‘I don’t hold this anymore’: Survivor finds freedom in forgiveness for Altona killer

By | May 1, 2020

It’s been 30 years since two rural Manitoba teenagers were tied up, assaulted and left to die in a burning house, but the sole survivor will never forget it — and news their attacker has been granted full parole has brought it all back.

“I believe that a life sentence should be a life sentence,” Tyler Pelke said Thursday from his home in Red Deer, Alta.

“There’s obviously a fulsome discussion that could happen … but that’s just where I believe it should be.”

Pelke can’t count the number of times he has told the story of Nov. 17, 1990.

Pelke, then 14, and his friend and fellow goaltender, 15-year-old Curtis Klassen, were at the Pelke home after attending an event for their hockey team. They were watching the movie The Hunt for Red October.

Curtis Klassen was a talented young goalie who was killed by Earl Giesbrecht in a vicious attack in 1990. ‘He just loved playing sport. Anybody would tell you that whether it was hockey or whether it was baseball, he just loved being a part of things. Just kind of the biggest heart, the biggest goof,’ his friend, Tyler Pelke, remembers. (Courtesy Tyler Pelke)

The boys lived in Altona, a small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba where no one locked their homes.

So when someone knocked on the door, they didn’t hesitate to answer.

It was 17-year-old Earl Giesbrecht, a local boy known for being troubled.

Giesbrecht was wearing all black. He pulled a .357-calibre Magnum handgun out of a duffel bag and told the boys he had been doing break-ins.

WATCH | CBC Archives 1991: Murder in Altona:

People in Altona, Manitoba are still struggling to understand the murder of two teenagers by another classmate. 8:15

“At one point, he had pulled a gun on us and forced me to tie up Curt and then tied me up and then separated us. And it was the last time I saw Curt,” Pelke recalled.

“I was sexually assaulted by Earl and my throat slit and set on fire and some fires (were set) in the rest of the house.”

Bound, bleeding and on fire, Pelke managed to escape, going to a neighbour’s for help.

He couldn’t speak, but wrote the name of his attacker.

“Curt didn’t make it,” Pelke said, adding he suffered third-degree burns to 25 per cent of his body and had health issues for years after.

Emotional court case

During his trial, Giesbrecht said he had been molested as a child, and was bullied for being gay. 

He told the court he started having revenge fantasies after Pelke and Klassen made a demeaning comment to him.

The court rejected an argument by Giesbrecht’s lawyer that he was not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder. 

Earl Giesbrecht has been described as a model inmate by his parole officer and other members of his treatment team. (Supplied)

Giesbrecht was convicted of murder and attempted murder, and although he was 17, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, until 2015. 

Over the decades, Giesbrecht has been granted more freedom, starting with temporary absences from Rockwood Institution and building up to unescorted temporary absences.

He has been described as a model inmate by his parole officer and other members of his treatment team. He’s participated in restorative justice meetings and undergone sexual-offender treatment. 

While in prison, Giesbrecht graduated from high school and earned degrees in business administration and human resources.

On Tuesday, he was granted full parole, a form of conditional release that allows an offender to serve part of a prison sentence in the community. 

Giesbrecht will have to report regularly to a parole officer and must abide by conditions designed to reduce the risk of reoffending and foster reintegration into the community.

‘It never goes away’

Despite physical distancing due to COVID-19, news travelled fast in a community where both families still live.

And while many in Altona are talking about it, few wanted to be interviewed, citing concerns over their safety, even now.

“The tragedy of 30 years ago impacted three, not just two families. It’s been a life-changing situation for those immediate and extended families who continue to live here,” said Mayor Al Friesen.

“It’s still painful for those who have lost family members. It never goes away.”

Altona Mayor Al Friesen says the tragic 1990 attack was significant event for the small Mennonite community. Three decades later, two of the families still live there. (Al Friesen)

Friesen said one of the conditions of Giesbrecht’s release is that he not return to Altona.

Members of the W.C. Miller Collegiate graduation class of ’93 have started a memorial fund and they hold an annual fundraising run to support minor sports and amateur athletes, things Klassen loved to participate in.

“It’s one way for Curtis Klassen to be paid tribute,” Friesen said.

“For those looking for inspiration, Tyler Pelke has indicated the importance of forgiving. We can all take a lesson from that.”

‘Forgiveness absolves me of carrying a burden’

The scars still cover Tyler Pelke’s chest and circle his throat. 

However, that vicious attack did not kill Pelke or destroy his spirit. 

Members of the 1990 Grey Cup-winning Winnipeg Blue Bombers visited Tyler Pelke in hospital after his nearly-fatal attack. (Tyler Pelke)

He went on to become a firefighter, working in Winnipeg, Calgary and now Red Deer — all the time, healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.

A turning point came when Pelke met Giesbrecht face-to-face in prison.

“I went for two reasons. One was to tell him I forgave him and two was to just talk through it and have a bit better of an understanding, maybe talk through some of the questions I had in my mind from that night.… Talk a little bit about his path and his journey where he thinks he was going at the time,” Pelke said.

WATCH | Pelke talks about meeting the man who tried to kill him, and his journey to forgiveness:

Tyler Pelke talk about meeting the man who tried to kill him, and his journey to forgiveness. 2:42

It was at that meeting that Giesbrecht accepted responsibility for what he had done, and Pelke found freedom in forgiving his attacker.

“I think forgiveness absolves me of carrying a burden and probably as an olive leaf or an olive branch towards a conversation. And you know, to be able to sit across from somebody and say, ‘I don’t hold this anymore.’ I don’t look in the mirror, you know, every day I could see the scars and be reminded everyday of things and instead, I choose to realize that I’ve gotten a second chance and Curtis didn’t.”

Pelke has become an inspirational speaker and victim’s rights advocate, telling his story to countless church groups, young people, burn survivors and emergency workers.

His life’s mission is to help people, particularly victims of crime.

Neither Giesbrecht nor his family could be reached for a comment and there’s no indication what his plans are.

People in Altona say they are taking comfort knowing one of the conditions of parole is that he can’t return to their community.

WATCH | Pelke talks about whether he thinks Giesbrecht poses a threat to society:

Tyler Pelke talk about whether he thinks Earl Giesbrecht poses a threat to society. 1:16

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