Blood Burden

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN MARCH 1975, A JURY IN CHENANGO County, N.Y., presented with overwhelming evidence and a confession, found Stephen Pierce, 20, guilty of murdering 16-year-old Wendy Cooper during a rape attempt. His half sister Bonnie Campbell traveled from her new home in Iowa for the trial and testified as a character witness in Pierce's behalf. Pierce was sentenced to 25-years-to-life.

Twenty years later, Stephen Pierce, up for parole in 1999, is serving his time in Upstate New York. Bonnie Campbell, by contrast, has gone on to a remarkable life. In March, President Clinton named her the first director of the Justice Department's Violence Against Women office.

"In a sense," says Campbell, now 47, "I suppose you could call it making amends. While I had nothing to do with Stephen's crime, it left a permanent scar on me."

As the head of the new office, Campbell will oversee a budget of $1.6 billion during the next six years to bolster police and prosecutorial work on domestic and sexual-violence cases and create prevention and victim-services programs. "The O.J. Simpson trial put a very bright light on domestic violence," she says, "and that may be the only good thing that has come out of this tragedy."

And President Clinton, at a White House ceremony designating October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, said: "This is not just a woman's problem. This is a children's problem, and it's a man's problem."

Campbell's own family was hardly a model of harmony. Born in Norwich, N.Y., some 40 miles north of Binghamton, she was 4 years old when her father left his wife and two children. Her mother, Helen, who later had three more children, including Stephen, by a married man, took a job as a night-shift drill-press operator at a factory. By this time the family was living on their grandparents' farm nine miles away. After milking cows before school, says Campbell, "I used to rub my skin until it was nearly raw to make sure I didn't smell like a barn."

A good student, she was startled when a counselor suggested she consider going to college because no one in her family had graduated from high school. "My mother's dream was that I wouldn't work in a factory," she says. Instead, Campbell, who had scored well on a civil-service test, landed a job at 17 in Washington as a clerk-stenographer in the newly formed Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The allure of having a paycheck and going to Washington won out over going to college," she says.

After working in two congressional staff jobs—for Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and Sen. Harold Hughes CD-Iowa)—she moved to Iowa to be near Ed Campbell, whom she had started dating in 1973 when they worked for Hughes. In Iowa they worked on Democrat John Culver's U.S. Senate campaign. But even as her career took her far from home, Campbell remained close to her family. Although Stephen—eight years younger than she—had been a troubled child who did poorly in school, Campbell thought he was settling down in his teens. "He had a girlfriend and liked her a lot," she says, "and when he came to visit, he was happy and acting normally."

Then came the late-night telephone call from her mother: Stephen had been arrested. "My teeth started chattering," says Campbell. "I kept wrapping blankets around me." On the flight to New York, she says, "I wished the plane would go down. There was that sense of doom you get when a horrible thing happens."

The details of the killing were laid bare during the trial. Pierce had picked up Wendy Cooper—he had occasionally given rides to her and her sister—and driven her to a secluded area, where he ripped off her clothes. When she threatened to tell on him, he crushed her skull with a rock.

"Gradually, I came to some acceptance [of my brother's guilt]," Campbell says. "It took my mother much longer, and I'm not sure my grandmother ever believed it. Then there was the victim's family, sitting in a courtroom just a few feet away, and I was feeling their anger and pain and contempt. In a sense, we were all victims of someone else's behavior."

(To this day, Wendy Cooper's father, Claude, 60, a custodian for the VFW in Norwich, remains unforgiving. "I don't think Bonnie should be there [in her new job]," he says. "She's related to the one who killed my daughter.")

For Campbell, the trial proved to be a career catalyst. "It piqued my interest in the law," she says. "And it very much planted the seed about victims' rights." After Culver's reelection defeat by Charles Grassley in 1980, Campbell, who had taken night classes, went to college full-time and then to Drake University Law School. She graduated even as Ed Campbell, whom she had married in 1974, battled lung cancer, now in remission. In 1987 she became the first woman to chair the Iowa Democratic Party, a job her husband had held between 1976 and 1982.

In 1990 she was elected state attorney general. In that job, Campbell helped write Iowa's antistalking law, one of the first in the country, again prompted by bitter experience. In 1987, when she was Democratic chair, she began receiving harassing telephone calls from an unidentified man. Soon she realized he was following her. After a private fund-raiser, he called "and recited to me things I had said at the event," she says. On another occasion, after she and her husband had dined out, the mystery man telephoned and repeated their conversation. "This guy was sitting, apparently, right next to us," she says.

The harassment ended after Campbell, by then attorney general, called in the FBI, which tracked the man and confronted him. Campbell, relieved that the stalking and phone calls had ended, did not press charges but made antistalking legislation a priority.

In 1994, Campbell, as her husband had before her, ran for governor of Iowa and was defeated. She had little time to wonder about what to do next. After last year's $30 billion crime bill included funding for the Violence Against Women Act, Campbell was picked by President Clinton to take charge of it. "Bonnie Campbell was one of the few attorneys general who was doing locally what I was proposing nationally," says Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a sponsor and author of the legislation. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is equally enthusiastic. "She's hands-on," says Shalala, "the best kind of civic and professional leader the President could have recruited."

Since the establishment of the office, Campbell has traveled throughout the United States and attended the U.N. conference on women in Beijing, but it is the stories in letters terrified women have written her that affect her the most. "Sometimes I cry," she says. "But they give me the energy to go right out and start all over again."

MICHAEL NEILL
MARGERY SELLINGER in Washington

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