The long road to peace

Phil Sturholm. Photo: Stephen Brashear Phil Sturholm. Photo: Stephen Brashear

After a grisly crime, the desire for vengeance threatened to consume Phil Sturholm

Phil Sturholm and his family enter a cafeteria-like room at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, coming face to face, for the first time in nearly 20 years, with the man who brutally murdered Phil’s brother.

William Pawlyk, a former naval officer, is visibly shaking in his khaki prison uniform, but he crosses the room to meet his victim’s brother. After a moment’s hesitation, the two men clasp hands. “I’m so thankful that you came,” Pawlyk says, tears gathering in his eyes.

“Well, I’m very thankful to be here,” Sturholm replies with a smile.

William Pawlyk’s crime the evening of July 31, 1989, was almost unthinkably gruesome.

Apparently believing he was the jilted corner of a love triangle, Pawlyk laid in wait with a hunting knife for Larry Sturholm, a popular personality on KIRO-TV in Seattle, and nurse Debra Sweiger in her home near Issaquah. When they arrived — first Sturholm, then Sweiger — Pawlyk stabbed them each more than 100 times, then tried to kill himself.

Joe Purcell, the lead detective on the case for the then-King County Police Department, recalled that among the officers who investigated the double homicide, “none of us had ever seen a scene with that amount of blood.”

The Sturholm brothers had been close — they even worked together at KIRO — and Phil’s response to Larry’s murder was fury, and a thirst for revenge.

“My hate for Mr. Pawlyk was outrageous,” he said, “and I tried everything in my power to get public sympathy … for a death penalty. Period.”

When Pawlyk was arraigned, Phil made sure to be at the courthouse. He glared through a viewing window, hoping his brother’s killer would see the rage in his eyes.

“Had there not been glass, I think my father would have hurt Pawlyk, if not killed him,” said Phil’s daughter, Suzan Sturholm-Gamba. “We were really worried about my dad for about a good two years, until after the trial.”

Pawlyk at trial
William Pawlyk was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder for the 1989 stabbing deaths of Larry Sturholm and Debra Sweiger. Photo: Courtesy KIRO-TV

The trial ended in 1991, and Pawlyk was sentenced to life in prison. Through his attorney, he offered to meet with Phil and his wife, Janet, to answer any questions they might have. They spoke through glass at the King County Jail.

Phil had questions about the final moments of Larry’s life, but Pawlyk didn’t have many answers. “He just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He didn’t deserve to die. This is terrible,’” Phil recalled.

Seeing Pawlyk’s remorse had an effect on Phil. “From that moment on, my hate then left,” he said. “It still didn’t deliver me from [my desire for] the death penalty, but at least I no longer hated him.”

Phil wasn’t Catholic, but Janet was, and they attended St. Brendan Parish in Bothell together. At the jail, when Janet got her chance to speak to Pawlyk, a fellow Catholic, she quoted the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“We’re all sinners,” she explained. “How could I ask for forgiveness if I can’t give forgiveness?”

But Phil was adamant: While he didn’t hate Pawlyk anymore, he could certainly never forgive him.

In the years that followed, the question of forgiveness gnawed at Phil. In the fall of 2010, he decided to take St. Brendan’s pastor, Father Jim Northrop, out for lunch “and see if I can’t figure out what this forgiveness thing is all about,” he said.

Over lunch, Phil recalled, Father Northrop “was telling me what forgiveness was and what it really means, and when I told him, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ he just looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean? You’ve already done it. I don’t know what you can call it, but you’ve already done it.’”

Phil’s lack of desire for revenge put him a lot further along the road of forgiveness than many people, Father Northrop explained. Forgiveness is “a process,” he added, “and one day might be better than another. … God is very patient, and if you desire in your heart to work through this, he will give you the grace and help you do it.”

But to have a real sense of peace, Phil still needed some questions answered — he wanted to meet with Pawlyk again. It just so happened that St. Brendan’s pastoral associate, Linda Haptonstall, had been ministering to Catholics at Monroe for years and was acquainted with William Pawlyk. Father Northrop suggested Phil talk to her.

Haptonstall was initially hesitant to get involved. What Phil was requesting was unusual for a reason. “In most cases, those kinds of meetings turn out terrible,” she said.

But after speaking with Pawlyk and the Sturholm family, she felt comfortable proposing the meeting to the prison superintendent and got approval to facilitate it. 

Phil’s main goal in meeting with Pawlyk was to settle a question that had been haunting him for years: What were his brother’s final words? Had he said anything to provoke Pawlyk’s attack?

The rest of the family went along to Monroe on Jan. 10, 2011, to support Phil. But while Janet and Suzan had long since forgiven Pawlyk, Phil’s son, Phil David Sturholm, was still seething with anger toward the man who killed his uncle.

William Pawlyk was nervous to meet with the Sturholms, but saw it as his duty. “I’ve always felt that I owed them, that I was obligated to them, to answer their questions and to see what I could do” to help them heal, he said in a phone interview.

Brothers filming the news
Larry Sturholm was an award-winning reporter for KIRO-TV in Seattle. His brother, Phil (right), worked behind the camera. Photo: Courtesy Phil Sturholm

As his victim’s family entered the prison’s visitation room, Pawlyk trembled with a mixture of “overwhelming grief” and fear, not knowing whether they would be hostile.

“I wasn’t quite sure what their attitude was, but … if they wanted to slap me in the face or spit in my face, I felt I was obligated to take their wrath or whatever their feelings were,” he said.

The hour-long meeting was not quite what anyone anticipated. Pawlyk tried to answer all of Phil’s questions, but when it came to the biggest one, he drew a blank — he just couldn’t remember what Larry had said the night of the murder. And the Sturholms did not rage at Pawlyk — in fact, he said, they were “very open and extremely kind.” There were tears on both sides.

Sitting across the table from Pawlyk, Phil David remained angry throughout the meeting. But toward the end he spoke up, and surprised everyone. After learning that Pawlyk had been estranged from his two children since the murders, Phil David said he would like to help reach out to them and encourage them to contact their father.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Haptonstall said.

Phil David’s anger toward Pawlyk remained, his family said, but that moment was a breakthrough.

In the end, the meeting turned out better than anyone expected. “It wasn’t something I really wanted to do,” Janet said. “But it had to happen. My family needed it, and the Holy Spirit was working.”

Though the Sturholms didn’t get all their questions answered, the meeting provided a sense of closure around the event that had forever changed their lives.

And for Pawlyk, the Sturholms’ kindness “reaffirmed humanity even to a person who did something that was very inhumane,” he said.

In her interactions with the two men since that meeting three years ago, Haptonstall said, both Phil and Pawlyk seem to be more at peace — Pawlyk because he was able to give something back to the Sturholms by answering their questions, and Phil because he has finally been able to move on.

“In our faith, we’re often told to forgive, but we’re never told how,” Haptonstall said. “And I think we’re not told how because it is a process that each of us has to approach in the way that God calls us to approach it.”

The meeting at Monroe had another profound, if indirect, outcome: Phil’s sense that “somehow God was moving in this thing” played a part in his decision to become Catholic. After more than 50 years of attending Mass with his wife, children and grandchildren, he received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion in February 2013.

Phil has been a fixture at St. Brendan’s 8 a.m. Sunday Mass for so long that many people assumed he was already Catholic. But since making the leap, Phil feels like he’s finally “part of the parish now.”

For Janet, her husband’s decision to become Catholic was the answer to a lifetime of prayers. She had often warned Phil that he better not try to get away with a deathbed conversion.

“It took me about three or four Masses after his baptism to not cry when we went to Communion,” she said.

NORTHWEST CATHOLIC – March 2014

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the assistant editor of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.