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Article updated: 9/22/2013 3:30 PM

Family tragedy leaves young sisters on their own in Des Plaines area home

Greta Ramirez, 12, right, and her sister Karen, 22, who live near Des Plaines, were always close. They’re more so in the two years since the death of their mother, Alicia Ramirez, at the hands of their father, Heriberto Ramirez, who was convicted of her murder last year.

Greta Ramirez, 12, right, and her sister Karen, 22, who live near Des Plaines, were always close. They're more so in the two years since the death of their mother, Alicia Ramirez, at the hands of their father, Heriberto Ramirez, who was convicted of her murder last year.

 

Photos by Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Greta Ramirez and her sister Karen look over a family picture from happier times in the bedroom they share in their Des Plaines area home.

Greta Ramirez and her sister Karen look over a family picture from happier times in the bedroom they share in their Des Plaines area home.

 
Karen Ramirez, 22, reads a letter from her father, Heriberto, who is in prison for killing their mother in 2011 in their Des Plaines-area home while Greta, 12, sat nearby.

Karen Ramirez, 22, reads a letter from her father, Heriberto, who is in prison for killing their mother in 2011 in their Des Plaines-area home while Greta, 12, sat nearby.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Greta Ramirez, left, and her sister Karen, reflect on happier times, before an inexplicable tragedy took their parents away from them.

Greta Ramirez, left, and her sister Karen, reflect on happier times, before an inexplicable tragedy took their parents away from them.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Greta, 12, left, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, who live near Des Plaines, share a laugh together at their dining room table as they talk about good times with their mother, Alicia.

Greta, 12, left, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, who live near Des Plaines, share a laugh together at their dining room table as they talk about good times with their mother, Alicia.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Karen Ramirez holds a picture drawn in prison by her father, Heriberto Ramirez, who is serving 45 years for killing his wife, Alicia. Karen says the drawing is his way of saying he’s with them, even though he’s not present.

Karen Ramirez holds a picture drawn in prison by her father, Heriberto Ramirez, who is serving 45 years for killing his wife, Alicia. Karen says the drawing is his way of saying he's with them, even though he's not present.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Since losing their mother 2˝ years ago, Greta Ramirez, 12, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, have taken on household duties, including cleaning the fish tank.

Since losing their mother 2˝ years ago, Greta Ramirez, 12, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, have taken on household duties, including cleaning the fish tank.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

A tearful Karen Ramirez reads a letter from her incarcerated father, Heriberto Ramirez, as her sister Greta looks on. Heriberto is serving 45 years in prison for killing Alicia Ramirez, his wife and the girls’ mother.

A tearful Karen Ramirez reads a letter from her incarcerated father, Heriberto Ramirez, as her sister Greta looks on. Heriberto is serving 45 years in prison for killing Alicia Ramirez, his wife and the girls' mother.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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The Ramirez sisters have the giggles.

They begin quietly with a grin and a whisper, escalate to a nudge and culminate with Karen, 22, and Greta, 12, shaking with laughter.

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How to help
Friends of Karen and Greta Ramirez have set up a fund to help defray some of the girls' living expenses. Those interested in donating may mail contributions to either address listed below.
Karen and Greta Ramirez Assistance Fund
Attn: Christopher Barracks
BMO Harris Bank
River North Branch
33 W. Ohio St.
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 245-6983
or
Karen and Greta Ramirez Assistance Fund
c/o Jeffrey A. Koppy
Jenner & Block LLP
353 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 923-8894

Sitting in their tidy home -- on an overstuffed love seat selected by their mother, Alicia, beneath a opalescent ceiling painted by their father, Heriberto, -- the girls chuckle often over private jokes.

They can giggle now, but for a long time there was no laughter in the Ramirez home, not after an inexplicable act of violence 2˝ years ago claimed their mother and father, leaving them with no income and in danger of being separated by child service workers.

Yet, in this living room family surrounds them still. A portrait of Heriberto and Alicia with son Herick and toddler Karen hangs on a wall opposite framed photos of baby Greta. In a place of honor atop the fireplace mantle rests a large portrait of a smiling Alicia.

Steps away is the dining room table where expert cook Alicia once served them meals she prepared. Now that it's just Greta and Karen at the table, meals aren't what they were when their mother presided over the kitchen.

Most evenings it's soup and tostadas, or sandwiches. Karen doesn't possess her mother's culinary skills. Even if she did, money is tight. Sometimes the girls eat cereal for dinner. Karen apologizes, telling Greta to think about kids who have nothing to eat.

"You have to be positive," she says. "There are people in worse situations."

The sisters know about bad situations. They experienced the worst imaginable the day their father stabbed their mother to death in the family's Des Plaines area home. Karen, then 19, was at work. Greta, then 9, was home.

Now, 2˝ years later, they are rebuilding their lives.

If anyone deserves a little levity, it's Karen and Greta Ramirez.

Twist of fate

"My dad is hitting my mom."

Early on Feb. 14, 2011, a panicked Greta uttered those words to an emergency dispatcher just before the call cut off. Minutes later, Cook County Sheriff's Police arrived at the Ramirez home in unincorporated Des Plaines and found the body of 45-year-old Alicia Ramirez on a bathroom floor with 34 stab wounds to her neck, torso, arms and legs.

Prosecutors charged Heriberto Ramirez with first-degree murder and a Cook County judge ordered him held on a $10 million bond.

With their father in Cook County jail and their brother and his wife in Mexico, Greta and Karen were alone. They stayed with an aunt for about a week, then returned home.

"Now what?" Karen remembers thinking as she stood in their empty house.

Overnight, Karen went from big sister to guardian, but not mom. Never that.

"Nobody will ever replace my mom, and I'm not trying to. I'm trying to do the same as she did for me," says Karen, overcome with emotion.

"She's had hiccups, but she understands her responsibility," said Jeffrey Koppy, a partner with powerhouse Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, who has represented the girls since shortly after the murder. "She loves Greta. She would lay down her life for Greta. If it meant giving up every pleasure in her life, giving up her friends, she'd do that."

Karen Ramirez went from a young woman who loved to shop for jewelry and shoes to family breadwinner shopping for food and school supplies.

Not long ago, the 2009 Elk Grove High School graduate would spend $30 on manicures. Now that money goes toward gas. She doesn't buy Baby Phat clothes and Timberland boots any more. The self-described shoe fan sold some of her Air Jordans. And she canceled the cable TV. Their budget doesn't allow for it.

She doesn't socialize with her friends as much as she did. When she does go out, she's home by 11. Her friends urge her to hang out, have fun. But they don't understand. Karen's not a kid anymore.

"My main responsibility is her," she nods toward Greta.

Sometimes they go out to dinner or a movie. But their favorite place is Rainbow Beach Park at 77th Street and South Shore Drive in Chicago, where they sit on the rocks and gaze at the Chicago skyline, eating chips from a nearby gas station. It's their new tradition, says Karen.

As for dating, Karen has certain requirements for any potential boyfriend. He has to be mature (at least 25 or 26). He has to have a job (a nonnegotiable requirement). And he has to understand Karen and Greta come as a package.

And a pretty efficient one at that. Karen does most of the cleaning and the laundry; Greta folds the clothes and reminds her sister to pick up her shoes.

Karen cooks. Greta takes out the garbage and washes the dishes, which Karen inspects.

"I check to make sure the glasses are clear," she says.

"I'm learning," says Greta. "That's what counts."

Greta was the baby of the family, said Liz Greenberg, Greta's fourth grade teacher at Admiral Richard E. Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village. Everyone adored her.

"She was their prize possession," said Greenberg, who met with Heriberto, Alicia and Karen at school conferences.

"You could tell she and Karen were close even then," Greenberg said.

Greta talked about Karen all the time, about the places they went. Six Flags Great America in Gurnee was a favorite.

The Greta that Greenberg knew was outgoing and well-liked.

"She was funny ... always making the kids laugh," Greenberg said.

But that girl vanished after her mother's murder. A shadow of her former self, Greta returned to class a week after the murder quiet, lethargic, teary-eyed and sleep-deprived, Greenberg said.

Greenberg encouraged Greta to write about her feelings in a journal. The two spent hours talking after school, building a bond they still share.

"I still see her and talk to her," Greenberg said. "She's very, very special to me."

Initially, Department of Children and Family Services workers wanted to place Greta into foster care.

Karen refused.

"We were going to stick together, no matter what," she said.

Easier said than done. Even after eliminating the nonessentials, Karen didn't earn enough from her cashier's job at a Chicago cafe to support them. Also, the early morning hours weren't conducive to caring for a child in elementary school. She took a job as a school bus monitor so she could work while Greta attended school, but that ended in June. She had a full-time job over the summer but resigned to return to her bus monitor job, only to find her hours had been cut. If they're not restored, she says she'll work part time on the weekends. What she wants is a full-time job with benefits, so she can support the two of them and maybe put something aside for herself. She hopes to go to cosmetology school some day or maybe study interior design.

But that's in the future. Right now, she scrapes by.

Life before

Heriberto and Alicia Ramirez grew up in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.

Their families were acquainted. In fact, Alicia's sister -- who once dated Heriberto -- fixed them up.

The couple married and went into business for themselves. They ran a grocery store and restaurant until 2002, when they came to the U.S. with 1-year-old Greta and 11-year-old Karen in tow. Herick remained in Mexico. He and his wife, Karina, just had their first child.

The family stayed briefly with relatives in Bensenville, then moved to unincorporated Des Plaines. Heriberto did landscaping and worked temporary jobs. Alicia worked as a cook at Avanti Cafe in Mount Prospect.

"She always loved to cook. She was always a hard worker." Karen said. "She wanted to make sure her family was happy."

They were.

Heriberto was reserved but fun, say his daughters. Alicia was more strict. Greta, the prankster of the family, enjoyed playing jokes, especially on her father. Once, when the family was out shopping, she hid inside a rack of coats and grabbed his feet to scare him. Another time, she tickled Heriberto's face with a feather while he slept, giggling as he batted away the annoyance.

Karen has also been on the receiving end of Greta's pranks. Recalling the time when, in the bedroom they still share, Greta scared her sister by poking her awake with a fake hand elicits another round of giggles.

Karen wants more privacy, but neither is ready to move into the master bedroom, which has been vacant since their mother last slept there.

After 26 years, tension had surfaced in their parents' marriage. Heriberto slept on the couch, while Alicia and Greta shared the master bedroom. The couple argued. The day before the murder, they weren't speaking to each other.

As she did every day, Alicia rose before 5 a.m. on Valentine's Day 2011, for her 6 a.m. shift.

She never made it.

The trial

Karen and Greta Ramirez would rather have been anywhere else on Nov. 14, 2012, than on the witness stand in Rolling Meadows Courtroom 110, testifying against their father, who prosecutors said was angry with his wife over household and financial matters when he stabbed her 34 times early that Valentine's Day.

"Alicia Ramirez never had a chance," said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Mike Clarke during his opening statement. But she had a witness. Greta didn't hear everything that happened between her parents that morning, but she heard enough.

"I didn't want to do it (testify)," Greta Ramirez recalled. "I didn't feel comfortable with people knowing something personal like that."

Dressed in a pink shirt and carrying a small stuffed animal, the then-11-year-old answered attorneys' questions for nearly an hour.

Speaking clearly, confidently and with more poise than some adults, she described watching cartoons that morning in her parents' bedroom while Alicia and Heriberto argued in the living room. She testified how, through a half-open door, she saw her father back her mother into the bathroom and heard her mother shout "no," "stop." Then she heard nothing at all.

She described dialing 911, then hanging up after Heriberto entered the bedroom. And she told how she directed police to the bathroom where Alicia lay.

While she was on the witness stand, Greta kept her eyes on Koppy and Byrd Elementary Principal Mary Ellen Esser, who sat in the front row as a show of support. As she exited the courtroom, Greta caught her father's eye and offered him a smile. Heriberto smiled back.

Karen followed her sister on the witness stand. She testified her parents argued occasionally and the day before the murder, weren't speaking to each other.

"I was really nervous. It was my dad," said Karen, who broke down in tears several times.

Neither girl returned for the trial's second day, when Heriberto Ramirez took the stand to deny killing his wife. Saying he had been taking medication for anxiety and depression, Ramirez insisted he could not recall what happened on Valentine's Day 2011.

The jury returned a guilty verdict 40 minutes after deliberations began. Six weeks later, Cook County Judge Kay Hanlon sentenced Heriberto Ramirez to 45 years in prison. His daughters will be beyond middle age and Heriberto will be in his 90s before he is eligible for parole.

The girls visited their father most weekends when he was incarcerated at Chicago's Cook County jail. Since his transfer downstate to the Menard Correctional Center, they have seen him once. The drive is long, the trip is expensive and the reunion is emotionally draining.

"He was happy to see me," said Greta of the two-hour visit. "We were crying. When we left, I felt sad."

"I miss him," she said.

Ramirez has written his daughters dozens of letters in which he wishes them spiritual and physical health and expresses his love. The girls aren't as prolific.

"It's hard to write him," says Karen. "There's a lot to say, and I don't know how to start."

They keep Heriberto's letters tucked away in a red shoebox. His artwork -- a bird he drew in prison -- they display.

Karen says it's her father's way of saying: I'm not there, but I'm still there.

It hangs on the refrigerator. They see it every day.

Monday: Through the kindness of friends and strangers, the Ramirez sisters rebuild their lives

Own: The girls exchange letters with their father

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