Man convicted of murder in killing of prep football coach

Man convicted of murder in killing of prep football coach

Published Mar. 2, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

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."