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December 2, 2013

Sisters of murder victims find strength

By Joe Mahoney Staff writer
The Daily Star

---- — Separated by a county border and 35 miles of roads, Patricia Berg of Norwich and Jennifer Kirkpatrick of Oneonta have bonded after both experienced the painful loss of a beloved sister as the result of a gruesome homicide.

The two women said they are also united in their belief that the state parole board should not be releasing criminals serving sentences of 25 years to life in prison for the most heinous crimes on the books — A-1 violent felonies such as intentional murder and murder by depraved indifference to human life.

Berg and Kirkpatrick became acquainted in recent days after The Daily Star last week chronicled Kirkpatrick’s efforts to fight convicted killer David Dart’s release from Otisville state prison. He is serving 25 years to life for the 1989 stabbing murder of Kirkpatrick’s sister, Gillian Gibbons, inside the municipal parking garage in downtown Oneonta.

For Berg, the story of a young sister being killed — Gibbons was 18 years old when a 17-inch survival knife was repeatedly plunged into her body, and Berg’s sister, Wendy Cooper, was 16 years old when she was stripped naked and fatally bludgeoned with a rock — hit close to home.

Too close, she said.

Berg told The Daily Star that she wants to use what she called her own upsetting experiences with the state Parole Board to assist Kirkpatrick in convincing the board to keep Dart, 44, behind bars.

Wendy Cooper was walking home from school and had just had her braces removed when she was accosted in Norwich in 1974 by Stephen D. Pierce. He drove her to his mother’s property in Plymouth, where he brutally killed her after removing her clothing. The girl’s battered body was discovered inside a station wagon owned by Pierce’s mother. The killer later explained in response to questions that he began hitting the girl with a rock because she was screaming and he decided to silence her, Berg recalled.

She said that while there were indications that Pierce had attempted to rape her sister, he was not prosecuted on a sex crime charge. She noted that in those days the collection of forensic evidence at crime scenes was not as nearly sophisticated as it is now. As a result, she said, Pierce is not on the state’s sex offender registry.

Last June, after several other panels of Parole Board members had rejected Pierce’s application for parole, he was released from Otisville state prison — the same facility where Dart is now confined. The latest parole review panel had decided his release would not jeopardize public safety. Now 58 years old, Pierce had served nearly 39 years in prison for the crime. Pierce remains under parole supervision while living in Norwich.

Berg said she has seen Pierce in the community several times, and each encounter left her with a chilling feeling, as well as profound concern that a man implicated in such a wanton murder is allowed to mingle with free society.

“I just hope Jennifer never has to experience what I experience each time I see this individual walking around town,” said Berg, a clerk for the Chenango County Department of Social Services.

Asked how she reacted when she learned Pierce was being released from prison, Berg said, “I was shocked. I never thought it should happen.” 

She noted that earlier parole boards had rejected Pierce’s release because of the “nature of the crime.”

“The nature of the crime will never change, but they still let him out,” Berg said. “I will never understand how they could do that.”

Because of her own disappointment with the parole board, Berg said she can relate to the anxiety Kirkpatrick is experiencing as she awaits the parole decision for Dart, a former resident of Portlandville.

Kirkpatrick said because of an apparent bureaucratic snafu, the state failed to contact her and let her know that Dart was to have had the parole hearing Nov. 20. She said she only learned of the hearing through the efforts of Otsego County Judge Brian Burns, who had arranged to have a mutual friend make sure she knew about the hearing.

“Parole needs to be held accountable for what happened here,” said Kirkpatrick.

The hearing was postponed to January, with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision saying the rescheduling was necessitated because the inmate’s file was incomplete. Kirkpatrick said she believes the postponement came because a reporter learned local judicial officials had received late notice of the hearing and there was an apparent breakdown in the victim notification system that she had hoped would keep her abreast of all matters relating to Dart.

Kirkpatrick said she is appreciative of the support she is getting from Berg, emotional and otherwise. Berg, in fact, said she plans to write a letter to the parole board opposing Dart’s release from custody. Berg said she also plans to accompany Kirkpatrick to Albany on Dec. 13 when she gives a victim impact statement to the parole board.

“I’d like to help Jennifer in any way I can.” Berg said. She said the state fell short in its obligation to keep her notified in a timely way on the Pierce parole hearing, and she did not know until it was too late that the hearing date was rescheduled for two months earlier than the initial date that had been posted on a state website listing parole date information for inmates.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said her agency’s records show that the agency did make official notifications to members of Wendy Cooper’s family months before the parole hearing. The spokeswoman also noted that the parole hearing dates on the website are tentative and subject to change. She also pointed out that letters opposing a release are kept in the inmates’ file jackets, and would be routinely reviewed at subsequent parole hearings.

Berg and Kirkpatrick said they believe they are mutually benefiting by their new alliance and are looking forward to assisting the survivors of other victims of violent crimes who are determined to be kept in the loop on parole information. Both mothers, Berg and Kirkpatrick said they have also discussed how they each became extremely protective parents, in no small part because of the anguish each experienced after having the life of a sister snuffed out by a violent criminal.

Berg praised Chenango County Distirct Attorney Joseph McBride and Norwich Police Chief Joseph Angelino for being supportive of her and maintaining vigilance with regard to Pierce’s presence in the city.

Pierce, who does not have a telephone listed in his name, could not be reached for comment. The Daily Star also unsuccessfully attempted to reach his sister, Bonnie Campbell, who attended the trial and later went on to become the attorney general of Iowa and the director of the federal Violence Against Women Office during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Campbell works for a Des Moines lobbying firm. In 1995, the case involving her brother came up in an interview she gave to People magazine. 

“While I had nothing to do with the crime, it left a permanent scar on me,” she told the magazine.

The crime, Berg said, also traumatized the father of Wendy Cooper, Claude Cooper, 79, now in poor health and living at the state Veterans Home in Oxford.

Berg said she refrains from telling her frail father about her recent encounters with the man convicted of killing the eldest of his five children.

“It would break his heart,” she said.