Jury Convicts Iowa Man in Killing of Beloved High School Football Coach

by

March 2, 2010

ALLISON, Iowa — Mark Becker stood
passively Tuesday as a jury found him guilty of murder in the shooting
of a nationally known Iowa high school football coach.

He seemed far removed from the man whose mind
was filled with images of angels and horned demons who lurked in the
shadows of every room, telling him that the community was plotting
against him and that Aplington-Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas — known for
his winning record and town leadership — was Satan.

Becker, 24, had explained to psychiatrists that
after months of torment, he shot Thomas at least six times in the high
school weight room, then kicked his body before walking away.

Jurors deliberated more than 24 hours over four
days before convicting Becker of first-degree murder, rejecting his
plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The guilty verdict carries a
mandatory life-in-prison sentence.

Minutes after the verdict was read, Becker's
mother, Joan, comforted a crying relative sitting behind her.

"It's OK," Joan Becker said. "Just pray he gets
the right medication."

Details of Becker's mental state emerged during
the 14-day trial held in tiny Allison, about 150 miles northeast of Des
Moines.

Jurors heard from defense attorneys that
Becker's delusions were so severe that he didn't know right from wrong
when he shot Thomas. Psychiatrists testified Becker believed invisible
forces were pushing down on his eyes. Police interrogation videos showed
him sitting alone, speaking to no one, swatting at the air.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Becker suffered
from a mental illness, but said that he also coldly calculated the
killing, taking practice shots with the .22-caliber pistol he used to
kill Thomas and lying to people in his search for the coach.

After the verdict, the Thomas and Becker
families — who attend the same Parkersburg church — said they would pray
for each other. But they took away different lessons from a system that
couldn't help Becker but ultimately succeeded in convicting Thomas'
killer.

Joan Becker said the mental health support
system in Parkersburg and Butler County failed her son. A psychiatrist
in a Waterloo hospital agreed to his release just days after he was
hospitalized following a violent incident and arrest. Police weren't
notified when he was let out of the psychiatric unit.

"Ed Thomas was a victim of a victim," she
said. "Although Mark and we as his parents attempted to go through all
the proper channels to get Mark the mental health treatment he
desperately needed, the system failed miserably."

Thomas' son, Aaron, said both families have
only begun to grieve, and the conviction wouldn't change that. But he
said the justice system did what was necessary.

"We do want to recognize that there truly are
no winners in this case, but the system worked," he said.

The question of why Becker's delusions focused
on Thomas remains unanswered. Thomas last coached Becker some six years
before the shooting and Becker had spent significant time away from
Parkersburg.

Thomas amassed a 292-84 record and two state
titles in 37 seasons as a head coach — 34 of them at
Aplington-Parkersburg High School — and coached four players who have
played in the NFL. He also was a leader in rebuilding Parkersburg after
nearly one-third of the 1,800-person town was wiped out in May 2008 by a
tornado that killed six people.

Defense psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, of
Cleveland, said Becker believed Satan had possessed Thomas and that he
was doing the community a favor — and freeing Parkersburg's children —
by killing the coach.

Resnick and others who interviewed Becker
about his mental status said Becker suffered from such intense delusions
that he incorrectly believed Thomas and the members of Becker's old
football team were sexually assaulting him, and that Thomas was trying
to make Becker into a "sex slave."

Maryland-based psychiatrist Michael Spodak,
testifying for the prosecution, agreed Becker suffered from severe
mental problems, including paranoid schizophrenia, but said he still
understood right and wrong. Spodak said Becker took rational measures to
avoid detection on the morning of the shooting: He hid his gun while he
was driving, told passersby that he was searching for Thomas in order
to volunteer for the city's tornado relief efforts and made it a point
to avoid shooting the teenagers in the weight room.

While supporting the jury's verdict, Aaron
Thomas said both families still are reeling more than eight months after
the killing.

"Our family is not over anything," he said.
"The Becker family is not over anything."

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