‘He left a suicide note... then murdered five schoolgirls’
Marie Monville, 43, had no idea what her husband was capable of
When I met Charlie at our local Protestant church, I was just 17 and he was 20. We lived in a rural town in Pennsylvania, USA, and I was immediately drawn to his gentle nature. We quickly fell in love, and in November 1996, we had a big, white wedding, surrounded by friends and family.
We were thrilled when I became pregnant the following spring, but our daughter was born at 26 weeks and only lived for 20 minutes. Losing her was devastating and Charlie would occasionally talk about his sadness, but he never truly opened up about his grief. “Men don’t talk about their feelings,” he’d say when I tried to talk to him about it.
We felt grateful to go on to have three more children – another daughter in 1999 and sons in 2001 and 2005. We had a normal, busy family life. Charlie worked hard as a milkman and was a great hands-on dad. I loved being a full-time mum, and although Charlie and I rarely had much time as a couple, we were happy. Where we lived, we had lots of neighbours who were Amish – a religious community who follow traditions from the 19th century. They mostly kept to themselves, but were always polite and friendly when we saw them. On the weekend of 30 September 2006, we took the kids to visit my parents who lived nearby. The weather was beautiful and we were all outside – with the kids playing and the adults eating and talking. It was a lovely day. Two days later, on 2 October, Charlie and I walked our eldest children to the bus stop to see them off to school. As Charlie kissed them goodbye, he told them he loved them. Afterwards,
Marie and husband Charlie had three children
I headed to a meeting, and Charlie said he had some work to do. I was distracted as we said goodbye – juggling our youngest son and a phone call. But I had no reason to suspect anything was bothering Charlie. He seemed completely normal.
Back home a few hours later, I was settling the baby for a nap when the phone rang. It was Charlie. Immediately, I knew there was something wrong. “There’s something I have to do,” he said, sounding cold. “Something you won’t understand.” Convinced Charlie was going to harm himself, I pleaded with him not to do it. “Tell our family I love them,” he replied, flatly. Finally, he said that he’d left me a note on the dresser. Then he was gone. I was in complete shock and confusion.
I grabbed the note from Charlie telling me how much he loved me and how he thought that he wasn’t worthy of me. He wrote about the pain he felt from losing our daughter and the unimaginable emptiness he felt. I called the police, praying that they could find him before he killed himself. I also called my mum and asked her to pick up the children from school and take them to her house. Then all I could do was wait.
About 30 minutes later, I heard sirens and saw a helicopter overhead and I felt sick. After the longest half hour of my life, the police were at my door. “Is this about Charlie?” I managed to ask. “Yes,” the officer said. “Is he dead?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. But my nightmare was just beginning.
The police explained how Charlie had driven to an Amish schoolhouse a mile from our house, taking weapons with him. After he got there, he’d forced the boys and the teacher out and locked all ten girls inside with him. Then he shot the girls, leaving half of them wounded, the other half dead. Finally, Charlie shot himself dead. Horror flooded through me. How could my loving husband, devoted father to our children, have done this to these innocent children?
On autopilot, I managed to get the baby in the car and drive to my parents’ house. There, I sat the kids
‘I was in complete shock’
down and told them Daddy made some very bad choices, and that some people died, and he died, too. They were in a state of shock, and so was I, but I had to try to be strong for them. Over the next few hours, we had streams of visitors and phone calls. No one could understand how or why Charlie could have committed such a horrific act – least of all me.
Then a group of Amish men approached the house. I knew their community was facing the deepest grief, and it was all because of my husband. My dad went out to meet them, and I couldn’t hear the words they were saying, but I could see one of the men lay their hands on my dad’s shoulder. Then I saw all of them cry as they embraced. Back inside, my dad explained that the men had come to offer their support to our family. They wanted us to know that they had forgiven Charlie and were extending their compassion. I was overwhelmed by their kindness.
The story was all over the TV and newspapers, and at Charlie’s funeral five days later, I knew the media spotlight would be shining fiercely on me and the kids. I didn’t want our grief to be on display to the world, which is when the Amish community did another extraordinary thing. Despite believing that being photographed violates the Ten Commandments, they lined up and shielded us from the photographers. It was an incredible gesture.
In the weeks and months that followed, I spoke to several of the victims’ families and visited one of the injured girls in hospital. She had suffered brain damage and other injuries as a result of the shooting. Yet, despite their own anguish, her parents were so caring towards me.
Living in a small town, I had to endure endless whispers and stares, and I carried the heavy weight of shame and guilt. “Should I have spotted something wrong with Charlie?” I’d ask myself. “Could I have known?” I had counselling and my psychologist’s view was that, most likely, Charlie had had a psychotic break from wellhidden depression. He’d obviously been very unwell, and I knew it was crucial to find forgiveness for Charlie and to start rebuilding my life.
In January 2007, I met Dan. He was a kind and considerate man, who was supportive of me and the kids as we tried to move forward and heal. We fell in love and married the following May. In 2007, we moved to a different house, not far from my old place. I still go back to visit and spend time with the community that supported me despite their own grief. The girl who suffered brain damage has done better than doctors predicted, which
I am so thankful for.
I will never forget what happened that day, and even though it hasn’t been easy, I have also forgiven Charlie. In their darkest days, my neighbours, whose lives changed forever, chose compassion and forgiveness – that inspires me every single day.
● One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond The Shadow Of The Amish Schoolhouse Shooting by Marie Monville, is out now