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Pain lives one year after massacre
By Diane Dungey | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:43 PM

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Originally published Jan. 7, 1994

There are, in Manny and Epifania Castro's home, unmistakable signs of a teenager's presence.

A candy cane, left partly eaten when son Michael rushed out of the house after school to go to work for what was the last time.

Christmas cookies from a year ago, shaped by Michael's hands. A bottle of shampoo he bought. The freshly washed white pickup truck in the driveway, Michael's pride and joy. The recorded telephone messages he sometimes left at his dad's work when he checked in after school: "I'm home and I'm going to the library."

Lovingly collected and carefully hoarded, such everyday remnants of an energetic 16-year-old are the only physical reminders the Castros have of their youngest child.

Michael Castro, a Palatine High School junior, was the youngest of seven people slain on a cold Friday night a year ago at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine.

The horror of the murders left an indelible mark on the community. A year later, though, life goes on. Traffic no longer slows at the intersection of Smith Street and Northwest Highway, where the closed Brown's is located. Fast-food restaurants in the Chicago area have little trouble finding teens to work.

But for the family members and friends left after the Jan. 8, 1993, murders, there has been no return to normalcy.

For them, it has been a year of endless pain - a year that some say passed by unbelievably quickly while they focused inward on their grief. For others, the time has gone agonizingly slowly as they struggle through each day.

"We don't care if we have money. We don't care if we have something to eat," Epifania Castro said "I feel numb. I have no emotions or anything. All I have is pain."

The names of the victims are engraved in memory: Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt of Arlington Heights, parents of three daughters and owners of the Brown's for a year; Guadalupe Maldonado, 47, who had moved from Mexico with his wife and three sons just a month before; Thomas Mennes, 32, a lifelong Palatine resident; Marcus Nellsen, 31, an assistant manager trainee who recently had moved to Palatine to be with his girlfriend; Rico Solis, 17, a Palatine High School senior who had left the Philippines to join his mother in Arlington Heights just eight months earlier; and Michael Castro.

For some families, the year brought financial difficulties. Maldonado's widow, Beatriz, who had not worked in their 13-year marriage, took a factory job to help support three sons.

For all, it's been a year of hoping for the killers' capture while dreading the thought of enduring a trial.

"Every day you think either you're one day further away from knowing the truth or you're one day closer, depending on how you look at it," said Jennifer Ehlenfeldt, 24, the oldest daughter of the restaurant owners.

With the year behind them, the survivors have at least that: They've survived. That is a comfort, even in the face of a future without their loved ones.

"I hate the idea of knowing I have to go through life knowing my son was murdered," said Diane Clayton of Millington, Tenn., mother of Marcus Nellsen.

It's an odd existence for the families and close friends who remain in Palatine. Strangers recognize their faces and names. Reporters know where they live and work. Police, searching for a suspect, have scrutinized their friends and acquaintances.

Accompanying her widowed Aunt Beatriz and her Uncle Guadalupe's body on a plane to Mexico after the murders, Maria Maldonado realized what celebrities they'd become.

A man looked at them in apparent recognition, then sent the flight attendant over with a cash gift.

Details of their lives are uncomfortably public.

"My relationship with Marcus was so unconventional. I had to convince myself I didn't care what my family or friends thought, and then he gets murdered and the whole world knows this old lady is running around with this young kid," said Joy McClain, girlfriend and roommate of Nellsen, who was 19 years her junior.

Frances Mennes, Thomas' stepmother, said she never considered moving away from Palatine. "You can't blame the town for what happened," she said.

Others found leaving to be a less painful alternative.

On the third day after the murders, Rico Solis' family moved out of their Arlington Heights apartment, never to return.

"All the memories were there," said his mother, Evelyn Urgena, who now lives in Chicago. "Every corner of the suburbs brings it to mind."

Urgena did not tell the pastor of her new church about her connection to the tragedy, then was jolted when a priest mentioned the murders in his year-end homily.

The Ehlenfeldt daughters also left, at least initially, two of them to college in Urbana, another back to a job in Madison, Wis.

The distance helped. But then came graduation for Dana, 21, and summer break for Joy, 19.

"The summer, we made it through," said Jennifer, who spent it in Madison while her sisters stayed with families in the Northwest suburbs. "It was harder than they expected, living in the area but not in the neighborhood, driving around and not turning to go home."

In December, the daughters severed one tie to their old life, announcing they would not attempt to reopen the restaurant.

It is difficult to put things behind and still hold on to memories.

The occasional dreams Manny Castro has of his son are so detailed that the first moments of waking from them are rare instances of happiness.

At night, Epifania meditates and prays in Michael's room, which has not been touched. Photos of Michael, surrounded by prayer cards, cover the piano and dining room table.

"Maybe my faith is still weak, because I want reassurance that Michael's OK," she said. "I really want someone to tell me Michael's OK."

Urgena keeps a small altar by her bed with pictures of Rico and Michael. Every night, she prays the rosary there.

Near the constellation Taurus, there's a star Joy McClain registered in Nellsen's name. In November, she went to the observatory at Harper College, where the staff helped her find it.

"That gives me some comfort, to know that star is up there," she said.

Jerry Mennes finds solace in his brother's room, where he goes in the evenings to light a candle by Tom's picture and play his brother's music - Pink Floyd, or Led Zeppelin. He believes he sometimes feels his brother's presence in their home - a thought echoed by other families.

For the survivors, the grief and loss is compounded by wondering how much the victims suffered and how much time they had to contemplate their fates.

What tortures Manny Castro the most is that he wasn't there. At 11:20 that night, he figures, maybe only an hour after his son and the others were shot, he waited in the restaurant parking lot and worried because Michael hadn't come home.

Only the cement brick wall and the infamous green rear door of the restaurant separated him from his boy, dead or - Castro thinks - maybe still dying, sitting slumped against the wall of a walk-in freezer with his arm propped on a shelf.

"The horrible time I was looking for my son," he said, "all the time I was looking for him, he was there, behind that door."

Special days, once eagerly awaited, now are especially cruel.

On the April 12 birthday he shared with his twin, Jerry Mennes left a small sign on the strip of grass east of Brown's. Then, he just went home to his thoughts.

"Usually, we'd drink a few beers together," he said. "I didn't have anyone to drink with, so I didn't drink."

Then there was Christmas, with the inescapable memories of a 1992 holiday season celebrated so blithely in the face of looming tragedy.

"The songs, especially 'I'll be Home for Christmas' - I can't stand it," said Urgena, who spent Christmas Eve in Glendale Heights with friends to avoid being confronted with Rico's absence.

Michael Castro loved Christmas. He and his mother put up the Christmas tree every Thanksgiving evening. This time, Epifania did it alone; Manny, overtaken by grief, stayed in the bedroom.

Michael had spent his last Christmas Eve making cookies at sister Mary Jane's apartment in Des Plaines.

"There was flour everywhere," she recalls. "We kept cracking up and laughing. It was probably the best Christmas we had."

In 1993, the mourning family did not even exchange presents.

"There was a time," Manny Castro said, "when I blamed God: 'Why did you not take me?'"

Just a few months ago, he came around to another line of thought.

"Thank you, almighty God," he prays now. "Thank you for the 16 years that you lent us your son, Michael."

If that signals a certain amount of acceptance, it shouldn't be taken as a sign the pain has eased. After nearly 365 days, the Castros still return home each evening to hours of sadness and emptiness. When morning comes again, they are reluctant to leave the memories behind.

Each day, as they leave for work, Manny and Epifania Castro turn back to the too-quiet house and repeat a phrase they've said many times before: "Bye, Michael. Be good."