Bond of Two Iowa Families Unbroken Despite Killing
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: August 20, 2009
PARKERSBURG, Iowa — The body of the football coach lies under a rectangular patch of dirt, slowly being covered by creeping clover and crab grass. But there is no doubt among people here that his soul is somewhere high above. A tombstone for Ed Thomas should be in place this fall.
The body of the former football player is in a county jail. But there is no doubt among people here that his is a soul lost. An insanity defense for 24-year-old Mark Becker is expected when his murder trial starts next month.
For more than 30 years, the Thomas and Becker families were bonded by school, church and the communal raising of boys in this small town about 100 miles northeast of Des Moines. Then their worlds collided in a fury of gun blasts.
And Parkersburg, a town of 1,900 people and no stoplights, was left to piece itself together, again.
It was Mr. Thomas who emerged from the basement on May 25, 2008, to find his house, along with 220 others, blown away by the biggest tornado to scrub Iowa in decades. He walked two blocks to the demolished high school where he had taught and coached for more than three decades, and vowed to patch Ed Thomas Field and the football program together in time for the season opener.
Mr. Thomas pointed Parkersburg toward normal. And it followed.
It was Jan Thomas, his wife, who was the first volunteer paramedic to arrive at the high school’s temporary weight room early on June 24. The police chief stopped her at the door. It’s Ed, he said. Mrs. Thomas had arrived in time to say goodbye.
That night, she called Joan and Dave Becker. And a small-town murder, as unexpected and unexplained as any other, had its most important answer. A violent death cannot shatter a town if it does not divide friends.
Unlike the aftermath of so many other killings, where the focus shifts quickly to a cry for justice, the Thomas family has made empathy the overriding emotion in Parkersburg.
“When I think about Ed, I can’t help but think of Dave and Joan Becker,” said Tom Teeple, the town’s barber.
Mr. Teeple closed his eyes and puffed his cheeks, as if to keep grief from spilling. “Jan, at least, has some kind of closure,” he said. “But those people, it’s going to go on and on and on.”
It was 30-year-old Aaron Thomas who set the public tone on the day of his father’s killing with two sentences uttered amid a three-minute statement.
“We also want to make sure we express our concern and our compassion for the Becker family,” Mr. Thomas said. “We ask that people pray for them as well, and that people take the time to comfort and be with them through this, as they are also going through a lot.”
At a time when no one knew what to feel, they had one thing to do: Remember that two families were grieving.
“That’s something my mom and I had talked about before I went up there,” Mr. Thomas said last week. “With the Becker family, Joan and Dave, we knew what they were going through as well. They were suffering and hurting. The last thing we wanted to see was a big upheaval toward them over something that they — ”
He did not finish the sentence. The implication was clear. It was not their fault.
The Aplington-Parkersburg High football team started practice last week, under the direction of two assistants, Al Kerns and Jon Wiegmann. There was a space in the breeze where Ed Thomas’s bellowing voice used to be. From across the street came the din of construction, the beeping and growling of machinery. School starts Monday.
The first football game is Aug. 28. ESPN will televise it. Starting at offensive tackle will be Mark Becker’s younger brother, Scott, a senior and a favorite of Ed Thomas’s.
Dave Becker is a quiet bear of a man, residents said, who played football for Ed Thomas in the 1970s. Joan Becker was a radiant cheerleader. Their three boys played for Mr. Thomas, too. Both families are members of the First Congregational Church, where Mr. Thomas was an elder and taught adult Sunday school, often to the Beckers.
At church on June 21, Ed Thomas asked about Mark, a star linebacker in high school. He had been arrested the night before, part of a baffling string of run-ins with the law. He was said to have damaged a home with a baseball bat and then led the police on a car chase. Ed Thomas prayed for Mark Becker.
Three mornings later, the police said, Mark Becker walked into a cavernous red shed — last season’s locker room, this off-season’s weight room, now a maintenance barn — and shot Mr. Thomas several times.
“Right after I heard it, I wanted to find the person who did it,” said Alex Hornbuckle, a senior running back who was not among the 20 or so students in the weight room at the time. “Then I heard it was Mark. I used to really look up to him.”
No one else was hurt. Mr. Thomas, 58, died about the same time that Mark Becker was arrested in the driveway of his parents’ home.
Mr. Becker pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 15. Thomas family members are not sure how much of it they will attend.
Mr. Becker’s public defender, Susan Flander, said she would use the defense of insanity and diminished responsibility. People in Parkersburg presented a tidier diagnosis: Mark Becker got into drugs. Fell into the wrong crowd. Lost his way, and took Ed Thomas with him.
“It’s truly a double loss to our family,” Joan Becker said in a phone interview.
The Beckers declined to comment further except through a statement that acknowledged “the mercy and grace the Thomas family, our church family and our entire community has shown to our family.”
The day before the funeral, as thousands lined the sidewalks and waited hours to pay respects, the Thomas and Becker families had a private viewing.
“They had a huge history,” the Rev. Brad Zinnecker said. “So they needed some time to be together.”
Sunday mornings at church, Jan Thomas and Joan Becker can be seen sitting side by side. Last Thursday morning, Mrs. Thomas was in her yard, hanging a wind chime on the back porch. A woman of deep faith and a firm handshake, she wants to let her two sons do the talking that her husband used to do.
In July, Aaron Thomas left a job at a bigger school in La Porte City, Iowa, and took on his father’s role as activities director at Aplington-Parkersburg. He and his wife and their three little boys have moved in with Jan Thomas — into the three-bedroom home rebuilt where the tornado swiped the old one — until their own house is built nearby.
“He really wanted to coach my three kids,” Aaron Thomas said of his father. “He thought he could make it through that, could last that long.”
The second Thomas son, Todd, 28, and his wife are moving to Parkersburg, too, from Cedar Falls. A financial planner, he will coach the offensive line. That was always his father’s specialty.
Together, huddling close with their mother, they are pushing Parkersburg forward, toward a “new normal,” as Aaron Thomas called it.
Until not long ago, that was Ed Thomas’s job.
Not gonna lie, I cried a little at this. Just because...I dunno, I guess if it happened to me, I can't imagine being that compassionate.