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Glare of publicity has dimmed, but families' grief strong as ever
By John Carpenter | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:11 PM

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Originally published Jan. 30, 1993

The hardest time of day for Evelyn Urgena is 10:45 at night, when her son, Rico Solis, used to get home from working at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine.

"That is the time he opens the door and comes home," she said this week. "We don't see each other in the morning because he goes to school, so that is when I see him. Now I don't see him anymore. I don't believe it. I cry and cry and cry."

Emmanuel Castro says his family is on an emotional roller coaster.

"We are broken to pieces," said Castro, whose son, Michael, was killed in the massacre. "One minute, we are OK. The next minute, we are all crying."

"It's still so hard to believe," said Diane Clayton, the mother of victim Marcus Nellsen, 31. "I know it happened, but sometimes I just try to pretend to myself it didn't happen."

"She still hasn't recovered," Juana Maldonado said of Beatriz Maldonado, the widow of Guadalupe Maldonado. "She still feels the loss. It's very hard for her. She still can't believe it."

This is life today for the family members of the seven victims of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders in Palatine three weeks ago. Long after the glare of the television lights has faded, their grief has not. There are high school lockers to be cleaned out, clothes to be put away, birthdays - like Rico Soils' 18th next week - to be observed.

But to the extent these families are surviving, they are doing so, they say, because of support from families and friends as well as thousands of people they don't even know who have sent money to help with funeral costs, flowers to lift spirits or cards to offer prayers.

"It helps me. I've lived here for so long, I know how the community is," said Diane Mennes, the wife of victim Thomas Mennes' twin, Jerry.

Thomas Mennes, 32, did not have life insurance, so the Palatine Cares fund drive was especially welcome, she said.

Each family was given a check for $511,000 Friday. More money is expected to be raised before the fund is closed at the end of the month.

After that, a scholarship fund will be established and money will be raised for that, village officials say.

"The outpouring is just incredible. Everyone in my family has just been awe-struck by this incredible outpouring of support for all of us," said Jennifer Ehlenfeldt, daughter of Brown's Chicken and Pasta owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, both killed in the restaurant.

"It can't change the fact of what happened - that we're missing seven very important people," she said. "I didn't think that kind of outpouring still existed in today's community. We're very appreciative and thankful of Palatine and the other communities that have donated money."

All of the money the Maldonado family will receive will go toward raising Guadalupe's children: Juan Pablo, 13; Javier, 10; and Salvador, 5.

"I'm happy for the kids," Juana Maldonado said. "I'm happy that the people have been so giving."

Urgena agreed: "I do not have words for it, the love and support people have given. No money can buy back the life of my son. But people are wonderful."

"I lost my brother and that hurt a lot," said Mary Jane Castro, 22, whose brother, Michael, 16, was killed. "And all the prayers and support from people have helped a lot. I don't know what it is, but I can feel the prayers."

Although all of the victims' family members say it is difficult to get through each day, Urgena found it impossible to do so in her Arlington Heights apartment, where she lived with her daughters, her husband and her son, Rico Solis. She and her family have moved to an apartment in Chicago, closer to many of her friends.

"I cannot stay there by myself. There are too many memories," she said. "I am a person that imagines too much. I feel his presence. I feel him touching my hair."

Clayton said returning to her home in Millington, Tenn., after Nellsen's funeral has helped because there is less news coverage of the massacre.

Although she wants the killer or killers to come to justice, she has no compulsion to stay close to the investigation.

"I know a lot of people feel we should be told more," said Clayton, who has talked to a Palatine investigator once since she returned home Jan. 15. "But what could we do with it? What good would it do to know what kind of gun it was? I'm very happy with the way the investigation is going."

Others agree. Following every detail of the investigation is not their highest priority.

"My husband wasn't too happy about how the police left the bodies in there," said Diane Mennes, who waited at home with her family until police finally removed the bodies about 17 hours after the gruesome murder was discovered.

"I kept telling him, they wanted to cover all the bases. I think it's better off if they keep the investigation to themselves. They could have the guy right under their fingernails, and blow it. I feel the police are trying their best," she said.

Make no mistake, however, family members are anxious to have this case closed.

"I will not have peace, and the people who died will not be at peace until this crime is solved," said Epifania Castro, mother of Michael Castro.

Urgena believes it will be the killers' own guilt that will solve the crime if the police don't first. "They are bad people," she said. "But they still have consciences. I believe that."

For many, the tragedy takes on different proportions because of the plans it destroyed. Manny Castro has worked for more than 20 years building up his printing business on Chicago's North side. At 51, he was starting to think about retirement.

His son, Michael, had plans to join the U.S. Marine Corps and go to college. After that, Manny said, the business would be turned over to him.

"My wife and I wanted to move back to the Philippines, to live a quiet life near trees and the water," he said. "Now what will we do? Who do I give my business to?"

Nellsen moved with his mother to Millington when he was a teenager, then joined the U.S. Navy at age 17. Marcus Nellson moved to Chicago after his discharge from the Navy. But he still kept in touch with his mother in Tennessee.

"He called me twice Christmas Day," Clayton said. "I talked to him once after Christmas. He had sent me a book about the right things to eat, and he wanted to know if I read it."

Joy McClain, Nellsen's girlfriend, now lives alone in the house they shared. She sometimes feels left out, since so much of the community support is directed to victims' relatives.

But, she said, "I'm going to work on doing what Marcus would want me to do: keep the laughter in my life, keep positive, see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty, don't get bitter."

Just as it is often small things that trigger memories and bring sorrow, so, too, can small things bring a smile. Mary Jane Castro, for example, is very much the proud, older sister as she shows off his class ring from Palatine High School, just delivered Friday.

"He spent a lot of time picking out the style," she says. "I didn't think green could look that good."

"I told him to get the pirate on the side so he did," she adds, referring to the school's nickname. "On the other side though, it's weird how it says 'memories.'"

Daily Herald staff writers Diane Dungey, Deedra Lawhead and Wilson Medina contributed to this story.