ALLISON, Iowa – A jury found an Iowa man guilty Tuesday of first-degree murder in the shooting of a nationally known high school football coach.
It took the jury 24 hours over four days to reach its decision, finding Mark Becker, 24, guilty in the June 24, 2009, killing of Aplington-Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas.
Becker gunned down Thomas, 58, in the school's makeshift weight room in front of students, shooting him at least six times before walking away. Becker told police that Thomas was Satan and that the coach had been tormenting him.
Thomas' son, Aaron, said he was happy with the verdict but that Becker's conviction wouldn't ease the pain of losing his father.
"It's not that we feel better or safer. Nothing that happened is going to bring my dad back," Aaron Thomas said. "Our family is not over anything. The Becker family is not over anything."
The shooting was especially shocking to Parkersburg residents because Thomas was known both for producing winning teams and for leading the community.
He amassed a 292-84 record and two state titles in 37 seasons as a head coach — 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg — 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.
Referring both to the conviction and to her son's struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, Becker's mother, Joan, said the past few years have been heartbreaking.
"The last weeks, months and years have been extremely difficult for our family to bear," Joan Becker said, clasping her husband's and son Scott's hands.
Joan Becker said the "system failed miserably" when her family sought help for Mark Becker's mental illness.
"Ed Thomas was a victim of a victim," she said. "Our sorrow runs very deep for the family of Ed Thomas and for our church family ... but most of all for our son, Mark, who we love so very much."
A conviction of first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence in Iowa, which doesn't have the death penalty. Becker's appeal on the conviction is automatic.
Iowa District Court Judge Stephen Carroll scheduled sentencing for April 14.
The trial largely centered on Becker's mental status on the day of the shooting. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Becker shot Thomas and that Becker suffered from paranoid schizophrenia that caused him to have intense hallucinations and delusions.
But prosecutors Scott Brown and Andy Prosser repeatedly argued that that mental illness was not equal to insanity.
The defense, represented by public defenders Susan Flander and Derek Jones, countered with witnesses who testified that Becker didn't understand what he was doing and couldn't distinguish right from wrong.
Aaron Thomas said he hopes his hometown can finally return to normal.
"Hopefully now we can be Parkersburg, a place without media, a place without cameras," he said.
It became clear during seven days of testimony that the killing could have been prevented, or at least postponed, if Becker hadn't been released from the psychiatric ward of a Waterloo hospital. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward — his third hospitalization in eight months — on June 20 after he allegedly broke out the windows of a Cedar Falls man's house and accused the man of trying to hypnotize him.
Becker then led police on a chase that reached speeds of 90 mph before he hit a deer and surrendered to Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson.
He was released from the hospital on June 23, and the next morning he drove to the high school and killed Thomas.
Minutes after the verdict was read, Joan Becker comforted a crying relative sitting two rows behind her.
"It's OK," Joan Becker said. "Just pray he gets the right medication."
The issue of Becker's sanity took up the last two days of testimony, as the defense and prosecution introduced competing witnesses. 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, hired by 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.