Chicago Tribune

A PALL OVER NAPERVILLE

By Michael Ko and Jeff Coen, Tribune Staff Writers. Tribune staff writers Ginger Orr, Abdon M. Pallasch and Ted...
Monday, March 8, 1999

A day after being charged with murder in the deaths of her three children, an ashen Marilyn Lemak was moved Sunday to DuPage County Jail from the Naperville hospital where she had undergone treatment.

Lemak, who had surgery at Edward Hospital to repair an artery that sources said was severed when she slashed her arm, is scheduled for a bond hearing at 8 a.m. Monday at the DuPage County Judicial Center in Wheaton.

Wearing slippers and wrapped in a white blanket, Lemak was pushed in a wheelchair to one of two Naperville police cars waiting in the hospital's ambulance bay about 12:40 p.m.

An officer on each side of her wheelchair helped her into the back seat of one of the cars, and as the cars pulled out, an officer riding next to her pulled the white blanket over her head.

Both cars turned on their sirens and turned south on Washington Street.

It was a chilling snapshot of a woman who, one week before she allegedly drugged and smothered her children in their beds, had taken her children to a neighborhood party; a woman who, despite the horrifying crime with which she has been charged, is remembered by some as a friendly, outgoing neighbor.

The crime also was the most recent stunning blow to Naperville, a booming city with a gleaming reputation. Magazines call Naperville one of the nation's friendliest cities to children; its public library is rated the country's best by the American Library Association.

Marilyn Lemak was part of that image, until Friday, prosecutors say, when she phoned police to come to her Victorian mansion in the city's historic district. When police arrived, they found the bodies of 3-year-old Thomas Lemak and 7-year-old Nicholas Lemak in their beds and their 6-year-old sister, Emily, in her parents' room.

Lemak, in the midst of a divorce from her husband of 13 years, was found near her daughter.

Prosecutors say the 41-year-old mother gave the children a mix of aspirin derivatives and prescription drugs to make them drowsy. When they had dozed off, she allegedly suffocated them, one by one, by pinching their noses and holding her hand over their mouths.

That was a stark contrast to the woman neighbors knew.

"She was the basic Naperville woman," said Shannon Watson, who lives about two blocks from the Lemaks. "She was a very nice, very outgoing, very friendly person who loved her kids."

On Feb. 25, one week before the children were slain, Lemak attended a party where Watson was selling gourmet cooking utensils. Lemak brought her children, and they played with other children as the adults talked.

During the party, Lemak talked about her divorce from her husband, David Lemak, saying it was reasonably amicable, Watson recalled.

Lemak seemed "more nonchalant about it than anything," Watson said.

At one point, Watson said, Marilyn Lemak held Emily in her lap, stroking the girl and calling her "Angel Baby."

Watson talked to Lemak on Monday night to finalize Lemak's order--a vegetable peeler, an apple corer, two oven mitts, a kitchen oil spritzer and two soap dispensers, for $80. Lemak told her that she wanted to plan another party to be held at her home.

That outgoing nature was typical of Lemak, friends said Sunday.

Known as Lynn, Lemak would wave at neighbors while she jogged or walked her children to nearby Ellsworth School. Last summer, her children set up a lemonade stand, and she worked at it with them.

About the same time, she filled several inflatable wading pools in her back yard and invited neighborhood children and their mothers to a pool party, neighbors said. She even jumped in and splashed about with the children.

Lemak participated in Junior Women, which performs charity work in Naperville, and was a member of the Naperville Heritage Society, putting her 127-year-old home on public display during one of the organization's house-walk benefits and serving as a hostess at another home.

Last Halloween, Lemak went to a party wearing a "Freudian slip" costume, in which she pulled a slip over her dress and pasted on the sayings of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.

"She was one of the few women who could do this and still look good," Watson recalled. "She could pull it off. She was a classy lady."

The Lemak slayings have sent shock and sorrow through Naperville and cast a pall over the city.

"We really feel like the whole community is just stunned from a succession of things," said Rita Mathern, a seven-year resident who fought back tears when asked about the Lemak children. "For all the apparent well-being of this town, it's amazing what's going on here."

Since early February, Naperville residents have been confronted by a string of events few could have expected.

On Feb. 10, the body of a 34-year-old disabled woman was discovered in a bathtub in her home. The woman's 18-year-old caregiver was among those charged with Naperville's first homicide since 1996.

Ten days later, a 16-year-old student in the city's schools was found dead. Authorities suspect a drug overdose.

On Feb. 26, police charged four teenagers from one of the city's most acclaimed schools, Neuqua Valley High School, with robbing $90,000 from a bank branch.

On the same day the Lemak children were slain, Naperville Police Detective Sgt. Mark Carlson, 44, one of the most decorated officers in department history, was found dead in a Cook County forest preserve of what authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"The problems of the big city have found a home here now," said Walter Macuda, who has lived in Naperville for nine years. "We've been fortunate, but it's starting to be something we're going to have to live with."

Outside the Lemaks' home at 28 S. Loomis St., a Naperville police officer in a squad car kept a silent watch as a steady procession moved past the three-story home. Many stopped to lay flowers, teddy bears, candy canes, dolls, ceramic angels and other mementos on and near three white crosses erected in the front lawn.

One handwritten note read, "We have said a prayer for you, Thomas." Another read, "Emily, let God be your answer."

Barbara Ceruti, 35, and her friend Kelly Scotti, 36, both of Naperville, stopped by the Lemaks' house on Sunday afternoon to say a prayer for the family. The women said that they did not know the Lemak family but both had children about the same ages as the Lemak children.

"Naperville is this perfect American town with perfect American families, but nobody knows what people are going through," Ceruti said. "Even in this perfect family town people are hurting."

"There's so much pressure here to have the perfect family."

Some sought solace at morning church services. Prayers were offered during morning mass at Naperville's Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, blocks from the home, where a funeral mass for the children will be said at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in Beidelman-Kunsch Funeral Home, 117 W. Van Buren Ave.

David Lemak's parents, Albert and Mary Lemak, were among the more than 500 people at the 9:30 a.m. mass Sunday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Winfield--where David Lemak attended grammar school. The group mourned the loss of the three children and prayed for the Lemak family.

During the mass, Father Michael Valente said a prayer for the Lemak family, "whose grandchildren lie in death at this very moment and whose struggle needs our prayerful support."

In his homily, Valente pointed to the deaths as an example of how material possessions do not ensure a happy life.

"Look at Naperville," he said. "It cries out that the idyllic world of material things does not satisfy us."

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