Nightline: Survivor Fights to Keep Killer Locked Up

ByABC News
January 30, 2001, 5:51 PM

Feb. 2 -- Because of Howard Unruh, Charles Cohen made it into the pages of Life magazine at the age of 12. And Cohen has hated Unruh for it ever since.

In September 1949, Unruh, a World War II veteran and a diagnosed schizophrenic, went on a shooting rampage in Camden, N.J. that left Cohen's parents, Rose and Maurice, his grandmother and 10 other people dead. Unruh told police at the time, "I would have killed a thousand if I'd had bullets enough."

Orphaned at the age of 12, Cohen had to deal with the murders of three family members without the support structures that exist today. There were no grief counselors and few psychologists. "Family friends didn't know how to handle the situation," said Cohen, still disappointed 51 years later.

Alone and isolated, Cohen vowed not to talk about that day in 1949, thinking it would help normalize his life. He didn't tell his wife until their honeymoon. Later, he tried to keep his family history a secret from his daughters.

Breaking the Silence

As a diagnosed schizophrenic, Unruh was confined to a mental hospital instead of being tried for murder after the 1949 massacre. In 1980, a New Jersey Superior Court dropped all charges against Unruh, finding he had been denied his right to a speedy trial. Thirty-one years after the shooting spree, the court reviewed whether Unruh should be moved to a less restrictive setting.

But Cohen argued against it. "He took so much away from so many that he doesn't deserve that type of treatment."

Cohen vowed that his parents' killer would never have the chance to see "the green of trees" and "people walking around enjoying life and freedom."

And for two decades, Unruh has been confined to a locked ward of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey.

Although Cohen has not been allowed to speak at the formal hearings, he tries to get a hearing in the media. "Once a year I have to hitch up my pants and get my game face on," said Cohen. He talks with newspapers, television stations and anyone who will tell his story.