‘See You in Heaven’: Documentary ‘Return to Palau’ Tells Story of Forgiveness in Brutal Attack on Adventist Missionary Family
- Return to Palau documentary tells story of the missionary DePaiva family who were brutally attacked while serving in Palau, and the return of Melissa DePaiva Gibson, the sole survivor of the attack.
- Justin Hirosi, the man convicted of the attack, eventually repented and was baptized in prison. Gibson met with Hirosi on her return to Palau.
- The film will screen in Keene, Texas, U.S., on April 8, 2022, at Keene SDA Church at 7:30 p.m. CDT, and in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S., at the Howard Performing Arts Center on April 16, 2022, at 4 p.m. EDT.
24 March 2022 | The worldwide premiere of Return to Palau took place at the Palau National Gymnasium in Koror to a packed crowd of more than 1,300 people, the largest indoor event in Palauan history on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. A second showing was arranged on March 19, 2022, to accommodate additional people who wished to attend, according to a press release by Andrews University.
The documentary film tells the story of the DePaiva family who moved from Andrews University in 2002 to pastor the Koror church on the island nation of Palau, only to suffer a shocking tragedy.On Dec. 22, 2003, Ruimar DePaiva, 42, his wife, Margareth, 37, and their 11-year-old son, Larrison, were beaten and stabbed to death at their home in Airai state, reported My Plainview, a Hearst news site.
The DePaiva’s daughter, Melissa DePaiva Gibson, then 10 years old, was found later on a secluded road by two local residents. She told police that she had been kidnapped and assaulted.
Justin Hirosi was charged with killing all three DePaiva family members, kidnapping, burglary, indecent assault, and sexual assault, reported Plainview. He was sentenced to three life sentences in prison without parole.
L. Ann Hamel, a psychologist asked by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to provide support for Gibson after the tragedy, said in an Adventist Mission article that after murdering her parents and brother, Hirosi tied Gibson up and put her into the trunk of his car. He told her that she was now his property and drove away with her.
After leaving her locked up alone in his house while he went to work, Hirosi drove her to a remote part of the island, strangled her, and threw her into a ravine.
An elderly couple found Gibson by the side of the road in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2003. After being tossed into the ravine and left for dead, Gibson had regained consciousness and crawled out of the ravine. Weakened by the ordeal and a lack of food or water, she was too weak to stand.
The first car that passed did not see her lying by the side of the road. Gibson lifted her small hand when she saw the lights of a second car approaching. The couple in the car stopped and took her to their home, where they gave her food. On hearing her story, they rushed her to the police and the hospital.
At the time of the murder, former President of Palau Tommy Remengesau Jr. described the incident as a “shocking tragedy, a heinous crime that has never been experienced in the republic before,” reported Palau news site Island Times.
To Forgive, Divine
Shortly after the killings, Ruth DePaiva, the mother of Ruimar DePaiva and the grandmother of Gibson, visited Hirosi in prison, according to Hamel.
“Because of Jesus, I want you to know that we forgive you,” said Ruth DePaiva, on behalf of her family. “I want to see you in heaven one day with my son and daughter-in-law and grandson.”
Years later, when asked how she could forgive the murderer of her family members, Ruth DePaiva said, “It is impossible from a human perspective. Forgiveness only comes from the Holy Spirit,” according to Hamel.
After the tragedy, Tiago Cunha was called to serve as the senior pastor of the Koror church in Palau. During his time there, Cunha began giving Bible studies to Hirosi in prison, who eventually converted and was baptized in 2016.
In 2018, Melissa DePaiva Gibson, now married and a nurse, returned to Palau.
In the Andrews University press release, Surangal Whipps Jr., current president of the Republic of Palau and close friend of the family, said, “Melissa’s life is a miracle and her return to Palau is a gift to our nation. We are truly blessed to have her share her story with us. On behalf of the people of Palau, I want to thank her for coming back and for forgiving us. She will always be one of us.”
Accompanied by family members and friends, Gibson went to the prison to meet the man who had murdered her family and treated her so brutally.
Hirosi expressed his profound remorse for his actions and desire to live a life worthy of the gift of salvation, reported Hamel. He said he wanted to see Ruimar, Margareth, and Larisson DePaiva in heaven and personally apologize to them. He expressed his love for Jesus and his desire to live faithful to God’s calling in this life.
Although Melissa DePaiva Gibson had not planned to speak, she said, with tears streaming down her face, “Justin, we are all the same in God’s sight. We are no better than you are. We are all in need of God’s saving grace in our lives. I want to see you in heaven one day with my parents and my brother.”
Return to Palau is nominated for best documentary and best director at the International Christian Film Festival, one of the largest Christian film festivals in the world, which takes place May 4–7, 2022, in Orlando, Florida, U.S. It also has won awards and been nominated in several other film festivals.
The film will screen in Keene, Texas, U.S., on April 8, 2022, at Keene SDA Church at 7:30 p.m. CDT, and in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S., at the Howard Performing Arts Center on April 16, 2022, at 4 p.m. EDT.
(Photo: Larrison, Melissa, Margareth and Ruimar DePaiva (from left) are seen in a family photo used in a poster for Return to Palau, a documentary film that tells the story of this missionary family that moved in 2002 to pastor the Koror church on the island nation of Palau, only to suffer a shocking tragedy. Photo courtesy of Andrews University.)