By Mark Ellis
When her husband Charlie called to tell her he wasn’t coming home she knew something wasn’t right. At the time of the call he had already taken 10 girls hostage inside a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, a village in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Charlie Roberts, a milk truck driver and family man with three kids, proceeded to shoot each girl execution-style in the back of the head before he turned the gun on himself, committing suicide. His wife, Marie, was blindsided. She had no clue this was coming.
“It was overwhelming to know what happened that day and the man who walked with me and our children to the bus stop that morning, who kissed them and said he loved them, could even be capable of something like this,” says Marie Monville, the author with Cindy Lambert of One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting (Zondervan).
Immediately after Marie hung up the phone, Charlie committed his horrible crime, killing five Amish girls aged 6-13, including two sisters. The youngest victim to survive, Rosanna King, suffered brain damage and is still unable to eat, sit or talk.
“His voice on the phone sounded so different, so flat, so lifeless,” she recalls. “It was unlike anything I had ever heard in our 10 years together. So many things he said didn’t make sense, even saying it related to the loss of our first daughter.”
In 1997, Marie and Charlie lost their first daughter after 26 weeks of pregnancy, a loss that seemed to hit Charlie harder in the ensuing years than Marie.
Born prematurely, she lived for only 20 heartbreaking minutes. “It was the first time in my life to face such a crisis moment,” Marie says. “You don’t think when you’re pregnant that you’re not going to come home from the hospital without your daughter.”
Charlie and Marie – both committed Christians who met in church – responded differently. “That day rocked me but I found the Lord in such tremendous ways,” she says. “I knew that His healing was the only thing that would bring me through.”
On the other hand, the loss set Charlie on a downward emotional spiral that took him farther from God. He also suffered interludes of depression. “I encouraged Charlie to talk to a counselor or a family member or friend,” Marie notes, “but he was never interested in doing
“We talked about the loss. I thought he was finding the Lord in his own way,” she laments. “In the next few years he went through periodic depressions, but it was never glaring, or anything that kept him from work or interacting with family.” Marie says there were no obvious changes in his personality.
Charlie’s faith had been genuine, according to Marie. “He did have a real and authentic faith. We prayed and read the Word together.” But after the death of their first daughter, something changed. “He made a disconnect from the Lord. He still listened and participated, but not in a leading way.”
When Charlie called Marie at 11:00 a.m. on the morning of the shooting, he told her he left a letter for her to find. “I quickly realized it was a suicide note,” Marie recounts. “I certainly didn’t know it would involve other people. I thought maybe he was going to take his own life, but not involve children.”
In the note, Charlie confessed that when he was 12-years-old, he had molested two female relatives aged three and five, and had been fantasizing about molesting again. Police interviewed the two girls later, and they maintain that no such abuse ever happened, which adds to the mystery.
But it seems clear the loss of their first daughter played into his anger toward God.
Shortly after Marie hung up the phone that horrific morning, she heard the sound of sirens wailing in the distance. It was a beautiful October day, crystal clear. As she heard the helicopters fly overhead and saw police cars speed past, she dropped to her knees and cried out for the Lord’s intervention:
“Please stop him!” she cried out. “Charlie, don’t do whatever you’re about to do. There has to be another way!”
It wasn’t long before the police were at her door. When she opened the door, she said, “It’s Charlie, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the officer replied.
When she learned the enormity of his crime, it was overwhelming. “It felt like my world was falling down around me,” she says. “It seemed like a nightmare. I was faced with a startling reality.”
At the same time, she felt the Lord’s presence like no other time in her life. “I felt a surge of strength from the Lord through me. It was unlike anything I had known.
Because of Marie’s convictions, she felt she had a stark choice. “I could choose to believe that God is everything I’ve read in the Word and the Bible is true and God will somehow rescue us. Or, I could believe we were going down like a sinking ship.”
“I made a bold decision that the Lord had more for us than that one moment. Even though I couldn’t fathom how He would come through and rescue us, I knew that He would.”
A powerful sign of the Lord’s power at work in tragedy was the unbelievable moment when Marie’s family was embraced by the victims’ families. It started when several of the Amish parents visited her parents’ Lancaster County home.
She watched several Amish men walk down the street toward the house. She called out to her mother and father, “What do I do? Do I go out to talk to them?”‘
Marie waited inside while her father went out to dialogue with the men. In a potent demonstration of forgiveness, Monville viewed the Amish fathers of the victims hug her father as he sobbed. She could not hear their interchange, but she saw their gentle embrace, and learned later they offered forgiveness, which meant everything to her wounded heart.
Marie wrote a letter to her Amish neighbors expressing her gratitude for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
Marie says she was not particularly strong, bold, or confident before the tragedy. “I’m amazed the Lord can use these times of great pain to bring beauty out of our loss. I’ve seen so much redemption out of these circumstances,” she says.
“It’s remarkable how God has turned our lives around. He will see you through the darkest days.”