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COLUMN

Twenty years later, scars remain from Christmas Eve killings in Harlan

Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 12:01 am

Maybe you went to church, spent time with family and friends, partied or simply stayed home to revel or wallow in solitude.

Whatever your Christmas Eve, you were probably spared the ritual John Purcell and members of his family have repeated every Dec. 24 for the past 20 years – a bittersweet graveside reunion the 70-year-old retired building inspector vows to continue as long as he lives.

“Peace on Earth, good will toward men?” It's not quite that simple when your only daughter and her fiancée are murdered by an arsonist on what should be among the holiest and most joyous nights of the year, and the killer remains unidentified and unpunished two decades later.

“It really affected Christmas for us the first few years. No trees, no decorations,” said Purcell, whose 23-year-old daughter Josette and Jeff Koop, 22, died in a fire at the Harlan home they shared. “In time, we started to do small things, like put up a little 'Charlie Brown' tree. If I dwelt on this every day for 20 years I'd be in the mental hospital.

“But December is the hardest month because it had been our happiest time of the year. So without fail we go to the cemetery every year about the time they were killed, around 6:30 p.m., with a dozen roses. If I just let it go, (whoever did it or knows who did) have won.”

Whether Purcell's passionate determination to remember and resolve a case that has stumped the professionals represents a loving tribute to lost loved ones or an unhealthy obsession is perhaps a matter for debate. But there's no doubting the sincerity of his unrelenting quest for justice, which has included everything from rewards to appearances on national TV shows to the use of psychics campaign and frequent use of the media.

Just this month, in fact, Purcell and wife Janice sent a letter to the editors of local newspapers in which they once again urged people who know something to come forward at long last. “You can continue to live with the cover up and the guilt and do nothing with your life or come forward and do something right,” they wrote.

“The same names are still out there,” Purcell said.

This year, however, something has changed. According to newspaper obituary records, the man who was charged with the arson before charges were dismissed in 1993 – Thomas Bass – died in Marion Aug. 4 at the age of 50.

Even though Bass allegedly told friends he had been paid $500 to set the fire, his parents, ex-wife and neighbor all testified that Bass could not have set the fire because he was visiting them in Grant County at the time. The Allen County Prosecutor's office ultimately concluded that the “best interests of justice and society do not dictate further prosecution at this time.”

And whether Bass committed the crime or not, Purcell still cannot rest.

“I need to know why,” he said.

But such a question does not lend itself to easy answers, regardless of whatever evidence may be discovered in this case.

“We believe (in God), but we believe in our own way,” Purcell replied when I asked whether his daughter's murder and his long search for justice had affected Christmas' religious meaning for him. “The Lord has no power over what people do here (on Earth).”

As a result, Purcell said, he and his family must deal with the aftermath of evil in a supposedly holy time – along with the family and friends of 9-year-old Aliahna Lemmon (brutally murdered last December), the people of Newtown, Conn., and too many others.

John Purcell is hardly the first to ask why bad things happen to good people. But however you choose to answer that question, the message of Christmas is ultimately one of hope, comfort and faith in a God who loved us enough to share our human pain.

Purcell may or may not ever know why his daughter was killed, or who was responsible. But I do hope that he and anyone else bearing physical or emotional left by the cruelty or indifference of others will ultimately find peace in that other -- and profoundly different -- Christmas Eve event.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.