Melissa Gibson meets the man who killed her family when she was a 10-year-old missionary girl.
On December 23, 2003, I received a call from the General Conference informing me that a missionary family had been murdered on the island of Palau. Only a 10-year-old girl had survived. I was asked to go and provide care for her and support for the local church community.
I flew from Michigan, United States, on Christmas morning, praying throughout the long journey that Melissa would experience the healing presence of Jesus. Although I was trained to treat the impact of trauma, I had never before encountered trauma of this magnitude, particularly in one so young. My prayer was that God would protect Melissa from the impact of all that she had experienced.
When I landed in Palau, I was taken to meet Melissa at the Koror Seventh-day Adventist Church, the church that her father had pastored. She was a beautiful child—petite with dark brown hair and fine facial features. Although she was quiet, her demeanor didn’t reflect what she had experienced in the previous few days.
New home in the Pacific
Back in June 2002, Melissa’s parents, Ruimar and Margareth DePaiva, accepted a call to serve as missionaries in the Republic of Palau, an island country located in the western Pacific Ocean. The family adjusted quickly to their new life. They made friends easily and became part of the local community.
Ruimar was responsible for coordinating the Adventist work on the island, and Margareth taught at the academy. They both played a very nurturing role in the lives of the student missionaries who worked at the school and often invited them to their home. Melissa remembers that her mother loved to cook and host large groups of people from the church.
Their home was outside the city on the road leading to the academy. The only other house close by belonged to the principal, but it was being remodeled, so no one lived in it. Each day, numerous construction workers passed by the DePaivas’ home on their way to work on the structure.
Melissa loved Christmas, and on the evening of December 21, the sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday filled the DePaiva home. The tree had been put up early, and now there were presents under it, not just for Melissa and her older brother, Larisson, but also for the student missionaries. Margareth began preparing food well ahead of time for the many guests who would join them for the holiday. Their home smelled of freshly baked bread and pastries, and their refrigerator was full of wonderful Brazilian food.
Ruimar had been away at meetings in Guam. He was an accomplished pianist and enjoyed playing, so after a meal together, his playing filled the home with beautiful Christmas music. Melissa remembers her mother playing a board game with her and Larisson before they had to go to bed. The following day would be Ruimar and Margareth’s 15th wedding anniversary. Melissa smiles as she recalls telling her parents that she would sleep with them as an anniversary present. She fondly remembers her parents tucking her into their bed and her father singing her to sleep. He then returned to finish a project before coming to bed himself.
As the family slept that night, an intruder entered their home through the kitchen window around three o’clock in the morning. He was one of the construction workers who had been working on the principal’s house. Melissa awoke to find both parents out of bed and heard a terrible noise in the hallway.
During the next few minutes, the man murdered Melissa’s parents and brother and then tied her up and put her in his trunk. He told her that she was now his property and drove away with her. The following day, he left her alone in the house while he went to work. But that evening, beginning to fear discovery, he took her to a remote part of the island, strangled her, and threw her into a ravine.
News of the event reverberated around the world: The murder of a missionary family. Three caskets. The people of Palau’s shame and remorse for what happened in their country. The president’s public apology. The queen, a member of the Koror Seventh-day Adventist Church, attending the national funeral.
Life back in the United States
Understanding the importance of giving Melissa a sense of home and belonging, her paternal grandparents, Itamar and Ruth DePaiva, brought her back to Michigan, United States, where she and her family had lived before going to Palau.
Her mother’s parents, Pastor José and Marina Ottoni, came from Brazil and stayed for several months to be with her. Melissa understood that she couldn’t continue living in Palau, but she hadn’t wanted to leave her home there. She said that one day she would return.
A year and a half later, the DePaivas moved to Texas, where Melissa graduated from grade school, then academy, and then college. In July 2016, she married Michael Gibson. She graduated with a nursing degree from Southwestern Adventist University, and Michael graduated with a theology degree. A few weeks after their wedding, they moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, where he attended Andrews Theological Seminary and she worked as a nurse.
Heart changes in prison
A few months before Melissa and Michael’s wedding, I had the privilege of meeting Pastor Tiago Cunha and his wife, Claudia, in Thailand during a cross-cultural missionary training event. Originally from Portugal, Pastor Cunha was serving as the senior pastor of the Koror Seventh-day Adventist Church in Palau. Soon after beginning his ministry there, he had felt impressed to participate in the church’s prison ministry program, which had been started by Melissa's father.
Not long after entering the prison, Pastor Cunha met Justin, the man who had murdered the DePaiva family. Justin was a hardened criminal serving three life sentences without parole. Nonetheless, it was clear that God was working in his heart. Fifteen years earlier, Ruth DePaiva had visited him in prison. “Because of Jesus, I want you to know that we forgive you,” she told him. “We want to see you in heaven one day with our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson.” Ruth’s words played over and over in Justin’s mind during the subsequent years, and the Holy Spirit used them to penetrate his heart. Melissa’s grandparents prayed for Justin through the years and provided him with Christian literature. He read those books, and they helped change his life.
At the meetings in Thailand, Pastor Cunha told me that he had studied the Bible with Justin and heard his confession and repentance for what he had done that fateful night. “He’ll be ready for baptism soon,” he said. Later, when the baptism took place, I was able to personally convey the news to Melissa.
Knowing that Melissa wanted to return to Palau, in 2018 I arranged for Pastor Cunha and his family to travel to Michigan to meet Melissa and her husband and to begin to plan their trip.
Pastor Cunha shared with Melissa that her return was important to the people of Palau. He said that Justin’s baptism had awakened, in the hearts of many people, memories of what had taken place on their island. Melissa would return as a missionary, not just as a visitor. She and Michael would do a week of prayer at the church where Melissa’s father had pastored.
Itamar and Ruth DePaiva also planned to make the trip. Now in their 80s, they had just returned from mission service in Taiwan. Ruth was recovering from a hip fracture and facing a second surgery to address painful complications from the initial one. This created concern about her pace of recovery and her ability to travel. My husband, Loren, had been Ruth and Itamar’s physician for many years. It was decided that he and I would accompany them on the trip to provide the physical and emotional support they would need.
A journey to healing
The journey back to Palau began in late November 2018. The first stop was Guam, for the Adventist community there had been strongly impacted by what had happened in Palau. While there, Melissa, Ruth, and I participated in a seminar on the power of forgiveness and God’s ability to heal. Many church members were touched by the testimonies Melissa and Ruth shared. As Ruth talked about the freedom that she and her family had experienced because they had chosen to forgive Justin, one woman stood up and said, “This kind of forgiveness seems impossible to most people. How does one learn to forgive the way you have forgiven?”
Ruth responded, “It’s impossible from a human perspective. The goal is not to ‘try’ to forgive but to open one’s heart to the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit and allow Him to forgive through you.”
Royal welcome in Palau
On Sunday evening, we traveled from Guam to Palau, where Melissa was greeted at the airport by a group of people whom her family had grown to love during their months on the island. As they placed fresh flower leis around Melissa’s neck, tears came to her eyes.
Among those who had come to greet her was Queen Bilung Gloria Salii, who had organized the reception. Back in 2003, she had provided Melissa with loving support at the moment she needed it most.
After being tossed into the ravine and left for dead, Melissa had regained consciousness and crawled out. Weakened by all that had happened and the lack of food and water, she was too faint to stand. An elderly couple driving by saw Melissa on the side of the road and brought her home to give her something to eat and drink. On hearing her story, they took her to the police and the hospital. Within a short time, news of Melissa’s survival reached the queen, and she came immediately to her bedside, providing a loving, protective presence until her grandmother arrived.
Reconnecting with the past
The queen and other close friends had carefully planned meetings and events for Melissa to attend that would be meaningful to her. One of the meetings they planned was with the president, Tommy Remengesau, who had spoken at her family’s funeral. He told Melissa that her life and return to Palau were the greatest sermon ever preached in his country on the power of forgiveness and the healing power of God’s grace.
The queen showed Melissa and Michael around the island and brought them to her home. She also took them to the place where Melissa had been strangled and thrown into a ravine. Back in 2003, the queen had commemorated the miracle of Melissa’s survival by planting two coconut trees to mark the spot where she had been found. Melissa said that it was very meaningful to her to have the queen take her there; to see the beautiful, tall, coconut trees that she had planted; and to share the experience with Michael.
Melissa’s heart was moved as she reconnected with so many of the people and places that she loved. But she also encountered people and places that stirred memories of the tragic events of the past.
Melissa went back into the home where her family had lived and died. She was last there as a 10-year-old child. She entered the home now as a young woman with her husband by her side. Although there were tears, her heart was also filled with gratitude for all that God had done for her and the fact that she would see her parents and brother again one day.
Restoration in sharing
Before arriving in Palau, Melissa wasn’t sure how much she wanted to share concerning her painful childhood experience. However, each evening as she experienced the love and support of the people, she began to share more and more of her story. One evening, after Michael had preached a sermon about trust, Melissa shared that she was not alone that day while locked up in Justin’s house. Like Daniel in the lions’ den or the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, Jesus was with her. She said she felt His presence, and it brought her peace and calm.
When asked how she reconciled His presence in light of all that happened to her and her family, Melissa acknowledged that this is one of the most difficult questions there is for any Christian to answer. While we live in a world where sin and death reign, and there is an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil, she said there are three possible answers to that question.
First, God allows it in order to bring some greater good out of it for us. Second, He allows it to bring some greater good out of it for someone else. Third, things happen for reasons beyond our understanding. In our finiteness as human beings, we can’t know why things like this happen, but we can trust that God has a plan for us, nonetheless. She shared from her own personal experience that in spite of all that happened, He has provided for her and protected her physically and emotionally from the long-term impact of these traumatic events.
On our last Sabbath afternoon in Palau, Melissa participated in a special session about how God is particularly close to those who suffer. As she shared some of her story, many in the congregation were inspired by God’s grace in Melissa’s life and how He has used her and her grandparents to inspire others to faith.
Meeting the murderer
God’s grace is a powerful force to heal and restore what is lost and broken. It’s been two years since Justin gave his heart to Jesus in full surrender and was baptized. Since then, he has shared his testimony freely with all those in the prison who would listen. His life is a testimony to the saving power of the cross. He has been instrumental in leading two other prisoners into a saving relationship with Jesus, and he built the baptismal tank in the prison that was used for their baptisms.
Even though Justin wrote letters of apology to Melissa and her grandparents prior to his baptism, he hoped that one day he would be able apologize in person and to thank them for their books and prayers. Prior to arriving in Palau, Melissa didn’t want to visit Justin in prison. When she arrived, however, a desire began to grow in her heart to visit the man whom God had transformed. After the Sabbath afternoon session, a small group of us made our way to the prison.
Entering the room that had been set aside for our meeting with Justin was almost a surreal experience. The man who had murdered her family stood behind the table with his hands folded behind his back. He spoke first. He expressed his profound remorse for his actions. He expressed his desire to see Ruimar, Margareth, and Larisson in heaven and personally apologize to them for what he had done. He expressed his love for our Savior and his desire to live faithfully to His calling in this life.
Ruth spoke next. She recalled their meeting 15 years earlier. She was thankful for his acceptance of Jesus and encouraged him to continue studying the Bible and growing in his relationship with the Lord. Itamar spoke next. As a true pastor, he encouraged Justin in his walk with God.
Then Melissa spoke. She had not planned to speak before we entered. With tears streaming down her face, she said, “Justin, we are all the same in God’s sight. We are no better than you are. We are all in need of God’s saving grace in our lives. I want to see you in heaven one day with my parents and my brother.”
That day, we were witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform a life that the enemy of our souls had claimed as his own. Although Justin will spend the rest of his life in prison, he is a free man. He is a witness to the power of the gospel to all of us.
Melissa spoke a profound truth that evening, not just to Justin but to each of us. It’s easy to see that Justin needs a Savior and marvel that God can transform and save someone like him. It’s easy to see our sins as not so bad. Melissa recognized, however, that we are all sinners in God’s sight. We are all equally in need of a savior. God’s ability to save us is just as miraculous as His ability to save Justin. All heaven rejoices when any one of us comes to Jesus. We can praise Him for His marvelous gift of salvation and willingness to live and die for Justin, Melissa, and each one of us.
Adapted with permission from Ann Hamel’s original story, “Return to Palau.” To read the full version, visit adventistmission.org/return-to-palau-a-journey-of-healing-and-restoration.
To watch Pastor Ted Wilson's interview with Melissa, visit revivalformission.tv.
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