Nightline: Survivor Fights to Keep Killer Locked Up

ByABC News

Feb. 2, 2001 -- 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.

"I don't want anyone to see him [Unruh] as a poor, old man," Cohen. "He's a mass killer that has outlived most of the families that he destroyed. I'm just waiting for the call that he's dead. I will then have closure for my family and the rest of the families affected by this heinous crime."

Why did the case drag on for so many years, until 1980? Even though Unruh was mentally ill, why wasn't he adjudicated as a mentally ill criminal and put away for life? Or is this what happened and he now gets these annual "parole" hearings? — Fred Aliberti of Albany, N.Y.

Cohen: There were no laws in place in New Jersey to deal with the criminally insane in 1949. Those laws came decades later, which is why Unruh's case was revisited again in 1980. At that time, the courts wanted to move him to the least restrictive area. Initially he was indicted on 13 counts of murder and three counts of assault. Once it was determined by a judge that he did not have a "speedy trial" under the new laws, the murder indictments and assault charges were dropped.

Did you ever get any help as an adult to put some closure on your traumatic loss: grief counseling, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), trauma reduction therapy, anything? — Samantha Grier of San Francisco Cohen: I am just considering having counseling now as a result of reliving these events, dealing with the annual hearings that come and some personal health issues.

Once you had told your new wife about the tragic loss of your parents, did that help you open up enough to be able to talk about it and "deal" with it better or did you have to seek professional help? — Deborah of Scottsdale, Ariz. Cohen: No, after my wife and I spoke on our honeymoon in 1958, we never discussed it for the next 32 years. It was not until the murder indictments were dropped in 1980 that I spoke publicly or privately about my childhood.

Do you think you will ever be able to find it in your heart to forgive, not excuse or forget but forgive, Unruh the crime he committed on you and your family? Do you think that he and his crime have held you held captive all these years and if so do think that you will ever stop being being his captive? — Cee Peeples of Columbia, S.C. Cohen: My heart is in alignment with my faith and belief in God about the issue of forgiveness. I forgive myself for not doing more to stop this monster from killing my family and neighbors. That is as far as I am willing to forgive. You cannot imagine growing up without parents and living with my children growing up without ever having known their grandparents. All due to the action of a person who continues to live 52 years later.

My life goes on richly and is reinforced daily as I see my beautiful daughters, sons-in-law and of course my precious grandchildren grow.

Unruh will someday die and I will bury his memories and continue to thoroughly enjoy my family which, God willing, will have no thoughts of him. The only memory I wish for them is that of having a loving Pop-pop and Mom-mom.

Finally, in the words of my 7-year-old grandchild who begged to view the tape, "Why does anyone need to have guns?"

Did you become more or less religious after what you have experienced? — Fida Awadia of Ottawa, Canada Cohen: My parents provided a religious education for me and I had my Bar Mitzvah five months after the tragedy. I honor the traditions of my religion.

Have you ever spoken to Holocaust survivors about your terrible loss? If so, were there similarities in your reactions and responses? — Dennis of Cherry Hill, N.J. Cohen: No, but I have a great respect and keen understanding of their suffering. I also carry the survivor's guilt that I should have or could have done something to stop Unruh. But for a 12-year-old, I did the best thing I could do and that was to listen to my mother when she told me to hide.

Do you think that your life would be more complete if Unruh received the death penalty? — Ed McHale of Chicago Cohen: If he would have received the death penalty or at least been incarcerated so that we never had to hear about him again, I would have been a lot happier. Every year I realize that he lives and my parents, grandmother and all of the others do not have that opportunity.

Knowing all that you know about how you handled this event in your life, would you have handled it differently and how? — Tom Justin of Fountain Valley, Calif. Cohen: I firmly believe that my need to speak out came only after the murder indictments against Unruh were dropped and the pressure was on to give him more and more freedom. I felt no choice but out of honor and respect to my parents and the others that I had to speak out publicly. I became the voice for those who were silenced. If Unruh had stayed in the facility where he was placed in 1949 after the tragedy, I would have kept my silence. So, now Unruh has a hearing every year where I attend court to represent the victims and families, and I give statements to the press so that the public never forgets the faces of the 13 victims.

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