Five years ago, violence transformed a Hoffman Estates family, claiming the lives of three members and devastating those left behind.
On Tuesday, the Engelhardt family's surviving members will confront the man who prosecutors say was responsible for the deaths of 18-year-old Conant High School senior Laura, her 57-year-old father Alan, and her maternal grandmother Marlene Gacek, 73, and for seriously injuring Shelly Engelhardt, Alan's wife and Laura's mother.
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D'Andre Howard, the boyfriend of oldest daughter Amanda Engelhardt at the time of the April 17, 2009, deaths and father of their child, will go on trial on first-degree murder charges in the deaths of the college-bound athlete; the stay-at-home dad who coached his daughter's softball team and read every article his journalist son Jeff wrote; and the warmhearted grandmother who welcomed her daughter's family into her home after her own husband died.
Pointing to Howard's history of mental illness and childhood as a ward of the state, defense attorneys say he was insane when "all hell broke loose" after a middle-of-the-night argument between him and Amanda Engelhardt turned into a violent attack on family members who authorities say died trying to protect each other.
Defense attorneys say Howard suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder -- the result of childhood sexual and physical abuse -- which made him unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct that day.
However, because they have no expert testimony to support their argument, they intend to introduce evidence of what they describe as Howard's insanity through other witnesses, including personnel from Alexian Brothers Medical Center and Cermak Health Services at Cook County jail who conducted psychiatric exams of Howard shortly after the murders.
Prosecutors have not challenged Howard's PTSD diagnosis or the reports of childhood abuse. However, they insist he was legally sane at the time of the murders. Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide beginning Tuesday, five years, one month and 10 days after the horrifying events that rocked a tranquil neighborhood and forever altered the Engelhardt family.
A long road
During five years spent waiting for trial, Laura Engelhardt's Conant classmates finished high school, then college. Amanda's daughter grew to school age, and middle child Jeff, away at college the night of the murders, graduated, got a job and married.
Waiting has been challenging and frustrating, Jeff Engelhardt said. Encouragement from family and friends has helped, he said, adding "it's that support that will help us during the trial, too."
The delay resulted in part because Howard's was originally a capital case, which typically proceeded slowly. With the abolition of Illinois' death penalty in 2011, Howard now faces up to life in prison if convicted of two or more counts of first-degree murder.
Also, the retirement more than two years ago of Howard's original attorney, former Assistant Cook County Public Defender Jim Mullenix, and the appointment of Assistant Public Defender Deana Binstock, was almost like starting at square one, said retired Cook County Assistant Public Defender Scott Slonim.
To say the intervening years have been difficult for the victims' family is an understatement. Even with help of relatives and friends, the Engelhardts struggled emotionally and financially.
Inspired by her own faith and the rock-solid convictions of her deceased husband and mother, Shelly Engelhardt persevered for the sake of her surviving children, her granddaughter and other family members.
"This is how I'm going forward," she told the Daily Herald a month after the murders. "I have to respect. I have to celebrate what my family stood for, not how they died."
As she has for many years, Shelly Engelhardt relied on daily prayer to sustain her while she and her family rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of the shocking attacks that denied Laura her dream of becoming a veterinarian, denied Alan the joy of teaching his first grandchild to hit a curve ball, and denied Marlene the chance to dance with grandson Jeff at his wedding.
In a 2010 interview, Shelly Engelhardt described how her faith helped sustain her.
"I know God will take care of everything," she said, "and so far, He's been handling it."
She will likely call upon that faith again when she testifies against Howard, 25, whom prosecutors portray as violent and angry. They say after he and Amanda Engelhardt argued the evening of April 16, 2009, he ordered her out of their Hoffman Estates apartment. She and the baby went to her parents' home, where both grandmothers and an aunt also lived,
Shortly after midnight, after Amanda had already left, Hoffman Estates police arrived at Howard's apartment to investigate a loud music complaint and arrested him on an outstanding warrant. He posted bond and was released at about 1:20 a.m., prosecutors said, and arrived 10 minutes later at the Engelhardt home, where his argument with Amanda escalated, waking Shelly and Laura Engelhardt, who joined the couple in the family room.
Prosecutors say Howard grew angry when Shelly Engelhardt threatened to call police. Armed with a knife, he bound the women's wrists with yarn, and when Shelly's sister entered the room, Howard told her to sit on a couch, prosecutors said.
At some point, Howard put down the knife and untied Laura Engelhardt, who stabbed him in the arm with it, prosecutors said. Psychologists Cathy Spatz Widom and Helen W. Wilson -- in a report for the defense included in the court file -- described Laura's response as the "final trigger" to the melee that followed.
"All hell broke loose," quoted Widom and Wilson from Amanda Engelhardt's grand jury testimony describing the brutal events during which Amanda said Howard "snapped and lost his mind."
According to prosecutors, Howard stabbed Laura, Shelly and Gacek, who collapsed on the kitchen floor. Howard then stabbed Alan Engelhardt, who was awakened by the commotion, prosecutors said. They believe the noise also awakened Alan Engelhardt's then-85-year-old mother Marie Engelhardt. As she entered the family room, Howard ordered her to sit on the couch, prosecutors say, and threatened to kill Amanda if she disobeyed. Marie was there, holding Laura's hand, when first responders arrived.
According to prosecutors, Amanda Engelhardt begged Howard to let her call 911, but he refused, ripping the phone jacks out of the wall. Prosecutors also said he tried to clean up the scene. According to court records, Widom and Wilson referred to Amanda Engelhardt's testimony describing Howard "going in and out of rages" and begging forgiveness from Laura and Shelly.
He eventually relented, prosecutors said, and allowed Amanda to phone police. But by the time the first officers arrived about 6:48 a.m., Gacek and Alan Engelhardt were dead. Laura Engelhardt died at the hospital several hours later after making a dying declaration -- which prosecutors will introduce at trial -- naming Howard as the assailant.
As Cook County Judge Ellen Mandletort observed during a recent hearing, this case is not a whodunit. The question is will the jury believe prosecutors who say Howard murdered the family members in a fit of rage? Or will they believe defense attorneys, who maintain their client was legally insane at the time and therefore can't be held accountable for his behavior?
Citing the pending trial, prosecutors and family members declined to comment for this article. Howard's defense attorneys also declined to comment. However, the circumstances of their client's life are well documented.
A 15-year ward of the state, Howard was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and neglect who was removed from his family by the Department of Children and Family Services at age 5. Court records indicate Howard was exposed to "violence and trauma that continued throughout his youth and young adulthood," which likely led to his PTSD diagnosis at age 6.
By age 10, Howard had lived in seven foster homes. He later spent time at residential facilities including Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and the now-shuttered Alternative Behavior Treatment Center in Mundelein, a treatment center for adolescent sex offenders, which Howard left in 2007 against doctors' recommendations.
A 2012 DCFS inspector general report suggested Howard had fallen through cracks in the DCFS system. After receiving treatment for sexual aggression at age 13, he fathered a child at 15. A year later, according to the report, he was convicted of sexually assaulting a female classmate, placed on probation and ordered to register as a sex offender for 10 years.
Transferred at age 17 to an apartment at the Mundelein treatment center, he tested positive for marijuana, used alcohol, fought with a peer and threatened a staff member, the report shows. At 19, he was charged with battery. Caseworkers said as his behavior deteriorated, he was hospitalized at a psychiatric facility where the report shows he expressed paranoid thoughts. His apartment had damage from pellets from a BB gun that the report indicates he was allowed to keep. Commenting on the report, Howard's former attorney, Cook County Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler said it was clear "DCFS had dropped the ball."
The report caught the Engelhardts by surprise. Shelly and Jeff knew Howard had a troubled past, but they did not know the extent of the problems.
"He talked about his mother being a drug addict ... but not the violence toward him. It was very glossed over," Shelly Engelhardt told the Daily Herald after the report's release. "It's a sad state of affairs that this (inspector general's) report is so long and so full of hurt."
Yet, as Jeff Engelhardt observed, it does not change the reality of that terrible April day. One year after the murders, Jeff -- then a senior journalism major at Southern Illinois University -- wrote eloquently about the compassion friends, neighbors and strangers extended to his family. He described parishioners from their church, St. Peter Lutheran in Schaumburg, raising money for the family. He recalled Laura's teammates tending his mother's yard and his sister's gravesite. And he thanked everyone for their kind words and prayers.
In 2011, as the bill to abolish Illinois' death penalty awaited Gov. Pat Quinn's signature, Jeff Engelhardt, then a Daily Herald intern who now works at another news organization, advocated absolution in an editorial he called a "dedication to a path of peace." Those feelings still stand, he wrote in a brief email last week.
"I am my father's son," he wrote in the editorial. "and as my father's son, that means I choose the path of forgiveness."
The road is long and hard, he wrote, but in the end, "there is more value in saving a lost soul than sending it away."