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She forgave the man who murdered her daughter, and answers his letters from prison

After her 25-year-old daughter, Dana, was murdered in 2007, Barbara Mangi felt many things: fear, anger, an almost suffocating sadness.

But forgiveness? No. Even though Mangi suspected almost from the first that her big-hearted daughter would have forgiven the college friend who stabbed and strangled her, Mangi could not. Even as Mangi, a devout Catholic, came to believe that God himself wanted her to forgive Dana’s killer, she resisted.

“God, don’t you make any exceptions?” she would ask.

“You must. You must make exceptions. I know we are supposed to forgive people who hurt us but this is the extreme situation. This kid murdered my daughter. If you’re going to want me to forgive this person, you’re going to have to make it happen, because I just can’t.”

Mangi, who details her long journey to forgiveness in the new book, “Reawakening: Return of Lightness and Peace after My Daughter’s Murder,” eventually not only forgave Patrick Ford — the man who pleaded “guilty but mentally ill” to killing her daughter in his apartment, just weeks before Dana was scheduled to start veterinary school. Mangi actually thanked Ford for his 2010 courtroom apology, and since 2014 she has been exchanging letters with him from prison, where he is serving a 35-year term for first-degree murder.

Mangi, 66, says that she and Ford aren’t friends in the usual casual and confiding sense, but they are friends of a sort, jointly working toward spiritual healing in the aftermath of a catastrophic loss.

“I’ve been able to help him to forgive himself and to heal, which is something I could never have imagined would ever happen to me in my life,” she said of their written correspondence, which now includes about 10 letters a year.

“I just feel like God has been with me throughout this whole journey helping me — I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Ten years after Dana’s death, she’s still very much a presence in her parents’ spacious suburban living room. Mangi and her husband, Joe, an executive at a private jet charter company, have a nearly life-sized photo of Dana and her older sister, Sarah, beaming down from the wall. On the coffee table, there’s an album full of photos: Dana as a chubby-cheeked toddler; Dana as a preschooler, decked out in a homemade bumble bee costume; Dana as a teenager, suddenly graceful in her red prom dress.

Dana was funny, caring and outgoing, her mother said. She was an animal-lover, and she was persistent. She dreamed of being a veterinarian, and when she was rejected from every vet school she applied to, she studied for her master’s degree, applied again, got rejected again, and then applied a third time, finally gaining acceptance at the University of Minnesota.

“She was beyond happy,” her mother recalled. Dana was scheduled to start class within weeks on the stormy Saturday night when she didn’t come home from Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood, where she was supposed to attend a Cubs viewing party with Ford. Dana had known Ford in college at Loyola University, where they were part of the same group of friends for a while. According to court records, they dated briefly. Mangi said they maybe went to one sorority-fraternity dance together.

Police arrested Ford at his apartment, after he called authorities to report Dana’s death. He had several self-inflicted knife wounds and made incriminating statements at the scene, police said. While in custody, he allegedly confessed to strangling and stabbing Dana.

Plunged into a “nightmarish hell on earth,” Mangi and her family had to identify Dana’s body, choose her casket and clean out her apartment. “It was a struggle for me to get though every minute of every day,” Mangi wrote in her book, published by Arbor Mountain Press.

She didn’t give much thought to the killer at that point, beyond fearing him and hoping he would stay behind bars: “I don’t know why he did this,” she thought, “and how do I know he won’t come out and look for my other daughter — or hurt somebody else?”

Her impression of Ford didn’t improve much as she sat through monthly court hearings for two years. She didn’t see any sign that he cared about what he had done. Authorities said Ford never explained why he killed Dana, according to an article in the Chicago Daily Herald, which quoted the judge in the case as saying, “For the life of me, I don’t understand this (crime).” The article said that both prosecution and defense experts found Ford suffered from a personality disorder and that he abused alcohol and cannabis, which lead to depression.

When Ford was sentenced in a 2010 plea agreement, the judge asked him if he had anything to say.

Ford turned to Mangi and her daughter Sarah, who had given victim impact statements.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, in an emotional speech recounted in Mangi’s book. “I know that my words can’t help you. And I took something from you that I can never give back, but I swear to you that I did not mean to do what I did and if there was anything I can do or say to take away your pain, I would. I promise you that. And all I can do is keep you in my prayers forever and let you know that I’m just so, so sorry.”

As he spoke, Mangi was stunned to realize she felt compassion and sadness for him. Afterward, there was intense guilt: How could she feel sorry for the man who had murdered Dana? But she couldn’t deny what she’d felt, or a sense that Dana, who had been so forgiving with her friends, had been with her in court, whispering in her ear, “Now let it go, Mom.”

She prayed, meditated and spoke to her therapist, and within days she realized that while she could never condone what Ford had done, she did believe that he was truly sorry.

“Something miraculous had happened in the courtroom that day,” Mangi writes in her book. “All my prayers asking God for help to forgive Dana’s murderer … had been answered when I heard Patrick Ford speak to us. That short exchange healed me in a way I never expected or thought possible.”

The journey toward writing to him took four more years. In 2013, Mangi’s sister Tina Mercier told Mangi that she wanted to write a letter to Ford, telling him that Mangi had forgiven him. Mangi gave her sister her blessing, and in February 2014, Mercier received a letter from Ford. In a subsequent letter, Ford asked Mercier if Mangi would accept a letter from him.

By June, Mangi had decided yes, she wanted to hear what Ford had to say.

His first letter to her began “As hard as this letter is for me to write I can only believe that it is that much harder for you to receive it. Thank you for allowing me to send this to you, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for 7 years … I think about how devastating this all must be and how badly (you and your family) all must hurt. I think about what I took from you. I think about how unfair this is for you. But mostly I pray. I pray that somehow each of you can find peace, that eventually the pain lessens.” He apologized, saying he’d agonized over how to express his “sorrow, regret and remorse,” and had resolved to spend the rest of his life “trying to be the best person I can be.”

About two months later, Mangi wrote back.

The letter-writing continued, and in 2016 Mangi wrote to Ford, “Early on … I sadly thought of you as just Dana’s murderer. But when I heard your words to us that day at the plea agreement hearing and then, with each additional choice I made to let myself be open to the words in (your) letters … I came to believe that you are much more than your crime. Once I had a much deeper and (more) personal understanding of your life’s journey, I was able to see you as a multifaceted, complicated, spiritual, caring young man.”

Mangi’s husband, Joe, supported the exchange of letters, although he initially asked Mangi not to include any information about him. Joe said in an interview that he, too, has forgiven Ford: “I had to. There’s no way I could have existed going forward without (forgiveness) in my heart, because I would have always had this horrible pain. And for Dana to be in my heart all the time, I needed to have a happy heart.”

He wants to get to the point where he can go to the prison where Ford is being held and tell Ford in person that he forgives him. He’s not there yet, though. “I’m taking baby steps,” he said with a chuckle.

There are still times when Barbara Mangi hears about a young person getting married or having kids, and her eyes fill with tears; Dana never got to do that, she said. But there’s joy now too, and a sense of purpose. Mangi, who put her part-time job in the travel industry largely on hold to focus on her writing, is hoping to help others with her book and related speaking engagements.

“I’m in a happy place,” she said. “I’m good. I did the work on myself. I made the choices that helped me heal.”

© 2017 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.