The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her son shot their daughters 10 years ago. Then, these Amish families embraced her as a friend.

Terri Roberts holds a photo of her son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, who shot and killed Amish girls in their schoolhouse 10 years ago. (Colby Itkowitz/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

NICKEL MINES, Pa. — A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sun room. It says “Forgiven.”

The word — and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred — is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.

The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of.

But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Robertses’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.

Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.

Ten years later, the Amish families are still consciously deciding to forgive every day. About six miles from the Robertses’ home, down narrow country roads lined with cornstalks and rolling crop fields, the small village of Nickel Mines is visually unchanged, except that where there was once a schoolhouse by the road, there is now just overgrown grass. Many of the school-age children were not yet born or are too young to remember.

But it’s impossible to forget. In one home, a 16-year-old girl sits immobile in her wheelchair, unable to speak or feed herself. Nearby, a 23-year-old man sits at his kitchen table, also struggling to speak, though for him it’s not because he isn’t physically able. He just can’t find the words to express the emotional pain he’s felt every day for the past 10 years.

Rosanna King was among the youngest in her class that day: She was 6. Aaron Esh Jr., then 13, was the oldest.

Roberts has developed bonds with both of them.

Forgiveness, one day at a time

It started at a summer picnic in her sprawling back yard.

It was only nine months after her son’s attack on their children when Roberts invited the Amish families to her home for a get-together. They all came, including Rosanna.

Roberts, a grandmother, held Rosanna in her arms, rocking her and singing her lullabies.

Several months later, Roberts had all the women back to her home for a tea — a gathering that’s now become an annual tradition. As she played again with Rosanna, she asked the girl’s mother if she might help care for her. In the intervening years, Roberts spent nearly every Thursday evening at the King family’s farm, bathing, reading and attending to Rosanna until her bedtime. After the first couple of visits, Roberts said, she would cry uncontrollably the entire drive home, overwhelmed by the reality that this little girl was severely handicapped because of her son.

That’s not lost on Rosanna’s father, either. There’s never an evening that Roberts is there visiting that Christ King doesn’t think of what her son did, but he said it never changes the goodwill he feels toward her.

Roberts has cut back on her visits because of her illness, and on this Thursday evening, it is King who adjusts the wide-rim black glasses on his daughter’s face and shifts the blanket over her lap. He unhooks her IV to replace the bag of fluids. Rosanna barely moves, staring straight ahead, her mouth agape, exposing a full set of braces, like any other teenage girl.

For King, forgiveness has not come easy. Some parents have mourned the death of their daughters. Others have seen their daughters fully heal. His daughter survived, but he also lost her. Every day, he fights back his anger. Every day, he has to forgive again.

Sitting in a folding chair, with Rosanna’s hospital bed in view behind him, King speaks slowly, methodically, measuring each word. There are joy-filled moments with their daughter, like when she seems to perk up when he comes in from work. But then there are days when she has seizures or she’s up in the night and can’t be comforted.

“I’ve always said and continue to say we have a lot of hard work to be what the people brag about us to be,” he said.

But, then, he says this of Roberts: “She’s strong enough, has enough of a backbone, to go out and become such a part of the life of a girl that her son tried to kill. She’s so much a part of our routine that there’s something missing when she’s not there. She’s welcome here anytime.”

A shared affection

Aaron’s trauma is less visible. Since the morning of the shooting, when he and the other boys ran for help, he’s struggled with crippling anxiety over his guilt that as the oldest boy in the class, he didn’t protect the girls. Even when a state trooper assured him there was nothing he could have done, it took a long time for him to forgive himself.

He started overeating, and when he gained weight rapidly, he stopped eating, eventually having to be hospitalized for anorexia.

At the picnic in 2007, Roberts knew Aaron was suffering, which made it all the more moving when, at the end of the party, he told her he’d had fun.

Since then, she’s developed a special affection for Aaron, a quiet, contemplative man. He traveled with her to Ohio where she gave a talk about her story. In her presence, he found his voice, getting up with her to share his experience. But he hasn’t really been able to share since.

Aaron is tall and lean, boyishly handsome with the same bowl cut hairstyle he had when he was young, his brown hair streaked blond from hours doing construction work in the sun. Sitting in his home one evening, he strains to find the words to articulate what he’s feeling.

“There are still times, especially around this time of year when you think, ‘Why did this have to happen,’ and you have to catch yourself or you can become bitter real quick,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve had complete peace with it, I don’t know. I think I’m struggling more than I realize, and I don’t want to admit it.”

Roberts worries about him, how he internalizes everything. He worries about her, too. He sends her messages letting her know when he’s going away with friends or checking to see how she’s feeling. But he hasn’t seen her in a few months.

“I don’t want her to see me struggling,” he said. “I want to be her friend, but I don’t want to hurt her. Over the past 10 years, she’s been the biggest inspiration to us all, for sure. We all had it tough, but I can’t imagine being in her shoes. I just can’t imagine.”

A new reality

It’s a gray, chilly morning when Roberts, now 65, sits in her sun room sipping tea days before the 10-year anniversary of her son’s massacre.

The walls and shelves in Roberts’s home are like any other proud mother’s, filled with photos of her children and grandchildren. Her oldest son’s engagement photo is still there, as are pictures of him as a boy.

But there’s one small picture frame she’s hidden in a drawer, the only photo she has of her oldest son alone. In it, he’s wearing glasses and a baseball hat and not looking directly at the camera. She normally has it out on a table in her kitchen, but she hides it away when her Amish friends come over.

They’d just been there for tea Monday. They don’t need to have that in their face, Roberts says.

Nothing about her new reality, about coming to terms with her son’s demons, has been easy. But it would have been unthinkably harder without her Amish friends.

“No one could ever imagine on that day that something like this would be formed from it,” she said. “Because of the response of forgiveness, we were able to heal.”

Read more Inspired Life:

Theirs was a 25-year romance. Then the love of her life took a bullet to save a stranger.

This teenager was walking for hours to and from work — until a police stop changed his life

Her 10-year-old son wanted to shop at a store just for girls. What the two found there was acceptance.