News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

January 30, 2014

Editorial: Hollandsburg’s special legacy

Shootings survivor remains an inspiration

TERRE HAUTE — The death this week of prison inmate Roger Drollinger at age 60 at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle undoubtedly brings back a flood of emotions to those who lived in west-central Indiana during February of 1977.

That’s when Drollinger and three other men from Montgomery County randomly invaded the rural Parke County home of Betty Jane and Keith Spencer. Their only purpose was to kill everyone inside.

Keith was not at the home near Hollandsburg that night. But Betty Jane, her son Greg Brooks, 22, and stepsons Raymond Spencer, 17, Reeve Spencer, 16, and Ralph Spencer, 13, were. Drollinger and his gang, toting sawed-off shotguns, taunted and tortured the family for almost an hour before they forced them to lie face down on the floor and began shooting. Police later termed their actions a “thrill-killing.”

The four boys died in the fusillade. But Betty Jane survived. The wig she was wearing was blown partly off her head by a shotgun blast, and the perpetrators thought she was dead. When they left, she sought help from a neighbor, who called police.

Betty provided the information needed for police investigators to eventually capture four suspects. She fingered Drollinger as the ringleader. Her brave testimony led to the convictions and life sentences for all four. They were spared harsher punishment because Indiana did not have a death penalty statute at the time.

The horrific crime unleashed fear and outrage around the region, state and nation. But rather than dwell on the impact of these evil acts, it’s more fitting to reflect on the legacy created by the lone survivor, Betty Jane Spencer.

Spencer’s life after 1977 represented a triumph of the human spirit and became a testament to courage and an inspiration to others.

As she tried to piece her life back together, she became an advocate for crime victims. She founded the Protect the Innocent Foundation in 1985 and became its director. In that role, she offered herself as support for crime victims as they prepared to testify against their assailants. She was also the first Parke County victim assistant. Later, she worked for the then-new organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving in both Florida and Georgia. Her efforts made her a popular speaker and lobbyist for victims’ rights. She won numerous awards, three of which were presented to her by President Ronald Reagan.

Spencer died in 2004, revered by many who saw her as an American hero.

As time goes by, there will be more instances when Hollandsburg is again in the news. When that happens, let us always seize the opportunity to remember, first and foremost, the special legacy of Betty Jane Spencer.

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