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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Forgiven by the Father

By John W. Kennedy
July 25, 2010

Life seemed pretty good for Mark and Suzi Petric in the summer of 2007. The couple, married nearly 24 years, had just finished moving into the bucolic Brighton Township, Ohio, dream house they designed themselves. On their three acres 40 miles southwest of Cleveland, the Petrics had horses, a barn and pasture, with woods nearby to hunt deer.

Mark and Suzi met at Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa. For nearly two decades, Mark had been in ministry in Ohio cities such as Cleveland and Columbus. In 2003 Mark accepted a senior pastorate at New Life Assembly of God in Wellington, a village of 4,500.

Mark knew he had made the right decision when he received a unanimous affirmation vote from the congregation. He preached about forgiveness at the first service, and he dealt with the issue for three months as he tried to salve different factions, some of whom had left the church earlier.

Meanwhile, Suzi earned laurels in a management position at a Wellington health care rehabilitation center. Yet she still found time to be the administrative glue to keep programs for children, youth and women running at church. 

The couple had raised their three children the right way, modeling good behavior while instilling morals and values. The three children — aged 16, 17 and 21 in 2007 — never caused any trouble and participated in church life.

Heidi, the well-spoken and expressive oldest child, served as a youth leader and nursery volunteer. Even-keeled middle child Holly sang and played bass on the worship team, and helped with the youth group. Danny, the youngest and only boy, played drums on the church youth worship team and showed a talent in Bible Quiz, the AG youth ministry focusing on Scripture memorization.

Family members describe Danny as always clowning around and having a zany sense of humor, much like his mom. From his dad he inherited a fondness for the Three Stooges’ antics.

Danny, who had just turned 16, led an active life hunting, fishing and playing paintball. But a winter snowboarding mishap resulted in a staph infection that opened two holes in his vertebrae. Doctors ordered him to refrain from physical activity, even swimming, because it might leave him paralyzed.

To relieve their son’s depression, Danny’s parents bought him an Xbox video game console, telling him he needed to restrict his game playing to sports rather than warfare. But, unbeknownst to his parents, Danny played Halo 1 and 2 at the homes of some friends for hours at a time. He stopped hanging out with other friends because he played the first-person shooter games constantly.

“He lied to us about what he was doing,” Mark says now.

When Halo 3 went on the market that Sept. 25, Mark and Suzi forbade Danny from purchasing it.

“I told him not to bring that garbage into our home,” Mark recalls.

Josh Willets had been a close friend of Danny’s, but the relationship cooled that September.

“I couldn’t have a normal conversation with him when he was playing,” Willets remembers. “He was always talking about Halo 3.”

Danny told Willets, now 26, that his mom had granted him permission to get the new game.

“He wanted to borrow $20 to make up the difference in what it cost,” remembers Willets, who now is on the New Life board. “I felt betrayed because he lied to me.”

At midnight, Danny sneaked out his bedroom window in order to be one of the first to buy Halo 3. Suzi caught him returning home at 3 a.m. Mark confiscated the game, seized his Xbox and grounded him, punishment that angered Danny.

By the following week, Danny, in an effort to convince his parents to change their minds, displayed online research articles telling how some churches utilized Halo 3 as a ministry outreach tool to youth. Mark and Suzi remained unmoved. That sparked a more intense rebellion.

“I don’t want to live in a Christian home anymore,” Danny told his parents. “I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.”

Danny’s rebellion devastated Mark and Suzi.

Mark made sure Danny knew the eternal implications of rejecting the faith. Danny claimed not to care about hell. Mark warned his son that his life would be miserable if he walked away from God.

The parents intensified their prayer efforts for their son. Suzi stayed up long into the night, weeping and praying that Danny would return to the Lord.

When Mark’s mom and stepfather, Mike and Joyce Broeckel, visited in mid-October, they noticed Danny’s easygoing personality had changed.

“He had dark circles under his eyes,” Joyce recalls. “We said hi, and he didn’t respond.”

But no one foresaw what would happen next.

The shooting

Danny kept living at home despite his rebellious attitude. Mark hoped his son would return to the Lord. Doctors cleared Danny to return to normal physical activities because his back had healed sufficiently.

On the evening of Oct. 20, Mark and Suzi sat in the living room, preparing to watch a Cleveland Indians playoff game on television. Danny emerged from his bedroom and said he wanted to talk.

“I have a big surprise for you guys, but you have to close your eyes,” Danny told his parents.

The teen walked up behind them, shot his father once in the head, then proceeded to shoot his mother four times. He had stolen the hidden key to a lockbox and gained access to his father’s 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

In his grogginess, Mark remembers Danny trying to shove the gun in his hand, to make the crime look like a murder-suicide.

Heidi and her husband, Andy Archer, who had been invited to watch the baseball game on TV, arrived only a couple of minutes after the shooting.

Danny met them at the door, concocted a story that his parents had been fighting and talking about divorce, and told Andy and Heidi to leave.

Andy, knowing the preposterousness of such a tale, forced his way into the living room. When he saw Mark and Suzi lying in pools of blood, he told Heidi to call 911.

Heidi, a student nurse at the time, knew her 43-year-old mother was dead already. She found towels to try to halt her father’s profuse bleeding. The impact of the bullet broke both of Mark’s jaws.

Danny went into the garage and drove away, grabbing his Halo 3 game in the process.

Andy kept talking to Mark, knowing he had to keep his father-in-law conscious so he wouldn’t die before paramedics arrived.

Andy reached down and grabbed Mark’s hand.

“Lord, please spare Pops’s life,” he prayed.

For the next two weeks, Mark lay in an induced coma in a Cleveland hospital. Mark’s daughters, parents and various church members maintained prayer vigils in the intensive care unit, asking God to spare his life. 

Mark awoke to find not only that he had been shot, but that his wife had been killed and already buried. Anger burned in Mark’s heart toward his only son. In the hospital bed, as he mulled the violent demise of his wife, Mark began to hate.

“I told God the next time I saw Danny I would kill him,” Mark recalls.

But about a week before he left the hospital, the Holy Spirit kept bringing to mind the words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).

Without excusing the murder, Mark began to wonder if Danny’s grasp of reality had been twisted.

Still, Mark told the Lord he couldn’t forgive his son. Yet he knew God required it, so he agreed to be willing to try. Mark clearly heard the Lord impress upon him the words I am going to enable you to forgive your son.

Two days later — the night before his hospitalization release — Mark began to weep uncontrollably as he struggled with anger while praying for his son. In two hours of intercession, God empowered Mark to forgive Danny, and the weight of his resentment and hatred miraculously started to lift.

“I love my boy,” Mark told God.

Meanwhile, Danny, held in a juvenile detention center, figured his family — and church members — hated him. Instead, they visited him, hugged him and kept loving him, the first steps in paving the path for his return to God.

Road to forgiveness

Women from the church went to the home to clean up the crime scene. Two board members arranged for a local company to donate a new sofa to replace the blood-splattered one.

The 100-member church held together in unity. Gary Goss, who has attended New Life since 1974 and is on the board, credits sectional and district personnel for helping keep the church together.

“Ministers came in on Wednesday nights and any other time we needed them,” Goss says. “They counseled us; they gave us direction.”

Former youth pastor Christi Clouston, who had been a good friend of Suzi’s, moved back to town and took care of a lot of administrative details, such as scheduling speakers in conjunction with the district office.

Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood prayed for Mark in the Cleveland hospital, ministered at Suzi’s funeral, and encouraged Heidi and Holly.

Initially, Mark relayed messages of love and forgiveness to Danny through Heidi. Two weeks after returning home, Mark picked up the phone himself.

“I know what you did is wrong and terrible,” Mark told Danny. “But I love you; I forgive you.”

Danny broke down in tears, cried for hours and gave his heart back to God. He fully understood God’s unconditional love because of his family’s compassion.

In subsequent letters to his father from behind bars, Danny has repeatedly expressed sorrow for his actions — to both his parents and other family members.

“Mom, Dad, I am so sorry,” Danny wrote in one letter. “Dad, I love you so much, and I hope more than anything you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Mom, I know you’ll never get to read this, but I love you so much and would give anything to take back what I did.”

Mark spent three months recovering at home. Five months after the shooting, he returned to the pulpit — preaching a sermon on forgiveness.

The case went to trial in December 2008. Mark’s parents, who worked through their own issues of absolution, paid for their grandson’s defense attorney.

“I was very angry at the beginning,” Joyce says. “I needed to be angry.”

But, understanding that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), Joyce and Mike resolved to find mercy in their hearts.

“He’s very remorseful,” Joyce says. “He’s taken responsibility.”

Mark testified on Danny’s behalf at the trial, asking the judge for leniency. He explained that Danny is remorseful about killing his mother and repeatedly has expressed gratitude that his father survived.

Danny received the minimum 23-year sentence for aggravated murder upon conviction in June 2009. The prosecutor had sought life imprisonment without parole.

Although Mark quickly forgave Danny, emotional healing took longer.

In the first year of recovery, Heidi and Andy came to live with Mark. When they built their own house last year, Mark spent every waking moment away from his residence. Holly delayed starting her college education a year because Mark didn’t want to come home to an empty house.

Each month, Mark met with Cleveland-area licensed counselor Ray Balogh, who also is an AG minister. Slowly, Mark’s depression began to dissipate.

A message of forgiveness

Andy, a carpenter, and Heidi now live two doors away from Mark in their new home and serve as part-time youth ministers at New Life. The 24-year-old Heidi works as a nurse.

Holly, 20, has finished her first year at Valley Forge and wants to become a youth minister after graduating.

Mark’s parents, who built a homestead between their son and granddaughter, also attend New Life.

Danny is now incarcerated in Mansfield, 40 miles southwest of Wellington. He won’t be eligible for release until 2032, unless he is granted a new trial.

Mark, now 48, is petitioning to be allowed to visit his son in person. Because he is a victim of the crime, the state wants to make sure he and Danny won’t hurt each other.

Heidi also has been unable to visit her brother in person because she had contact with him at the shooting scene.

“I look forward to the day when I can hug him and let him know I really do forgive him,” Heidi says.

Mark has had seven reconstructive surgeries to repair his skull and face. Amazingly, he has experienced a virtually complete recovery. The titanium plates that hold his face together aren’t visible externally. He still has bullet fragments in his eye socket and jaw. He needs two more surgeries to realign and to have a bone graft inserted into his jaw. Yet he suffered no brain damage.

“Mark is a more powerful preacher,” Mike says of his son. “He relies on the Holy Spirit.”

“This has brought us all closer to the Lord,” Joyce says. “We know we must be totally dependent on Him.”

Mark talks to his son once or twice a week on the phone.

“We’re longing for that day when we can hold each other,” Mark says. “I may never understand why this happened, but I’ve accepted it.”

He misses his wife, including at church, where she helped so much behind the scenes so he could focus on preaching.

“His example as a father, a pastor and a child of God has been nothing short of inspirational,” Ohio District Superintendent John Wootton says of Mark. “It’s been reassuring to see, with the circumstances he’s been through, that God really can turn around what the enemy intends for evil.”

Mark has been traveling and speaking at AG churches about the power of God’s forgiveness. When he gives an altar call inviting those who are harboring resentment toward someone, most in the church typically stream forward.

He has scheduled a nationwide speaking tour next year with juvenile homicide expert Phil Chalmers, author of Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer. Mark hopes he can help prevent future tragedies by being transparent about his story.

“We have to be willing to forgive those who hurt us,” Mark says. “If we are willing, God will enable us.”

“There are tremendous possibilities for Mark’s future,” Wootton says.

Mark hoped to spend decades with his wife in their dream home. But he says God called him to pastor in Wellington, and that hasn’t changed.

“I know what happened here was terrible, yet I enjoy being home now,” Mark says. “The Lord has encouraged me, saying that my wife is enjoying her home in heaven, and it’s much better. If we don’t have that hope, what do we have?”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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