Chicago Tribune

Mom charged in slayings

By Janan Hanna
and Eric Ferkenhoff

Sunday, March 7, 1999

Crosses bearing the names of the three Lemak children mark the front yard of the Naperville home where they were slain. (Tribune photo by John Dziekan)

DuPage County prosecutors charged the mother of three slain Naperville children with murder Saturday, alleging she had given them a combination of drugs to make them drowsy and then smothered them with her hands as they slept.

Sources told the Tribune that Marilyn Lemak, 41, who is a registered nurse, then took what they believe was the same concoction of aspirin, antidepressants and sedatives Thursday night.

When she awoke the next morning, she called 911, officials said. Then she slashed her arm at the spot where physicians and nurses take blood, the sources said.

She was taken to Edward Hospital in Naperville, where doctors repaired a severed artery. Sources said she was heavily sedated and had been placed under police guard.

State's Atty. Joseph Birkett said Saturday that Lemak was expected to be moved Sunday from the hospital to the Naperville Police Department for booking and then to the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton, where she would await a bond hearing Monday morning.

She is being represented by Geneva attorney John F. Donahue, who declined to comment Saturday.

Birkett declined to discuss details of the case, including the possible motive for the slayings. Law enforcement sources said Lemak had given investigators a statement, but Birkett would not discuss its content.

"Cases where children are murdered defy logic and reason," said Birkett, who appeared to be struggling to fight back his emotions at times during the news conference.

"Why people do horrible things to children is not for me to think about or to consider. Just the thought of it is aggravating, and no one can provide the answers to that question and we are not going to seek to answer that question now," he said.

"If the answers to that question come during the course of the follow-up investigation, fine. But there's no reason to kill three beautiful children. There isn't."

Birkett said that if convicted, Lemak would be eligible for the death penalty, though he had not yet decided whether to seek it.

According to Birkett and investigators, 6-year-old Emily Lemak and 3-year-old Thomas Lemak were killed first, soon after arriving home from school Thursday afternoon. They were given the medicine to make them drowsy, which prompted investigators to believe that their killer had not wanted them to suffer pain.

After the children were asleep, Birkett said, Lemak allegedly went to their beds and placed a hand over their mouths and pinched their noses until they suffocated.

Lemak's oldest son, 7-year-old Nicholas, arrived home around dusk, following after-school activities. Birkett said he received the same drugs as his younger siblings and, once he fell asleep, was smothered as well.

Police did not learn of the crime until Lemak called 911 around 11 a.m. Friday.

When police arrived at the home, they found the two boys in their beds and the girl in her parents' room, investigators said. There were no signs of physical trauma -- bruises or cuts -- on their bodies.

Lemak was on the floor near her daughter.

Soon afterward, her estranged husband, David, 41, arrived. He ran to the home, but police stopped him and led him to a squad car, where he sat inside talking with officers. He broke into sobs shortly after, neighbors said.

Two of the drugs allegedly used on the children are prescription medicines. The third was an over-the-counter aspirin derivative, sources said.

Birkett said toxicology tests would be conducted in the next few weeks to determine exactly what substances were in the children's bloodstreams.

"This case, as with the murder of any child, obviously no words can express what the family is going through," Birkett said. "And I don't think words would be sufficient to try to explain why anyone would engage in this kind of behavior, so we're not going to get into that discussion."

Although investigators would not speculate about a possible motive, Marilyn and David Lemak had been going through a divorce, and David Lemak recently had moved out of the family's three-story Victorian home at 28 S. Loomis St., in the heart of Naperville's historic district.

The couple married Sept. 7, 1985, in Winfield. After David Lemak completed his medical residency in Ohio, the couple moved back to DuPage County. They bought their home in 1991, in anticipation of starting their family.

Marilyn Lemak worked part time as a nurse, but often was seen walking or driving her children to and from school every day--or jogging around the neighborhood.

Gary Espey, father of one of Nicholas' best friends, described her as "the typical Naperville mother. . . . She was always there picking up the kids after school and allowing a bunch of kids to come home to play."

All three children attended Ellsworth Elementary School, just a few blocks away from the home. The youngest was a preschooler at the YMCA Safe and Sound Day Care program that operates out of Ellsworth.

Another Ellsworth parent described Marilyn Lemak as very involved in school activities and said she recently helped organize a clothing exchange as a school fundraiser.

In April 1997, Marilyn Lemak sought a divorce, but the two reconciled. The case was dismissed the following August.

She filed again for divorce in June 1998. The couple went through counseling and mediation, agreeing to child custody and visitation rights.

David Lemak "had regular visitation schedules with his children," Birkett said Saturday. "He was, according to all the information we have, a very concerned and caring father and saw his children regularly."

The couple's divorce file stated that David Lemak "reduced his work schedule the end of April 1998 in order to have more time to spend with his family." He also stated that he made breakfast, helped dress the children and drove them to activities when he was not working.

As the divorce case proceeded, Marilyn Lemak asked the court last summer for exclusive possession of their home because living with David Lemak was "causing serious episodes of stress which have resulted in physical symptoms," according to court records.

David Lemak fought to stay in the house, saying it "is not in the best interests of the parties' children to remove the respondent (David Lemak) from the marital residence . . . and it is in the best interests of the children to continue to have a close and loving relationship with their father on a daily basis."

He also argued that the mortgage on the house is $3,500 a month and that he had been paying it. Meanwhile, according to documents he filed with the court, his wife had been working only sporadically at Dreyer Medical Clinic in Aurora and her annual income had dropped from a high of $18,875 in 1996 to less than $5,000 last year.

The judge denied her petition in September. Nevertheless, about three weeks before the slayings, David Lemak moved out of the house and found another residence on the same street.

But the Lemaks appeared to try to maintain their loving relationships with their children.

Emily had long admired a neighbor's cats, so just three weeks ago her parents bought her a calico of her own, which she named Cupcake.

Birkett said David Lemak, an emergency room physician at Hinsdale Hospital and Bolingbrook Medical Center, "is obviously grief-stricken."

"Words can't express what he, his family, his friends and neighbors are going through. He is numb," Birkett added. "I just tried to let him know what's taking place today and that we'll do all we can to

help him."

At the family house in Naperville, impromptu memorials sprouted.

Just beyond the yellow police tape in a corner of the Lemaks' front yard, a Sugar Grove carpenter placed three 5-foot crosses, one for each of the children, their names written in green marker.

Greg Zanis, 48, said he was contacted by the mother of a classmate of Nicholas' who asked him to plant the crosses, which he does frequently as a memorial to victims of homicide and drunken-driving accidents.

"This is not supposed to happen," Zanis said.

Noting the Victorian home's beauty, he added: "Doesn't it look just like a doll house? It's gorgeous. Now it's a murder site. It's defiled ground."

At the bottom of the crosses, visitors placed flowers, miniature teddy bears and Beanie Babies.

Funeral arrangements for the children were being handled by Beidelman-Kunsch Funeral Home, 117 W. Van Buren Ave., Naperville. No date or time had been set Saturday night.

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