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updated: 9/23/2013 5:36 AM

Strangers' kindness helps sisters rebuild lives

Des Plaines girls on own after mother murdered

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  • Karen Ramirez, 22, shows off her tattoo honoring her mother Alicia, while her sister Greta, 12, looks on. Karen got the tattoo about six months after her mother was killed by her father, Heriberto.

       Karen Ramirez, 22, shows off her tattoo honoring her mother Alicia, while her sister Greta, 12, looks on. Karen got the tattoo about six months after her mother was killed by her father, Heriberto.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Since losing their mother 2 years ago, Greta Ramirez, 12, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, of Des Plaines have had to take on household duties, which include cleaning the fish tank.

       Since losing their mother 2 years ago, Greta Ramirez, 12, and her sister Karen Ramirez, 22, of Des Plaines have had to take on household duties, which include 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

  • Greta Ramirez, left, and her sister Karen were able to stay together in their home after a family tragedy thanks in large part to the help and support they received from friends and acquaintances.

       Greta Ramirez, left, and her sister Karen were able to stay together in their home after a family tragedy thanks in large part to the help and support they received from friends and acquaintances.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Among the family photos that fill the Ramirez sisters' Des Plaines home are several of Greta as an infant.

       Among the family photos that fill the Ramirez sisters' Des Plaines home are several of Greta as an infant.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Love, determination and commitment to family helped keep Greta Ramirez, left, and her older sister Karen together after a family tragedy.

       Love, determination and commitment to family helped keep Greta Ramirez, left, and her older sister Karen together after a family tragedy.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Second of two parts

After one morning of violence on Valentine's Day 2011, Karen and Greta Ramirez suddenly were on their own.

With mother Alicia dead and father Heriberto jailed on charges of killing her, the girls were left with no parental support, no money and no way to pay rent on their Des Plaines-area home. They lacked legal immigration status. And child welfare authorities sought to put Greta, then 9, into foster care.

"It was scary," said Karen, then 19.

As it turns out, the sisters weren't alone.

A group of people moved by their story -- including state's attorneys prosecuting their father for first-degree murder, Greta's fourth-grade teacher, her principal at Admiral Richard E. Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village and a veteran lawyer at a high-powered Chicago firm -- stepped in to help.

Many of the good Samaritans started out as strangers to the Ramirez girls.

They have since become friends.

Kindness of strangers

From the beginning, Karen promised Greta they would stay together, no matter what.

"I didn't want my sister with anyone else," she said.

Their mother raised them to work hard and stick together. Karen wasn't afraid of hard work, but it would take more than that to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Initially, the girls' financial survival depended on friends and acquaintances.

Principal Mary Ellen Esser and the Parent-Teacher Organization at Byrd school held fundraisers. One of Greta's fourth-grade classmates suggested taking up a class collection and offered to donate his lunch money, recalls Liz Greenberg, Greta's fourth-grade teacher. The entire class contributed letters, quotes and photographs to a scrap book for Greta, Greenberg said.

"They showed such kindness to her: boys, girls, everybody. They (the class) became closer and a lot more compassionate," she said. "This was an event which could really have traumatized them. Instead it empowered them to be better friends."

Teachers and staff members donated money and gift cards. Volunteers signed up to provide the girls with food, clothing and other necessities each month from March 2011 to August 2012.

When Karen was down to just about her last penny, those donations kept the girls going, Esser said.

She and Greenberg concluded from the start that the girls deserved the chance to stay together.

The support Greta had from the school community coupled with Karen's determination inspired them to do whatever they could to help.

"They're two absolutely remarkable young women," Esser said. "When you see their love and respect for each other, you can't help but do something to help them."

Esser did more than most, says Jeffrey Koppy, a partner with the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, who has represented the girls for free since shortly after the murder.

Esser "was just so wonderful. She took those girls into her home," he said.

When Greta had a problem getting to counseling appointments, Esser arranged for the counselor to come to Greta. She helped organize Alicia's funeral. After the service, she and her husband took the girls to dinner and invited them to stay the night.

"They didn't want to be alone," Esser said.

Other problems loomed. Because their parents had entered the country without legal documentation, Karen and Greta faced possible deportation.

Enter Koppy, an 18-year patent law and commercial litigation specialist and chairman of Jenner & Block's pro bono committee.

Jenner & Block is among the country's leading pro bono firms, with attorneys taking many cases at no cost. Its attorneys handle litigation related to human rights and civil liberties, asylum and immigration, elder law and disability rights, public health, environmental law, issues involving not-for-profit corporations, the death penalty and other areas.

Immigrant sisters orphaned in the wake of a family tragedy? That was unique.

But when Koppy's onetime courtroom adversary Maria McCarthy, supervising Cook County assistant state's attorney at the Rolling Meadows courthouse, told him about Greta and Karen, he agreed to help.

While her office pursued a murder case against Heriberto, McCarthy grew concerned about his daughters.

"They were alone. They were here illegally and they didn't have identification," Koppy said.

First order of business: obtaining Social Security numbers and identification cards for the sisters. Koppy secured a work permit for Karen and four-year visas which allow the sisters to apply for green cards in a few years.

He arranged for the transfer of Greta's guardianship to Karen, a difficult, chaotic process that concluded the day Ramirez was sentenced to 45 years in prison and signed over the care of his youngest daughter to his oldest.

Koppy also got Alicia's and Heriberto's bank accounts transferred into Karen's name, as well as the car title. Last year, he represented the girls in eviction proceedings. They kept their house because of him.

After Karen struggled to pay the rent, Koppy sent an S.O.S. to friends and co-workers.

They responded with donations totaling more than $8,000, enough to pay the Ramirez sisters' rent for a year.

Koppy witnessed firsthand Karen's determination to keep Greta with her, a commitment he calls inspiring.

"They were never going to be separated, that was her instruction to us," he said. "When you hear the passion in somebody's voice, that's real. That's real love."

The aftermath

Two and a half years later, Esser, Greenberg and Koppy remain part of the girls' lives. Esser serves as mentor and sounding board for Karen, who confides in her about guys and work, things a girl might talk about with her mother if her mother was still around. Greenberg remains close with Greta. They have a standing Six Flags Great America date every year on Greta's birthday.

"I'm so thankful for the relationship I have with Greta," Greenberg said. "She's an incredible person."

Koppy still helps Karen manage their affairs. Last year, he and his wife Maura hosted Karen and Greta for Christmas dinner, which included a tres leches cake in honor of the girls' Mexican heritage.

There were gifts, too, from Koppy's family and his work colleagues. Best of all was the calendar with every month marked "rent paid." Karen cried when she opened it.

"We're very thankful," she said. "It feels good to know somebody cares for you."

Sometimes when she gets worried, frustrated or overwhelmed, Karen thinks about moving back to Mexico, where her brother's wife recently gave birth to the couple's first child, a girl named Alicia. Then she considers the support she and Greta have, the friends they've made. And she stays.

Over the last few years, Karen Ramirez has learned how to handle finances and care for a child. She's also learned about herself. She says she's more humble, more grateful.

"Now, I really appreciate what I have. The little I have I appreciate," she said.

She believes she's a better person.

"I understand why people make mistakes," she said, her voice catching.

She knows how to forgive.

"Everyone deserves a second chance."

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