‘Losing Megan’ meant finding hope, forgiveness

Daughter's murder prompts former Judge Tom Kohl to counsel prisoners, families

An undated photo of Megan Kohl (Courtesy to KOIN)
An undated photo of Megan Kohl (Courtesy to KOIN)

HILLSBORO, Ore. (KOIN) — July 21, 2006, “the day I’ll never forget.”

Former Washington County Judge Tom Kohl talks about his daughter Megan's 2006 murder and how his life was affected, February 10, 2017 (KOIN)
Former Washington County Judge Tom Kohl talks about his daughter Megan’s 2006 murder and how his life was affected, February 10, 2017 (KOIN)

That night, there was a late-night knock at then-Washington County Judge Tom Kohl’s front door. He was used to law enforcement coming to his house at all hours to sign warrants and didn’t think much about this particular knock.

“I went downstairs and looked out the window and saw a senior district attorney that I recognized,” Kohl told KOIN 6 News. There were 2 other men with the DA.

“One of the men said, ‘Judge, please sit down.’ So I sat down and he said, ‘We need to inform you that Megan was murdered earlier today.'”

Tom Kohl and his daughter Megan Kohl in an undated photo (Courtesy to KOIN)
Tom Kohl and his daughter Megan Kohl in an undated photo (Courtesy to KOIN)

His 21-year-old daughter, Megan Kohl, was killed at a Gladstone apartment in a murder-for-hire. It was an unthinkable loss of a daughter who had wrapped an arm around her dad and stuck up for bullied classmates — and later in her life, struggled with drugs.

“She was what I would call a rescuer. She was always coming to the aid of, like, any of her classmates that were being bullied by anybody. She would always try and stick up for them. I think that was one of her major problems when she got older is she was a rescuer, but she didn’t know how to keep herself from getting sucked in to whatever she was trying to rescue somebody from.”

Megan’s addiction began as a teenager.

An undated high school photo of Megan Kohl (Courtesy to KOIN)
An undated high school photo of Megan Kohl (Courtesy to KOIN)

“When she was about 17 or 18 she started methamphetamine,” Kohl, now 70, said. “I think it was because she was drawn to helping those people and then she just got sucked into it. And that was the beginning of her downfall into drug addiction.”

About a year before Megan’s murder, Judge Kohl started Washington County’s first drug court, a program to help non-violent offenders break the cycle of addiction — something he desperately wanted for his daughter.

“When I became a judge I was really kind of hard-hearted towards people…” -Tom Kohl

“When I became a judge I was really kind of hard-hearted towards people who were doing drugs and committing crimes,” Kohl said. “I mean, I don’t think they wanted to appear in front of me.”

He described himself as a very stern judge, but his attitude shifted when his daughter became addicted.

“It started to soften my heart, you know. My heart started to change toward drug addicts until eventually I had the opportunity to start the first drug court in Washington County. So Megan was a very strong influence in the start up of the Washington County adult drug court.”

During that period, Kohl hoped Megan would be arrested, would hit bottom, snap out of it and realize she needed to change. He thought his prayer was answered when she was arrested in May 2006 for distribution and possession of meth.

“For me, I mean I thought that was the answer to prayer,” he said. “Finally she would be held accountable to a judge or probation officer.”

Two months later, she was brutally slain.

“The only way I got through that was because of the faith I had,” he said.

He never felt anger or hatred against his daughter’s killer, even at the time.

“I was filled with so much grief and sorrow and sadness, you know, and the sense of loss that there wasn’t any room for anything else in my heart at that point,” Kohl said. “Which is good in the end because I’ve seen people since then who have gone through similar circumstances, who have ended up being very bitter and angry and resentful. And it just destroys them. It just destroys you from the inside out. And I was really blessed that I didn’t go through that.”

Robert Bettelyoun was convicted in 2009 of murdering Megan Kohl on July 21, 2006 (KOIN, file)
Robert Bettelyoun was convicted in 2009 of murdering Megan Kohl on July 21, 2006 (KOIN, file)

It would be nearly a year before police arrested Megan’s killer and 2 more years before Robert Bettelyoun was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

At the sentencing, Kohl was able to address Bettelyoun in court.

“I told him I had forgiven him before I even knew who he was.”

Eventually, during the time Kohl was writing a book called “Losing Megan,” he visited Bettelyoun in prison.

“Remember,” he told KOIN 6 News, “we weren’t allowed to talk about the case. And he said, ‘Judge,’ he said, ‘I am so sorry,’ (and he) starts to cry. And I knew what he was talking about. And then he said, ‘Judge, how can you be so kind to me?’ And at that point I said to Robert, ‘It wasn’t me. It was Jesus inside of me that was being kind.’ I couldn’t be this way to him.”

“We have about 8 different groups that we’ve led through GriefShare, and so we’ve been able to help them go through that process.” – Tom Kohl

Tom Kohl retired from the bench at the very end of 2015. Now, he helps other people through the grief process.

He and his wife, Julie, “have about 8 different groups that we’ve led through GriefShare, and so we’ve been able to help them go through that process.”

He said that process still helps him.

Kohl also travels to prisons across the country, like Angola in Louisiana, speaking to inmates about his loss, his faith and the forgiveness and hope in his heart.

“It’s been a huge blessing for us to be able to see other people go through grief and come out a little bit better at the end, knowing that the feelings that they have and the things they’re going through that they’re not alone.”

Former Washington County Judge Tom Kohl wrote "Losing Megan" after the 2006 murder of his adult daughter, Megan. The book is seen in his home, February 10, 2017 (KOIN)
Former Washington County Judge Tom Kohl wrote “Losing Megan” after the 2006 murder of his adult daughter, Megan. The book is seen in his home, February 10, 2017 (KOIN)