ALLISON - His was a life characterized by choices.
Early on, Ed Thomas chose devotion to God instead of the overindulgence he saw his father pursue. He later opted for a career educating and mentoring students and athletes at Aplington-Parkersburg High School as a teacher and football coach.
On June 24, Mark Becker, a former player, shot and killed Thomas. Because of that, Becker will spend the rest of his life in prison.
But Becker had choices, too, family members said.
"No one else grabbed the gun that day," said Todd Thomas, Ed's son, during Becker's sentencing hearing on Wednesday. "No one else pulled the trigger that day. No one else, like a coward, brutally murdered my father on June 24th in front of over 20 innocent kids.
"These were all choices you made."
Jurors convicted Becker in March of first-degree murder after a trial and lengthy deliberation. Iowa law mandates a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.
According to testimony, Becker drove from his parents' home in rural Parkersburg to the school's weight room and shot Thomas seven times. Defense attorneys argued Becker, a paranoid schizophrenic, was insane at the time.
Todd Thomas and several other family members addressed Becker during the hearing, and every word conveyed strong emotion. Few could hold back tears.
Thomas' widow said the event was "too cruel."
"How can someone gun down a man that only ever wanted to help young people grow into the best men and women they can be, the best community members, the best employees, the best spouses and parents they can be?" Jan Thomas said.
Family members described the void living without their beloved father, brother, husband and grandfather. They detailed how Thomas affected their lives through words and deeds. And they noted how his faith helped them grow stronger as well.
"I wish my brother was still with us every day," Greg Thomas said. "I cry at church on Sunday. I cry driving in my car by myself. Some days I walk out of the school building and head out to our football field thinking of Ed."
Aaron Thomas said he took his father's message about choices with him to the Union School District, where he was the basketball coach. Aaron Thomas said he asked his father daily for advice on how to help students. Thomas dreamed of having Aaron return to Aplington-Parkersburg and be "his boss," while Thomas coached Aaron's three sons through high school.
That dream ended in June, and Aaron Thomas said his three boys had their sense of safety stripped away.
"I wish Mark could tell me what to say to Owen as he can't go to sleep as he is worried someone will hurt someone in our family or someone will die," Aaron Thomas said.
Several family members pointed to their faith - an important characteristic of Thomas' life - as a way to cope with his death. They mentioned God and Satan and their belief Thomas is in heaven, smiling.
Family members said they are also buoyed by the fact Thomas' lessons continue.
"Since Mark's brutal murder of my dad, many coaches have talked to the young people they teach and coach, carrying on the message my dad started," Aaron Thomas said.
Linked to the family's faith is the idea a person must take responsibility for their actions - in this life or the next.
"Your worst punishment, however, is coming later, when your time on earth is done and you have to answer to God for the murder of my father," Aaron Thomas said.
Becker declined to make a statement during the hearing, and his attorney, Susan Flander, spoke little, except to say "schizophrenia is not a choice."
The Thomas family said they understood Becker suffered a mental illness, but they also pointed out many people have schizophrenia and are not violent. They said the shooting was a result of Becker's actions, not his illness.
Scott Brown, an assistant attorney general, echoed that sentiment in his argument for a life sentence.
"The system was there for Mark Becker. He chose to turn away from it," Brown said. "Mark Becker is not a victim. He created a victim. Actually, he created several victims."
Judge Stephen Carroll offered additional harsh words for Becker prior to handing down his sentence.
"Mr. Becker, you have brought unresolved chaos into their lives, and chaos is evil," he said.
Carroll also said the events brought to mind the biblical story of Job and when bad things happen to good people.
"Mr. Becker, given of your brutal murder of coach Thomas, I have no problem imposing a life sentence on you," Carroll said.
The judge also took time to criticize the reduction in funding for mental health programs and treatment options, which could help people like Becker, in favor of lower taxes or other amenities. He called those decisions a "dangerous trade-off."
"What level of risk is acceptable to us?" Carroll asked.
Afterwards, Joan Becker, Mark's mother, said the hearing was a "necessary part" of the Thomas family's healing process. She added her family must give their impact statements "behind closed doors."
Joan Becker said there will also be a "lifelong healing process" for everyone involved, but she hoped God would carry them.
Earlier Wednesday, the Butler County Attorney's Office dropped a pending eluding case against Mark Becker. The charge stemmed from a police pursuit that happened a few days prior to the shooting.
By JEFF REINITZ, email@example.com
ALLISON --- Bullets that killed Ed Thomas on June 24 didn't snuff out coach's life work and didn't silence his message, family members said this morning as convicted gunman Mark Becker was sentenced to life in prison.
Facing the man who shot his father, Aaron Thomas told Becker that Becker and Satan had a plan to end Ed Thomas' life. But he said they failed because through those actions, the whole nation now knows about the slain coach.
The son recounted for the court how Ed Thomas worked with youths and encouraged people to be their best, a message that he now spreads.
Family members also talked of how Ed Thomas had wanted to continue with football at Aplington-Parkersburg High School long enough to coach his own grandchildren.
That dream is gone, and in its place are the young grandchildren's fears over their own safety and security, said Jan Thomas, Ed Thomas' wife.
Aaron Thomas said that whenever his 4-year-old son sees a picture of Becker on the television, he says "that's Mark Becker; he killed Grandpa."
Relatives told the court of their struggles to explain the slaying to the grandchildren --- how a person that Ed Thomas had helped ended up killing him.
Ed Thomas' brother, Greg, told of how they grew up with a father who battled alcoholism. And in spite of that, Ed Thomas chose not to live his life that way and decided against raising his children in that setting.
Becker stood quietly as Judge Stephen Carroll handed down the life sentence after rejecting the defense's request for a new trial.
When given a chance to make a statement, Becker declined.
"No, I don't wish to at this time," Becker said shaking his head.
Carroll said the punishment will keep the community safe from Becker, and he hoped it would give some measure of justice for the living victims in the case.
The judge also entered a $150,000 judgment against Becker to be paid to Thomas' estate and to pay attorney fees and expert witness bills.
A jury found Becker guilty of first-degree murder in March, turning down claims he was insane at the time of the crime.
The life sentence is mandatory under Iowa law.
Authorities said Becker gunned down Thomas in the Aplington-Parkersburg High weightroom June 24 as student athletes looked on. Becker had earlier been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to hospitals because of delusions.
After the conviction, the defense asked to have the verdict thrown out, alleging the court should have allowed certain wording in jury instructions. The defense had wanted jurors to know that Becker would have been
committed to a mental health institution for an evaluation upon a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
The defense also argued the guilty verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence and contrary to law.
Also this morning, the Butler County Attorney's Office dropped a pending eluding case against Becker. The charges stemmed from a police chase that happened a few days before the shooting.