Roberta Roper had just gotten word in the spring of 1982 that the body of her missing daughter had been found in St. Mary’s County, when a church youth group moderator showed up at her door in Prince George’s County with a clipboard and plans for a Stephanie Roper Family Resource Committee.
That community support helped sustain the Roper family through the police investigation and trials that followed. Their experience with the criminal justice system sparked a victims’ rights movement that changed Maryland law and the way business is conducted in courtrooms throughout the state.
Stephanie Roper, 22, disappeared 30 years ago next Tuesday, April 3. A tip to police in St. Mary’s about a week later led them to a swamp in Oakville and to the arrest of two suspects, including a teenage boy. Both were charged as adults and wound up receiving life sentences in prison for murder.
But because the possibility of parole remained, a life sentence didn’t guarantee the murderers would never leave prison. This pained the slain woman’s parents, who suffered the further indignity of not being allowed in the courtroom during the suspects’ trials.
Roberta Roper and her husband, Vincent, started the Stephanie Roper Committee, which now carries on its mission as the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. During the past three decades, their work has brought victim impact statements to sentencing proceedings, and a victims’ rights amendment to the state constitution. Crime victims or victims’ survivors now can demand notification of all proceedings in a suspect’s case, and the work continues.
From the onset, Roberta Roper said she was bombarded with media requests and documentary proposals that were “too painful to even think about,” but after giving countless interviews throughout the years and taking part in a “well-done” HBO documentary, she is writing a book, particularly to leave a record of all that has happened for her surviving children and grandchildren.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to do it at all,” Roper said this week at the center’s office in Upper Marlboro, where most of the walls are covered with photographs of homicide victims whose families have been assisted by the group. “If this [book] was going to be done,” she said, “I felt I had to do it.”
Roper said her daughter’s killers were brought to court at a time when witnesses were “pieces of evidence that were used and discarded,” and that the couple’s determination to change the system quickly drew widespread attention, if not financial resources. “We started with bake sales and very small fundraising efforts,” she said.
A counselor seeking a doctorate degree became interested in the group and wound up training its members to be facilitators for peer support groups, a service that continues.
The state’s legislative chambers and courtrooms posed a bigger challenge, and Roper said ensuring that county prosecutors continue to adhere to mandated changes, in a transition from the “dark ages” to a “more enlightened era” for victims, still requires vigilance.
“As good as a particular jurisdiction might be, that all changes with the next election,” she said. “It’s a constant task of re-educating. We’re not asking you to do anything heroic. Just follow the law.”
Roper said Prince George’s legislators became the primary sponsors of the committee’s initiatives from “day one,” and that the effort moved the idea of victims’ rights from “a foreign concept” to reality.
“Judges would come down and say we were creating a monster,” she said, but they “are now applauding it.”
Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles) said this week that Roper was a “phenomenal presence” in Annapolis. “It wouldn’t have happened without her,” he said. “She in a very positive way worked very hard for changes in Maryland law. She deserves a majority of the credit.”
Roper said the randomness of crime like the abduction and murder of her daughter underscores the vulnerability that all people share, and that how one deals with the emotions and the aftermath are important. The photos on the meeting room’s walls include one of Roper’s teenage grandchildren, killed eight years ago while riding with a drunk driver.
“Anger is not a bad thing, if you channel it into positive action,” she said. “They [the survivors] still have to face the reality that their loved ones are gone forever. They become family to each other, when the rest of the world turns its back on you and expects you to get better.”
In 2002, Roper stepped down as executive director of the foundation, and became chairperson of the board of the new resource center. Her daughter’s artwork remains on one of the walls in the meeting room, as the work continues on proposals including enforcement of victims’ rights at criminals’ post-trial reconsideration hearings.
“She leads us,” Roper said. “It’s a tribute to her.”
Jack Ronald Jones, the older assailant in the 1982 murder, took his own life in prison a couple years ago, Roper said, and Jerry Lee Beatty, now in his late 40s, is in a prison facility in Hagerstown. “They don’t control our lives,” she said. “If one wants to call that forgiveness.”
Five years ago, Roper visited the area where her daughter was brought to St. Mary’s, raped and murdered. She was accompanied by two retired troopers from the Maryland State Police.
“She said she was ready to visit the site,” retired police Sgt. Joseph Caspar said this week. “I didn’t ask why. I didn’t need to know why. She wanted to know as much information as we could give her. I think it helped.”
Roper said this week, “I’m glad I had done that. There’s some sense of resolution, some sense of finality. There’s never any closure, [but] I met peace. I can accept this.”