YAKIMA, Wash. -- On October 26, 2016, Saul Llamas Rios got into an argument with his girlfriend. After threatening to shoot the girlfriend and her friend, he left the home and drove towards Tieton, Washington, armed with a pistol, and a long list of prior felonies in California.
Trae Oyler, 20, was returning from youth ministry services with fellow missionary students on Oct. 26, 2016, when Rios — enraged from an earlier dispute with his girlfriend — randomly fired three shots into the car in which Trae Oyler was riding as he passed by on Rozenkranz Road halfway between Naches and Tieton. One bullet struck Trae Oyler in the neck, killing him. His three friends were unharmed.
Oyler was living in Tieton for just a few months while he trained to be a missionary. Trae was just days away from fulfilling a lifelong dream--becoming a certified missionary.
Oyler, who is originally from Waynseboro, PA, was in a four-month long missionary program based in Tieton, which began in August, 2016. Trae's family are German Baptists, and known to my wife and I, who share the German Baptist heritage. The news was devastating. The funeral was a sad affair, yet interlaced among comfort for the grieving was the theme of forgiveness. A friend/acquaintance of mine helped preach the funeral.
Rios was arrested and tried for first-degree murder. He was found guilty. His sentencing was on Thursday of last week. He was sentenced to 27-years in prison. Trae's family attended the sentencing and were given the opportunity to speak.
More than 35 family and friends, some from California and Oregon as well as the Tieton missionary school, filled the courtroom, where words of forgiveness and hope for Rios, 29, were voiced. Trae Oyler’s parents, Ken, and Jane traveled from their Waynesboro, Pa., home to the hearing, where they said they believed spreading the word of Jesus to Rios is what their son would have wanted.
The mother (Jane Oyler) offered a New Testament Bible to her son’s killer during a sentence hearing Thursday in Yakima County Superior Court. The Bible, handed to a judge so he would give it to Saul Llamas Rios, was among Trae Oyler’s personal belongings, which his mother received after his death.
“Would you assure that (Rios) gets this?” Jane Oyler asked Judge David Elofson. “I know that’s what Trae would have wanted.” Jane Oyler told Rios she forgives him, something she finds herself having to do every day. “My forgiveness means little if you don’t seek God’s forgiveness,” she said tearfully.
Letters from family and a friend who was with Trae Oyler the night of his death were read to Rios, who sat quietly but appeared to listen intently.
In the letters, Trae Oyler was described as loving popcorn, wearing his sandals — even in 32-degree weather — and being passionate about helping others, especially those who were hurting. Then the father spoke (Ken Oyler).
“I don’t know where your family is, but they’re going to miss you just like we miss Trae,” Ken Oyler told Rios.
He had a deeper passion than I did,” Ken Oyler said of his son. “I wish he would have been able to have met Saul before the night that Saul pulled that trigger.” Ken Oyler said the family continues to pray for Rios.
“We don’t need to pray for Trae anymore — we know where he is,” Ken Oyler said. He likened Rios to Saul in the book of Acts in the Bible, a man who had long persecuted Christians only to eventually change and became a follower of Christ.
“I know that there are people in this room that would be willing to talk to Saul about God,” he said. “Because I know that’s what Trae would want.” Forgiving is ongoing for the family, Ken Oyler said.
“Our family is figuring out that forgiveness is a process,” he said. “There’s no victory here.”
The Judge was moved. Judge David Elofson described the hearing as unique of all those he’d been involved in.
“This is a family of incredible strength and faith,” he said to Rios. “They spoke directly to you and I only heard kindness. I don’t think I have ever been in a hearing quite like this.”
Hours later, during a video visit with a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter, Rios held up the same small Bible and said he intends to follow the wishes of Trae Oyler’s family.
“I don’t know if they’re going to let me take this into prison,” he said of the Bible that once belonged to Trae Oyler. “I’m going to seek God’s forgiveness.”
Forgiveness ought to walk with us – it ought to speak with us. Forgiveness itself has moral force, creating the will towards goodness in the forgiven. Forgiveness is also expensive. It comes at a cost, illustrated by the cross of our Lord. For Him it was paying the eternal price of sin in the universe. For us it is choosing to pay the price of the pain that someone else has caused us. It brings peace and freedom into our lives.