Betty Jane Spencer, the lone survivor of the 1977 Hollandsburg murders, died on Oct. 26 of chronic lung disease. She was 71.
On Feb. 14, 1977, four men carrying shotguns entered her home in Hollandsburg, Ind., about 50 miles west of Indianapolis. The robbers pocketed a few items and $40 in cash, then ordered her and her four children to lie face-down on the living room floor.
That’s when the shooting started.
Spencer’s son Gregory Brooks, 22, and her stepsons Raymond Spencer, 17, Reeve Spencer, 16, and Ralph Spencer, 14, were executed. Betty was also shot in the back, but she survived the wound and pretended to play dead. Determined to leave no witnesses behind, one of the robbers kicked her and shot her a second time. That bullet grazed her shoulder and skull, and blew her wig off. Assuming she was dead, the gunmen left.
The telephone lines were cut so Spencer trudged through the snow and called the police from a friend’s house. Authorities eventually apprehended Roger Drollinger, 24, Daniel Stonebraker, 20, David W. Smith, 17, and Michael Wayne Wright, 21, and charged them with the slayings. Spencer’s testimony helped convict all four men of murder; they were later sentenced to life in prison. The notorious crime was chronicled in the 2004 book “Choking in Fear” by Mike McCarty.
The experience of surviving an armed robbery and losing her boys left an indelible mark on Spencer, one that inspired her to become a champion of victim’s rights. Over the next three decades, she helped change 56 Indiana laws and founded the Parke County Victims Advocate Foundation, an organization that provides crisis counseling to crime victims and keeps them notified of court dates. Spencer also joined the National Organization for Victim Assistance, the Protect the Innocent Foundation and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan honored her efforts at a White House ceremony.
Spencer’s resolve to keep her sons’ murderers in jail never wavered. Each time the men applied for clemency, she would appear at the hearing and testify against them. Last week, Spencer videotaped her plea to the parole board for use in future hearings.
“It is her dying wish that none of the four men ever get out of jail,” said her friend Kenneth Coleman. He plans to take up Spencer’s fight and argue against parole for the Hollandsburg killers for as long as he lives.