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Mourners struggle to find peace in the face of grief
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:04 PM

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Originally published Jan. 14, 1993

On a day when nature wrapped everything in a serene, white blanket of snow, grieving loved ones draped a white cloth over the casket containing the body of 16-year-old murder victim Michael Castro.

Michael, not much older than the altar boys assisting the priest at his funeral Mass at St. Theresa Church in Palatine, was one of the seven slain people whose bodies were discovered Saturday morning at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant less than a half-mile from the church.

Wednesday also marked the funeral of Marcus Nellsen, 31, and a memorial visitation for Thomas Mennes, 32, both of Palatine. Survivors struggled Wednesday to understand why their loved ones were taken.

"Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career," a cousin of Michael Castro's read from Scripture at his funeral. "For his soul was pleasing to the Lord, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness."

That wickedness is still at large. No one has been charged with the murders. No one has explained why it happened.

"We are weighed down by a very heavy burden," said the Rev Charles H. Schlax, running through a litany of emotional cargo. "We are sad. We are angry. We are scared. Perhaps, some sense a feeling of a guilt and many of us question," the priest said.

Eight young pallbearers, six boys and two girls, carried their classmate's casket. Michael's grief-spent mother and sister were able to walk only with the support of loved ones who held and hugged each other during the trip down the church aisle before a congregation that included dozens of sobbing high school classmates.

Many of the teens wore their Palatine High School jackets and pinned light blue ribbons to their chests in honor of Michael and fellow slam classmate Rico Soils, 17, whose funeral is scheduled for Saturday.

The students clung to each other and wept throughout the service, especially at the end as a soloist sang, "Wind Beneath My Wings," a favorite song of Michael's.

The teen had dreamed of being a Marine and going to college someday.

Relatives placed a few of Michael's personal possessions, including car magazines and a license plate near the casket. The hearse carrying the boy's casket drove by the Castro's house and led a line of 150 cars past the high school on its way to All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. The funeral service focused not on the horror that claimed Michael's life, but on the celebration of that life.

"Thank you for sharing Michael with us," the priest told the Castro family "It was truly a gift."

He reminded the crowd to think of happy memories and the good things Michael had done in his short life. He urged them to keep that work alive "to make the world a better place so tragedies like this will not happen again."

• • •

That search to make something good out of something so sad also was evident as another victim of the Palatine slayings was buried Wednesday. A group of about 30 family members and friends gathered at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington to say goodbye to Marcus Nellsen, of Palatine.

Nellsen attended Willow Creek regularly, although he was not a formal member.

An American flag was draped over the casket, and Nellsen, a Navy veteran, received a full military burial with a 21-gun salute at Memory Gardens in Arlington Heights.

A white, heart-shaped floral arrangement, broken in the center by a streak of red flowers, was displayed next to the casket.

After the service, Nellsen's girlfriend, Joy McClain, said she wants Nellsen to be remembered as a generous, forgiving person and hopes his life can be an inspiration to others.

"If anything good can come of this, if by his death he helps people get motivated, that's what he would have wanted," McClain said.

Family members attending the service included Nellsen's parents, brothers and sisters, and his daughter McClain spoke during the service of the special love she had found with Nellsen in the past four months. Here are excerpts:

"Marcus was a gentle, kind, loving and forgiving young man who had an outgoing manner and personality.

He gave me back my smile, he gave me back my laughter. The only personal goal Marcus hoped to achieve in his life was to feel truly loved, unconditionally, and to feel cherished by another person. We both felt that way because our relationship didn't seem to make any sense otherwise, due to our great age difference and backgrounds.

"We gave each other a great healing that only a forgiving, gentle love can bring. He was finally being allowed to find the people in his soul that only our eternal home can provide. Do not grieve over this loss, for Marcus is in a better place now. He will always be with us, in spirit and in our hearts "

• • •

When Emil Mennes suffered a stroke last year, his brother sent him a rosary for comfort. The beads and white cross, which the pope in Rome had personally blessed, were meant to console Emil Mennes.

Tuesday, the family looked to the rosary once again. Only this time it was Emil's son, Thomas, killed at Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

With flowers abounding and an open casket, family members and friends paid their respects at the visitation held at the Ahlgrim & Son's Funeral Home in Palatine. The owner of Brown's Chicken & Pasta Inc., Frank Portillo, was among the mourners.

"I'm a little frustrated" said an angry Jerry Mennes, Thomas Mennes' twin brother. "I can't understand what happened, why it happened. I just hope they the guys, because if they don't I will."

Jerry Mennes also criticized the police department's handling of the investigation. He said officers hold have acted quicker.

"Why did it take so long for them to get all the bodies out of the cooler?," Jerry Mennes said.

His wife, Diane said that until the killer or killers is found, she will remain uneasy.

"Since we live with him and don I know what the motive was or what happened, we are fearful for our lives," she said. A Mass will be said at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas of Villanova Church on Anderson Drive in Palatine.

Meanwhile, the body of Guadalupe Maldonado, 47, who was a cook at the Brown's restaurant was flown back to Mexico Wednesday. The father of three will be buried in his native city of Leon.

Also contributing to this story were Jackie Dulen and Todd Nattenburg.