Chicago Tribune

MOTHER'S PATH FROM DESPAIR TO TRAGEDY

Divorce records reveal inner conflict preceding slayings

By Janan Hanna
and Ted Gregory

Tribune Staff Writers
March 14, 1999


Marilyn Lemak

Six months ago, Marilyn Lemak went before a Divorce Court judge to show that living with her husband was causing her emotional problems.

If she could prove that, the judge might grant her request that her husband, David Lemak, move out of the big Victorian home in Naperville where they were raising three young children. Marilyn Lemak told the judge that she felt "ignored as a parent and as a wife."

"Feelings of just, well, I was just feeling very stressed," she said in September. "I felt like I was always either being ignored or my authority overrided or just my concerns belittled."

She said she was suffering physical symptoms due to the stress of the household: severe headaches, neck and back tension, and jaw clenching, which was causing pain in her face. She said the symptoms were lessened when David Lemak was not around.

But the Divorce Court hearing did not go her way.

No matter how hard she and her attorney tried, Marilyn Lemak could not muster enough evidence to prove to the judge that she was suffering emotional distress because she was sharing the house with her husband.

To her, though, the evidence apparently was overwhelming.

Today, Marilyn Lemak is in a DuPage County Jail cell -- at times nearly catatonic, her attorney says -- charged with murdering her three children in the Naperville home.

On Monday, Marilyn Lemak's defense attorney is set to go to court to discuss initial findings of a psychiatric exam at the jail and could ask to have her moved to a psychiatric ward. That will begin what will likely become an ongoing, months-long dissection of Marilyn Lemak's mental condition before and after the killings.

Just over one week after the crimes, the picture of her mental state remains blurred, even to many who knew her well.

But from court papers that document her own words, an image emerges of intense inner conflicts in the months leading up to the slayings, even as she appeared to others to move easily through day-to-day life.

Some of her friends say they saw no signs of serious problems. "She hid it well," one said.

One friend of Marilyn Lemak's confided to another: "It breaks my heart that Lynn didn't come to me."

According to family members, Marilyn Lemak had suffered from depression, which apparently began with postpartum depression after the birth of her youngest child, Thomas, in 1995.

But that alone does little to explain the scene police found: her three children methodically drugged and suffocated; her own arm slashed in a botched suicide; a wedding photo with an X-acto knife through the chest of her husband's image; a wedding dress crumpled on the bathroom floor.

"She was in a state of depression and obviously wasn't feeling great because of the divorce," said her criminal attorney, John Donahue. "But that's typical of every divorce situation, and within a short period of time (before the slayings), things were going on quite normal.

"We haven't discovered any triggering event of a traumatic nature."

Law enforcement sources, however, have said that in a hospital-room statement, Marilyn Lemak said she was prompted, in part, by the fact that her husband had begun dating.

Donahue doubts that.

"No. 1, there's no way this woman could have made a voluntary statement that would be coherent," Donahue said. "No. 2, it's hogwash. I don't believe it's a causal connection. Even if it was a fact, it's not a causal connection here."

Other sources say Marilyn Lemak was worried about the implications her husband's dating might have on the children's future, whether it would affect the custody agreements or time the children spent with each parent.

Her divorce attorney, however, said Marilyn Lemak never appeared angered by the divorce proceedings to the point of planning retribution.

"This isn't a woman in my opinion who said, 'I'll fix that s.o.b., I'm gonna rob the bank, kill the children, and burn the house,' " said the attorney, Daniel Kuhn.

In fact, transcripts from hearings in the divorce show a woman who seemed to care deeply about her children but was troubled by her relationship with her husband.

In one appearance, an attorney asked why she had withdrawn an earlier petition for divorce.

"I had a change of heart," Marilyn Lemak said. "I just felt, you know, how could I do this to my children, is what I felt."

At another point, she said she believed the children should be told about the pending divorce.

"The children are young," she said. "They don't understand that if dad is unhappy and mom is unhappy and they don't know why, I believe that they will think it's because of them.

"And I don't want that to happen. That's their developmental age."

Kuhn said, "The children were clearly a priority with her in my discussions with her. . . . Their well-being and security, that was always foremost in her discussions."

Indeed, it was stress associated with raising the children that caused tension at home, she said in the divorce proceedings.

In one incident, Marilyn Lemak recounted how she had disciplined her son:

"(M)y one 7-year-old son was being punished, and Dave was not home; and so I was in charge of, you know, making the punishment, and my son got sent to his room for the rest of the day starting at 4 o'clock. And when Dave came home, we were having dinner.

"My son was allowed to come down for dinner. And (David) was aware of what was going on. I told him what was going on. And he kind of in a very loud whisper to my son said, 'Well, maybe if you are really nice to mom, she will let you go to Blockbuster and pick out a movie to watch tonight.' "

Asked how she felt about the incident, Marilyn Lemak replied:

"Like my authority was being completely ignored. I felt belittled. I felt like, you know, I had no say in what had gone on all day. And now dad came home and was going to be the nice guy I guess."

Her own descriptions of the marriage suggest that she was feeling some isolation.

Under questioning by her divorce attorney, Marilyn Lemak recounted a bit of the history of her marriage and events leading up to her decision to file for a divorce, first in 1997 and again in 1998.

She said she and David Lemak had gone to a "couple of different counselors over the past several years" and that they couldn't resolve their differences.

She said that after she first filed for divorce, David Lemak promised her that things would change: that he would "be more emotionally available," be more "emotionally responsive to myself, to the children . . . follow through on things."

Marilyn Lemak also said that on a day when they had agreed to tell the children that they were having some problems and that they were talking to different people to try to iron them out, David Lemak took the kids out for the day so they couldn't have the discussion.

She also said she sometimes felt "humiliated."

"Just a few days ago I felt humiliated," she said in court. "He wanted his parents to come over to our house. And I said I didn't want that. And he wanted to know why. And I said because I feel uncomfortable in my house as it is.

"To have other family scrutinizing us is, you know . . . it's humiliating, and I feel that way quite a bit in front of our family and friends, and I have to play the one big happy family routine."

If she was playing a role, she did so convincingly.

One friend said Marilyn Lemak's world revolved around her family and her neighborhood, and she didn't spend much time talking about her work as a nurse.

"She was just very social and outgoing," said one friend. "She loved to talk to people and enjoyed organizing things for the kids.

"She had a great sense of humor and was real playful," the woman said. "That's why this is so hard to accept."

Dan Toner, a tax lawyer who lives down the block from the Lemak house, said there was no sign that Marilyn Lemak was having emotional problems.

"That's what shocked us. There was absolutely no sign -- she was such a good mother. Absolutely no sign that there was any impairment of character."

Nor did any depression push her into isolation.

About two months ago, Marilyn Lemak began attending New Beginnings, a weekly support group for separated, divorced and widowed people.

"If she had problems, she hid 'em pretty well," said widower Rich Babjak, a member of the group.

Her attorneys have cautioned against oversimplifying the case or leaping to a diagnosis about her condition.

In fact, experts say depression, even the most severe and debilitating cases, rarely prompts homicidal tendencies.

Disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or anti-social personality disorder, are more likely than depression to precipitate murder.

Marilyn Lemak's current mental state, more than that leading up to the killings, will determine the outcome of the effort to have her moved from DuPage County Jail.

By all accounts, she is subdued and lethargic.

"She seemed truly brokenhearted," Kuhn said. "I know she understands that the children are gone.

"I asked her if she was eating properly and she said she was having trouble because some of the foods were foods her children liked, and she couldn't bear looking at it."

Tribune staff writers Abdon Pallasch, Lisa Black and Michael Ko contributed to this report.

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