It was 1973, and unknown to him, 16-year-old John Fransisco was about to enter a lifetime of ministry. But for now, he was excited about riding along as a bus captain for Central Assembly of God in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each Saturday he would drive out to his assigned neighborhood and go door-to-door to invite people to “ride the bus to church” on Sunday.
His task was simple enough, though it was stretching him in uncomfortable ways as going out on his own, knocking on doors, and inviting strangers to church was a whole new experience for him.
Although God certainly had many purposes in mind through Fransisco’s willingness to serve, one of the purposes of this ministry was preparing a path for the redemption of a person many people might consider unredeemable. And it began with a stop at a little brown house.
“I noticed a little brown house built on the back of the lot, a good distance from the street,” Fransisco recalls. “There was a dirt driveway winding its way up to house . . . I had never noticed this unique home. But this time it stuck out like a lighthouse in stormy waters. I felt that internal impulse again. The Holy Spirit was prompting me to knock on the door.”
Was this a “God-is-speaking-to-me” moment for Fransisco? A large, barking dog on the front porched convinced him otherwise. He got in his car and drove away, only to circle the block three times, with each lap the voice inside becoming more urgent for him to go knock on that door. “The Holy Spirit wouldn’t let me [leave],” he states.
Fransisco was surprised when his knock was answered and his invitation was well received. The mother, Judy, thought it would be a fine idea for her daughters, Lisa and Patty, to go to church.
“The girls were two of my most faithful riders,” Fransisco recalls. “Over the next several months, I began to look forward to my Saturday visits to the little brown house.”
Fransisco got to know the girls and Judy well through his weekly Saturday visits. Judy even started to periodically attend as well. However, the man of the house kept his distance — he seemed dark, angry, and strict.
In 1975, when Lisa was 7 and Patty 6, Fransisco resigned his bus route. He headed off to Evangel College (now University) to begin a new chapter in his life while continuing to strive to be faithful to the Lord’s call.
“Even though I lost track of my entire bus family,” Fransisco notes, “I often prayed for them, especially Lisa and Patty.” He had no idea that God would use this relationship, decades into the future, to bring about the salvation of a woman whose actions stunned the country.
It had been 37 years since Fransisco left home for college. Since that time, he had completed collegiate and graduate studies; gotten married; raised three children; served in pastoral ministry, denominational ministry, and as an AGWM missionary; and was now teaching as a missionary-in-residence at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota. Over those years, he had plenty of encounters with victories and losses, disappointments and surprises, hurts and healings.
But even a person with such a wide variety of ministry experience couldn’t help but feel the stuttering shock of what he was about to find out next. It began with a phone call from a friend back from his bus-captain days at Central Assembly.
The friends told him how an attorney was looking for someone who might remember a child that rode one of the six Central Assembly buses in the early 1970s.
After nearly 40 years, and with so many buses and children, Fransisco had to laugh to himself — he could only remember maybe three names of kids from back then, and the odds of one of them being the right one? Not a chance.
Fransisco called the lawyer — she was a mitigating attorney, which Fransisco later learned specialized in getting her clients’ sentences reduced. In this case, the person was facing the death penalty.
The attorney explained that her client had been convicted of strangling an eight-month-pregnant woman to death and then used a knife to slice open her abdomen and womb in order to deliver the baby, which soon afterwards she presented to people as her own. It was a difficult account to listen to, but Fransisco recalled hearing about this particularly gruesome crime as it had made national and international news in 2004.
“After the attorney’s detailed explanation concerning the case, she asked if I wanted to know the name of the person who had committed this heinous crime,” Fransisco says. “I didn’t, but I said, ‘Yes.’ She told me her name was Lisa. Without any hesitation I said, ‘And her sister’s name is Patty.’ Before the words had exited my mouth, my gut contracted and a cold shiver swept over my body. My mind raced as I tried to comprehend the nearly incomprehensible — that my little, sweet Lisa had killed someone.”
The attorney set up a time to interview Fransisco for a few days later, giving him time to reflect, compose, and most importantly, pray.
God revealed to him that his visit to that “little brown house” and the Montgomery family decades ago was no accident; that the unrelenting urging of the Holy Spirit had a powerful purpose.
“The Lord had pushed me to make my way to the door despite my fear of dogs,” he says. “My presence in Lisa’s life didn’t end when I left Tulsa. My calling to help her was really just beginning.”
In his meeting with the attorney, memories came flooding back to Fransisco. God had given him an overwhelming compassion for Lisa — for her life and her soul. He explained the calling God had placed on him, stating that he was going to visit Lisa in prison.
The attorney informed him that his chances to visit Lisa were slim to none, as inmates on death row are very isolated and typically limited to visits from their families and attorneys.
“I was not discouraged.,” Fransisco says. “I smiled to acknowledge her comments, but I knew in my heart that God would provide a way to make this happen.”
THE MINISTRY BEGINS
It took a year for Fransisco to obtain Lisa’s address – he wrote her, unsure if she would even remember who he was. Six days later, he received a letter back. Not only did she remember who he was, she remembered his mom had been her Sunday School teacher — a fact he had forgotten!
“When I mailed the letter in November 2013, I just prayed for God to reopen a door that had been closed for so many years,” Fransisco says. “When I received such a quick response and with the fact she remembered my mom as her teacher, I just received that as a sign from the Lord that I was on the right track.”
A correspondence ministry between Fransisco and Lisa began. He explains that even though he had heard about and was repulsed by the murder while he was a missionary in Peru, he had never connected “his” Lisa with the act — her last name was no longer the same and she was a child when he had last seen her.
“Personally, I was repulsed by what I read about her. It was difficult to believe anyone could ever do what she had done on that fateful day,” Fransisco says. “As much as I wanted to try and understand why she had done such a terrible thing, this was never my agenda. I did not ask her the ‘why’ question. What I would eventually learn about her motives and state of mind voluntarily emerged in her letters and our conversations. God had sent me on a mission.”
For Fransisco, the mission was twofold: to do all that he could to make sure she made it to heaven at the end of her life and to help her find a reason for living despite her extreme conditions. “I was never to judge her,” he says.
TURNING TOWARD A NEW LIFE
The months of correspondence turned to years. As Lisa was an avid reader, Fransisco sent her inspirational books and Bibles to read. He even sent her a complete Bible commentary, which she consumed like all the other books he sent her way.
In one letter she wrote: “Okay, first of all I should let you know that I hardly ever stay up past 10 pm and tonight I was up until 11 pm because I could not put that book down. Every time I turned a page, I learned something new, it is so great . . . I love the book you sent. I have been reading it along with my Bible. It’s given me several new insights into what is meant. I looked up several of my favorite Bible passages, I’m a big fan of Psalms . . .”
Fransisco says that Lisa also began downloading Christian songs to listen to on an MP3 player the prison provided. As her relationship with Christ began to grow, so did her desire to influence others for Christ, starting with her family. She not only made changes in how she communicated with them, but also made them a focus of her prayer life.
In another letter she wrote: “I love the Battle Plan for Prayer. I’ve been reading one chapter a day as it suggested and have already changed some things. I also have a list of prayers taped to the wall beside my bed so I can often look at it and pray about them. I feel this sense of peace because I don’t have to worry about everything. It’s in God’s hands and He never messes things up.”
Lisa began carefully sharing her faith with other inmates as opportunities presented themselves. She also began knitting and tatting, providing items such as gloves, blankets, mittens, ornaments, bookmarks, and booties to people in need as well as family members, including for Fransisco to use and distribute.
“I’m convinced that the way Lisa lived her life was probably the greatest way she impacted the other prisoners,” Fransisco states. “It is hard to image what life is truly like behind bars. It is even more difficult to understand the emotional swings a person on death row experiences as the appeals come and go . . . [but]I believe her letters show that she leaned on the Lord in her most needy moments.”
Despite the attorney’s warnings to the contrary, Fransisco was permitted to go visit Lisa in prison in August 2014 over a two-day period. By that time, Lisa had been in prison for more than 10 years.
“Our conversation was stiff at first,” Fransisco recalls. “We had not seen each other for 40 years, when she was a little girl and I was a teenager.”
But as the time passed, the conversation began to flow. Lisa shared about prison life and her memories from Central Assembly, indicating that those years at the church were the best and happiest of her life. She also shared about how her family started to move constantly, that she was sexually abused by her stepfather with her mother’s knowledge, and her requests to get mental help as a mother (prior to the murder) went unheeded. After the murder, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, among other things.
Her illnesses were still no excuse for the atrocities committed, but Fransisco wonders if Lisa had received the mental help she desired, if that would have been a catalyst to recovery, sparing so many so much anguish.
However, unable to change her past, though having expressed her great remorse and sought out God’s forgiveness, Lisa committed to continuing to change her present and, as much as it was up to her, her future. She hoped and prayed that her sentence would be reduced to life in prison, but even if not, that she could make a difference in the lives of her children and the inmates and prison personnel she knew.
Even with her appeals failing, Lisa continued to believe that God had a special purpose for her life, whether she lived or died. She asked Fransisco, if she was to be executed, to not permit her children to watch and to try to protect them from the media. He agreed to do whatever he could.
Early in her incarceration, there were several times depression overwhelmed Lisa and she made suicide attempts. And now, with her lawyers’ petitions and appeals being rejected repeatedly, Fransisco knew Lisa was struggling, but maintaining her faith in Christ. He had already promised to do what he could, if Lisa was executed, to let others know about how God had transformed her life.
Despite Fransisco’s personal desire and prayers, coupled with that of many others, to see Lisa’s sentence reduced to life in prison, it did not happen. But Fransisco remained committed to his calling of doing all that was in his power to see that Lisa entered heaven.
As Lisa’s execution date approached in January 2021, Fransisco drove to Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal prisoners on death row were put to death. Lisa was flown in from Dallas.
“I was allowed to visit Lisa at the penitentiary,” Fransisco says. “I had made arrangements with the chaplain ahead of time to celebrate communion with her.”
Lisa, however, had to remain on the other side of a plexiglass barrier and a phone was used to communicate.
“To my great delight, two of her attorneys were there visiting her,” Fransisco recalls. “These ladies wanted to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us.”
Although Fransisco was told he could accompany Lisa into the execution chamber and pray with her and sing hymns as she was executed, at the last minute the permission was rescinded.
“As the clock struck midnight and we moved into another day, Jan. 13, 2021, word arrived that all of the final appeals had been denied by the courts.” Fransisco says. “The harsh reality that Lisa was going to die shortly began to sink into our minds and hearts. I didn’t want to witness this, but I had made a promise. God had predetermined my small role in this narrative 47 years earlier. Despite the knot in my stomach, I had a supernatural sense of peace. I knew Lisa’s final destiny was not the execution chamber. Her forever home would be heaven. She would get to meet her Savior face-to-face in a few short moments. It would be the new beginning she so desperately longed for.”
In looking back on how God had given a kid the courage to knock on a door 47 years ago to how He prepared him to be ready to help walk with Lisa throughout her seven-year journey to eternity — Fransisco considers the love, grace, and forgiveness of God.
“Lisa’s transformation was a work of the Holy Spirit demonstrated by the wonderful acts of kindness that dominated the last few years of her life,” Fransisco observes. “Even her children noticed the changes.” In the end, her family came to truly love her.
Although Fransisco came to love Lisa as a daughter, he also recognizes the horrific consequences of sin — to the victim and her family and friends as well as to Lisa and her family and friends.
“Some believe God forgiving such a heinous act such as Lisa’s isn’t fair or just — and it isn’t,” Fransisco says. “But isn’t that the definition of grace — paradise would be completely empty without God’s grace. So, yes, God’s forgiveness and grace are not fair, and for that, we all should be eternally thankful.”
Lisa once asked Fransisco, if she should be executed, to help make something positive from the negative she created. That’s why, Fransisco says, he shared this story.
“If someone reads this story, comes face to face with their own sinfulness, and seeks to find the forgiveness and peace that comes through repentance and a real relationship with Jesus Christ, just as Lisa did despite her horrible deed,” Fransisco says, “then God has miraculously made good from evil.”