March 28, 2022

Return to Palau

Melissa DePaiva Gibson meets the man who killed her family when she was a 10-year- old missionary girl.

When Melissa was four years old, her family moved from Brazil to Berrien Springs, Michigan, where her father attended Andrews University. When Melissa was eight years old, her dad got a call to go to Palau as a pastor. Melissa’s parents, Ruimar and Margareth DePaiva, accepted the call to serve as missionaries in Palau, a small island nation in the western Pacific Ocean. The family adjusted quickly to their new life there; they made friends easily and became part of the local community.

The pastor’s home was outside the city on the road leading to the Adventist academy. The only other house between the DePaiva’s home and the academy was the principal’s house. Because it was being remodeled at that time, no one was living in it. Each day, numerous construction workers passed by the DePaiva’s home on their way to work on the principal’s house.

Just before Christmas, a year-and-a-half after the family arrived in Palau, her father returned home after having been away for several days for meetings in Guam. Pastor DePaiva was an accomplished pianist and enjoyed playing the piano. After he and his family shared a meal together that evening, he filled their home with beautiful Christmas music. Melissa remembers the family playing a game of Life before she and her brother had to go to bed. The following day would be her parent’s fifteenth wedding anniversary. Melissa smiles as she recalls telling her parents that she would sleep with them as an anniversary present. She fondly remembers her parents tucking her into their bed and her father singing her to sleep that night.

The DePaiva family moved from Brazil to Berrien Springs for Ruimar (front right) to attend Andrews University. They are pictured here in 2002 in front of the J.N. Andrews statue by Pioneer Memorial Church.
The DePaiva family moved from Brazil to Berrien Springs for Ruimar (front right) to attend Andrews University. They are pictured here in 2002 in front of the J.N. Andrews statue by Pioneer Memorial Church.

Attack at 3 a.m.

As the family slept that night, an intruder entered their home through the kitchen window around 3 a.m. He was one of the construction workers who had been working on the principal’s house. Melissa was awakened to find both parents out of bed and a terrible noise in the hallway.

Melissa was there as the man murdered both of her parents and her only brother. He then tied her up and put her in the trunk of his car. He told her that she was now his property and drove away with her. The following day, he left her alone in his house, telling her not to make any noise or he would do to her what he had done to her parents and her brother. He then went to work. Returning home that evening and beginning to fear discovery, he took her to a remote part of the island, strangled her, and threw her into a ravine. Later that night, Melissa regained consciousness and slowly climbed out of the ravine. Too weak to stand, a kind couple saw her lying by the side of the road and stopped to help her.

News of the event reverberated around the world. The murder of a missionary family. Three caskets. The people of Palau’s shame and remorse for what happened on their island. The president’s public apology. And Melissa’s survival. When the news reached the General Conference, I was asked to travel to Palau to provide care for Melissa. How would this little girl survive all that she had witnessed and experienced and become a whole and healthy adult? I prayed the whole way there that God would protect Melissa from the traumatic impact of all that she had witnessed and experienced.

Life Back in the United States

Although Melissa loved her home and friends in Palau, she knew she would have to leave. Her grandparents, Drs. Itamar and Ruth DePaiva, understood the importance of giving her a sense of security and belonging so they brought her back to Berrien Springs, where she and her family had lived before going to Palau, a place where she still had friends and a sense of community. Her maternal grandparents, Pastor José and Marina Ottoni, came from Brazil, also providing Melissa with an additional sense of safety and security as she adjusted to her new life in Berrien Springs. Still, Melissa longed to one day return to Palau.

A year-and-a-half after arriving in Berrien Springs, the DePaiva’s moved to Texas, where Melissa would graduate from grade school, academy and, later, college. Melissa graduated with a nursing degree from Southwestern Adventist University. In July 2016, she married Michael Gibson. Michael had graduated with a theology degree and would be attending the seminary at Andrews University. A few weeks after their wedding, they moved back to Berrien Springs.

The Prison in Palau

A few months prior to Melissa and Michael’s wedding, I had the privilege of meeting Pastor Tiago Cunha and his wife, Claudia, in Thailand where they were attending a missionary training seminar. Originally from Portugal, Pastor Cunha was serving as the senior pastor of the Koror SDA Church in Palau. Soon after beginning his ministry there, he had felt impressed to participate in the church’s prison ministry program, a program that had been started by Melissa’s father.

Not long after entering the prison, Pastor Cunha met Justin, the man who had murdered the DePaiva family. Justin was a hardened criminal, serving three life sentences without parole. Nonetheless, it was clear that God was working in his heart. Fifteen years earlier, Melissa’s grandmother, Ruth, had visited him in prison. After asking him why he did what he did, she told him, “You have a very sick mind, but if you give your heart to Jesus, He will heal you.” She went on to say, “I want you to know that we forgive you and I want to see you in heaven one day with my son, my daughter-in-law, and my grandson.” Ruth’s words played over and over in Justin’s mind over the years that he spent in prison, and the Holy Spirit used them to penetrate his heart. Melissa’s grandparents prayed for Justin through the years and provided him with Christian literature. He would read those books, and they would help change his life.

At the meetings in Thailand, Pastor Cunha told me that he had studied the Bible with Justin and heard his confession and repentance for what he had done that fateful night. “He’ll be ready for baptism soon,” he said. Later, when the baptism took place, I was able to personally convey the news to Melissa.

Knowing that Melissa wanted to return to Palau, in 2018 I arranged for Pastor Cunha and his family to travel to Michigan to meet Melissa and her husband and to begin to plan their trip. Pastor Cunha shared with Melissa that her return was important to the people of Palau. He said that Justin’s baptism had awakened, in the hearts of many people, memories of what had taken place on their island. Melissa would return, not just as a visitor but as a missionary. She and her husband, Michael, would do a week of prayer at the church where Melissa’s father had pastored.

Melissa and her husband, Michael
Melissa and her husband, Michael

A Journey to Healing

The journey back to Palau took place in December of 2018.

Arriving in Palau, Melissa was met at the airport by people whom her family had grown to know and love during their time on the island. As they placed fresh flower leis around Melissa’s neck, tears came to her eyes. Among those who had come to greet Melissa was Queen Bilung Gloria Salii. Back in 2003, she had provided Melissa with loving support and kindness at the time that Melissa needed it most.

Melissa and Palau's Queen Bilung Gloria Salii.
Melissa and Palau's Queen Bilung Gloria Salii.

Reconnecting with the Past

The queen and other close friends carefully planned meetings and events for Melissa to attend that would be meaningful to her. The queen showed Melissa, her husband and her grandparents around the island and brought them to her home. She also took them to the place where Melissa had been strangled and thrown into a ravine. Back in 2003, the queen had commemorated the miracle of Melissa’s survival by planting two coconut trees to mark the spot where she had been found. Melissa said it was very meaningful to her to have the queen take her there, to see the beautiful, tall, coconut trees that she had planted, and to share the experience with Michael.

Melissa’s heart was moved as she reconnected with so many of the people and places that she had loved. But she also encountered people and places that brought back the tragic events of the past.

Melissa went back into the home where her family had lived. She was last there as a ten-year-old child. She entered the home now as a young woman with her husband by her side. Although there were tears, her heart was also filled with gratitude for all that God had done for her and the fact that she would see her parents and brother again one day.

Meeting the Murderer

God’s grace is a powerful force to heal and restore that which is lost and broken. It had been two years since Justin had given his heart to Jesus and been baptized when Melissa returned to Palau. Since then, he had shared his testimony freely with all those in the prison who would listen. He had been instrumental in leading two other prisoners into a saving relationship with Jesus and built the baptismal tank in the prison that was used for their baptisms.

Even though Justin wrote letters of apology to Melissa and her grandparents prior to his baptism, he hoped to be able to, one day, apologize to them in person and thank them for their books and prayers. Prior to arriving in Palau, Melissa didn’t know if she wanted to visit Justin in prison. When she arrived, however, a desire began to grow in her heart to visit the man whom God had transformed. On our last Sabbath afternoon there on the island, a small group of us made our way to the prison.

Entering the room that had been set aside for our meeting with Justin was almost a surreal experience. The man who had murdered her family stood behind the table with his hands folded behind his back. He spoke first. He expressed his profound remorse for his actions. He expressed his desire to see Ruimar, Margareth and Larisson in heaven and personally apologize to them for what he had done. He expressed his love for our Savior and his desire to live faithful to His calling in this life.

Melissa had not planned to speak but, after each of her grandparents spoke, she wanted to say something. With tears streaming down her face, she said, “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.”

Those of us in that room with Melissa and her family that day were witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform a life that the enemy of our souls had claimed as his own. Although Justin will spend the rest of his life in prison, he is a free man. And Melissa is healed, healed of the horrible tragedy that she had to endure. Theirs is truly a story of the gospel at work today to both heal and restore.

After our return from Palau, we felt that what we had experienced there, must be shared with the world. With the support of friends of the DePaiva family, we embarked on producing a documentary of what God has done in and through the lives of this family. We committed to premiering the film in Palau on March 16, 2022.

As of press time [of this article], the president of Palau requested we do a four-day series of meetings when we show the film, and that Pastor Dwight Nelson preach for those meetings. A team of us, including Melissa and Michael, will travel to Palau for this event. We then will show the film on April 8 in Keene, Texas, where Melissa and Michael are currently living. Michael is the young adult pastor of the Southwestern Adventist Church, and both he and Melissa are teaching at Southwestern Adventist University. Next, we will show the film in Berrien Springs at the Howard Performing Arts Center on the campus of Andrews University on Easter Sabbath, April 16, at 4:00 p.m. Melissa considers Berrien Springs her second home so she and Michael will there for the event and Pastor Dwight will interview them after the film is shown.

This film is a story of the gospel at work today in the lives of real people. The family was willing to share their story if others could be drawn to Jesus through what they have experienced. We believe that God inspired it and has brought together the necessary elements to make it possible. It is His work and His story.

Adapted with permission from Ann Hamel’s original story, “Return to Palau.” To read the full version, visit

L. Ann Hamel is a psychologist with the International Service Employee (missionary) Support Team of the General Conference. She has a PhD in Psychology and a Doctor of Ministry degree in Formational Counseling. Having served as a missionary and experienced personal traumatic loss, she has gained greater sensitivity and understanding in how to support missionaries in crisis. She and her husband, Loren, live in Berrien Springs, Michigan.