing for the Palladium-Times newspaper, says that she was impressed by Bruce's calmness.

"I've heard people in the past mention God and forgiveness," Hanevy said. "But in the other cases you could feel their pain they were still dealing with it. Bruce didn't center on his own feelings, he didn't cry out, 'I'm going through this much pain.' He focused in on his relationship with God and it just came across as calm and believable, that he had actually forgiven him, which I think is a hard task to do."

facing the future
The recent indictment of Perez means a new challenge for the Baehrs. Because Hobart confessed, they did not have to go through the ordeal of a trial. On Monday, May 15, 2000, Perez pleaded "not guilty" to all charges in the Baehr case. The next court date is July 6.

Perez has been involved in a murder before - in 1994, he helped a Florida man kill and bury his girlfriend's husband. However, prosecutors there gave Perez immunity after he cooperated with authorities to indict two accomplices.

His arrest has brought up the issue of forgiveness again for the Baehrs. Perez was charged with murder in the first degree, which carries a possible death sentence. In early May, Dougherty called the Baehrs and asked them where they stood on the death penalty.

Bruce says that ironically, he was a death penalty advocate before his mom was murdered. He now opposes it.

"Yes, they came in my house, and yes they took my mom's life," he says, "but I want to respond, [even though] I am not always able to, as Christ would have responded....We have a loving God who has provided an avenue for all of us, no matter how bad we are, to have an opportunity to come to faith. And if we put someone to death, that lessens that opportunity."

The subject of the death penalty touches some raw emotions in Herb. He says that he hasn't made up his mind over whether he would support the death penalty if Perez is convicted. When asked if he would be able to forgive Perez, he says that, "there, I come to a wall." (At Perez's indictment the DA's office decided not to pursue the death penalty.)

Herb planted a rose garden in front of the house - which he maintains in memory of his wife. He says that he wants to approach the trial in the way that his wife would have.

"Coming back to Angel's trial, I'm sure that Lil would want me to do my best to be objective and say the facts as they were, but at the same time to have a forgiving attitude toward him. I'm sure she would be [forgiving]."

Bruce says that though he wishes that this ordeal was over, he and the rest of the family just want to remain faithful.

"When God is finished with what he has planned through this whole thing it will be finished and it won't be finished until God sees the results that he wants to see. I think I can speak for everyone in our family - that we will be faithful to his purposes till the end of this. It would be wonderful for this to be over, but on the other hand I have seen people's lives changed because of what we have had to travel through - this is not about glorifying the Baehr family - this is about glorifying God."


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