After son’s kidnapping and murder, Rachel Muha finds beauty in forgiveness and action
COLUMBUS — Rachel Muha saw evil 20 years ago when her son, Brian, and his friend, Aaron Land, both Franciscan University of Steubenville students, were murdered.
Muha immediately dedicated her life to helping provide inner city youth in Columbus with positive future that includes a life free of gangs, and a life full of happiness — and a way to keep young people from becoming like the men who killed her son.
The Run the Race Club, started 14 years ago, has seen more than 150,000 visits by young people. The center, located at 880 S. Wayne Ave. in the South Hilltop area, has served more than 100,000 hot meals, provided furniture to 468 families and recorded nearly 60,000 volunteer hours.
Nathan Herring, 38, and Terrell Yarbrough, 38, are both serving life sentences in prison for their roles in the May 31, 1999, robbery, kidnapping and murder of Brian Muha, 18, of Westerville and Aaron Land, 20, of Philadelphia. Both men were taken from the house they were living in at 165 McDowell Ave. and driven to a remote section of Robinson Township, where each was led up a hill and shot once in the head.
The Muha and Land families had to endure separate trials in Ohio and Pennsylvania after the Ohio Supeme Court ruled Pennsyvlania had jurisdiction on the murder charges.
Rachel and other family members made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Steubenville from her Westerville home to begin searching for Brian shortly after he was reported missing. She was told by a Steubenville Police detective to stay at her home for a day because it was possible Brian could call her. She remembers talking to the Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, the then-president of the university, about not being allowed to come to Steubenville.
Scanlan told her, “Rachel, we are their spiritual fathers. We will go look for our sons.”
Rachel said she vividly remembers returning to the police station with family members after searching the city around 5 p.m. on June 4, 1999, looking to find out if there were any new developments in the search.
Kenny Anderson, who was then a new patrolman, told her Brian had been found. When she asked if he was alive, Anderson said no.
“Chris (Brian’s brother) started sobbing. I wanted to look at everyone’s faces to see if I had heard what he said. I could tell that I did. Then it felt like that whole room just got dark and heavy and helpless. It was so, so sad.”
Scanlan went to the scene and prayed over the bodies of Brian Muha and Land and gave them the anointing.
“When he told me he went (to the scene), it was like his face had changed. Like he had seen evil and the results of evil,” she explained.
“My whole world changed that day. Brian was only 18 years old. I was not done mothering. It was like, how do we keep Brian in the family? What do we do? How do we live without him? I didn’t want to live without him.
“I remember my arms physically aching because I wanted to hold him. I wanted to hug him. I thought, ‘is this going to be like this always.'”
The Muha family right away decided to start a foundation in Brian’s memory, and to hold an annual golf outing as a fundraiser.
Rachel purchased the house at 165 McDowell Ave.
“The owner didn’t want to sell it until he found out it was to one of the mothers. And then he said OK. He left all the furniture and appliances,” she said.
It was named the Divine Mercy House, first being occupied by seminary students. Now it is a missionary organization, with its goal being to bring some good into the neighborhood, Rachel said.
“I remember driving to the (Jefferson County) courthouse every morning (during the trials) and seeing little children standing at the bus stop. I didn’t know if we were in Nathan’s neighborhood. I just kept thinking to myself, ‘that might have been Nathan’s bus stop.’ He was a little boy at one time. He wasn’t born a killer. He became a killer, and I wanted to know why.”
During the trial, she learned what the lives of Herring and Yarbrough were like, and she said that haunted her.
“From that moment on, I knew there were children growing up all over our country and right here in Columbus (who need help.) Brian wanted to be a pediatrician and help children. So, I thought, what a better thing to do in his memory — to help children growing up with the same struggles as Terrell and Nathan; but not turn out like Terrell and Nathan. But it took until 2005. It was in my mind so much. This is what God wanted me to do. I decided to do it.”
The Run the Race Club’s name came from Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
“I thought, who has more encumbrances than these poor children?” Rachel asked.
The club at first was headquartered in various locations, including a church basement and a closed Columbus recreation center.
And then a former Columbus school building went up for sale. The asking price for the building was $750,000, even though it had been closed for 13 years, she said.
Rachel said, by then, she was sending out e-mails and speaking to organizations about what the club was doing.
After attending one of Rachel’s speaking engagements, a woman went home and told her husband what happened to Brian and how the club was trying to help. A year later, the woman and her husband, Michelle and Dave Bianconi, who have family roots in St. Clairsville, heard Rachel speak again and approached her about helping.
“So, he called me and we went to lunch. He had started his own company and sold it for $63 million,” she said.
“He asked ‘how can we help you?’ He said find a building and we will help you, adding, ‘what else do you need for the kids?’ I always thought it would be great to take inner city kids out to the country. He said find it.”
An offer of $50,000 was made for the 22,000-square-foot school building, an amount the school district eventually agreed to accept.
She said the Bianconis said they would pay for all the renovations, which took nine months and came at a cost of $750,000.
“He paid all of it. We have no loan. No mortgage.”
In the meantime, Rachel found a farm, complete with farm house, 8 acres of land and a dilapidated barn. It was purchased for $175,000, again by the Bianconis.
A young couple and their child now live at the farm. There are 100 animals living in new barns, and fruit trees and vegetables are growing on the Galloway farm — and there’s plenty of room for Run the Race Club members to play and have fun.
“Now we had a building and a farm in a couple of months,” Rachel said.
Rachel concentrated on the inner-city life.
“I had the impression that people needed more clothing and food, that is so easy to solve.”
But there was more.
“It is solving the longing to belong. That is why gangs are so prevalent. They make up their own little society. A little girl told me she wanted a better life, but didn’t know how to get it.”
“When kids fight with each other, they are trying to figure out how they make their place in the world. This is what they learned. It is the same thing Terrell and Nathan learned 20 years ago. You use drugs. You sell drugs, and you hurt people. That is what we are trying to break.”
“I’ve noticed with our kids, when they are young, they have that same hopes and dreams of any other child. They want to be the lawyer, doctor or scientist. It is when they get to middle school, about the seventh grade, they become aware their life is different from what they see on TV. They feel they have been cheated, and the resentment and the anger sets in.”
Rachel said she knows it is a hard cycle to break.
She also recently realized the center has to change its focus to take into account the children are fighting with each other.
“Are we spending our time in the best way to help the children or do we need to change things? That is where I am right now.”
She is trying to bring good out of evil.
“That is the only reason God lets evil happen, because he knows he can bring good out of evil. And that is our job. Bring good out of evil, Don’t let evil win. I refuse to let evil win,” she explained.
The center started a land-contract program about four years ago in which it buys houses in the inner city, and then acts as the bank when it finds a buyer. There’s no down payment expected, and there is no interest charged in the mortgage.
“They don’t have the money to buy a house. But they have money to make monthly payments. Their monthly payment is half the cost of what they are renting a home for,” Rachel said
The center has purchased eight houses so far. The families living in them are given the option of spreading their payments across 10, 12 or 15 years.
“They can own a home outright. They got something. I wish I could do that a hundredfold,” Rachel added.
“They are happy to be a homeowner. It has been great. The kids aren’t moving from school to school. The parents care more about the house, and that reflects in the neighborhood,” said said.
Rachel really wants to see the education system improved.
“In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to educate the kids. I hope the neighborhood is safer and the crime is down so they can walk around and not hear gunshots and police sirens. It is a lot of hoping,” she said,
Rachel said there have been a lot of success stories that describe the changes that have come to the lives of children who attend the center. But there also have been failures
“Like everything else, you remember the bad and forget the good,” she said.
“We have a lot of the originals who are doing pretty well. But we have a lot that aren’t. Of the first group, 11 are incarcerated. We have 20 to 30 doing really good. They are working. We have two in college right now. I hate the thought of those in prison,” Rachel added.
Rachel said if she wasn’t doing the Run the Race missionary work, she would be involved in prison reform.
“There is no rehabilitation in prison,” she said. “And there should be. They need to be retaught.”
Rachel said she thinks a lot about her son’s killers.
“They have been sitting in prison for 20 years. I have no idea if they have had any rehabilitation. My hope for them is for them to say ‘we deserve to be here.’ If they could say, ‘I deserve to be here,’ that would say to me their hearts have been changed. And then I would be the first to say they deserve to get out. To be able to admit you did something so horrendous that you deserve a life sentence, to me, in my mind, would mean a total change of heart. I want that for them. I’m not saying I want them out. I want them to have that change of heart. I want them to have that peace in admitting that they did something wrong. And, my fear, is that in prison, that is the last thing you do. So what is that doing to their souls. I’m worried about their souls,” Rachel explained,
“The whole forgiveness thing was a mystery to me. I never really thought about forgiveness until this happened. You don’t think, ‘what is forgiveness.’ When searching for Brian, the only thing in my mind was, ‘I have to forgive these men.’ That is what God tells us we have to do. And so I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it for Brian’s sake, because I didn’t want his name connected with ugliness. I wanted his name connected with beauty, and that is what we tried in doing all this work. I didn’t want to inflict any pain on (his brother) Chris or any of the other family member. I knew they were looking at me for direction. How I would respond, they would respond. I didn’t want to sentence anyone to a life of hatred or anger or revenge. So I knew forgiveness was the key. To me it was life-giving to everyone else. I hope Terrell and Nathan one day might say that brought them some sort of awakening. Even if it takes a long time for that awakening to happen. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for them in there,” Rachel continued.
“Justice demands they serve a life term because they did the worst thing anybody could do. But mercy demands that we pray for them. And that we pray that they make their time in prison their path to heaven. But it takes cooperating with God’s grace.
“I think forgiveness doesn’t mean they can be excused for what they did or that they shouldn’t be punished. Forgiveness means refusing to have any anger or hatred or bitterness or revenge. And because, we are Christians, we do something good for somebody who hurt us. The best thing I could do is to pray for them. And I do.”