Hoffman Estates family shattered by a triple murder starts anew

Some mornings, Shelly Engelhardt wakes up to a feeling of overwhelming sadness.

"I open my eyes and say, 'Oh, I wish I could be with my family,'" said Engelhardt, 53, whose husband Al, daughter Laura, and mother Marlene Gacek were all murdered in their Hoffman Estates home last April.

Shelly was stabbed multiple times, but survived. D'Andre Howard, the former fiance of her eldest daughter Amanda, is charged with the crimes.

"It's not that I don't love my family here," Shelly said, smiling and patting the knee of her 21-year-old son, Jeff, who was away at college during the attacks. "I just miss them."

It's been an extremely difficult year for the Engelhardts - dealing with their grief and struggling financially - but it's also been a year of new beginnings.

The tragedy has transformed them in many ways: they've forged new relationships, taken on tasks they never thought possible, renewed their faith in God, and found a way to focus on the silver lining of the dark cloud they must live under.

In this season of renewal, their revival seems particularly poignant.

"We've had to become a new type of family. A new us. We're the new Engelhardts," Shelly said. "I like to think of it as a new beginning."

One year ago, the Engelhardts led a normal suburban life. Involved in their community, church, and their children's sports activities, the family shared a sprawling six-bedroom house on Bluebonnet Lane that always buzzed with activity.

At times, as many as nine people lived there: Shelly and Al Engelhardt, their mothers, their children Amanda, Jeff, and Laura, Amanda's infant daughter Stelliah, and Shelly's special needs sister, Sandy.

The family's come-on-in, pull-up-a-chair attitude attracted many friends. The Rev. Bill Cate, a former associate pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Schaumburg, once jokingly likened them to "The Waltons," from the 1970s TV show.

"It was a very lively house," said Gacek's sister, Jo-Anne Dacy of Orland Park. "We come from a big family, so to have a house full of people is nothing. They were very family-oriented and always did things together."

Almost one year ago, on April 17, 2009, the home where all these happy gatherings took place became the scene of a shocking crime.

According to police, Amanda Engelhardt, then 23, had a fight with D'Andre Howard on the night of April 16. So Amanda took baby Stelliah and left the Hoffman Estates apartment they shared and went to her family's house.

Howard followed her, the argument continued, and at some point in the pre-dawn hours, violence erupted.

Not all the details have come out yet about what happened, and prosecutors prohibit the family from talking about it. But when it was over, police said Howard had stabbed Shelly, 57-year-old Al, 18-year-old Laura and 73-year-old Gacek. Of his four stabbing victims, only Shelly Engelhardt survived.

Howard is now in Cook County Jail, charged with the murders. Lawyers say it will be years until his trial begins.

The surviving family members have moved back into the house, and since that horrific night, Shelly admits to having plenty of "down days." More often, though, she focuses on what she has rather than what's she's lost.

"This was hard on all of us, and especially (Shelly). To have your whole family wiped out? I don't know how you deal with that. She's become a far stronger person than we ever thought she could be," Dacy said. "It's just hard to get started again."

Shelly didn't have a choice but to start anew. Her two surviving children, her sister, her infant granddaughter and Al's 85-year-old mother all needed her.

Shelly's role was always the family's breadwinner, while her husband Al was the stay-at-home dad who cooked, cleaned, shopped and shuttled the kids to all their activities. Shelly's mother, Marlene, handled the family's finances.

Now, it's Shelly's responsibility to see all those jobs get done.

Once reluctant to ask for help, Shelly's learned to accept friends' offers for things like legal advice and home maintenance projects. Church volunteers tore down the paneling in the den where the murders occurred, for example. Last fall, Laura's softball teammates raked the leaves, cleaned the gutters and did the yard work.

Also this past year, for the first time in her life, Shelly experienced life as a stay-at-home mom, caring for Stelliah while Amanda worked. She described the experience as "a great opportunity that I never had" because she worked full-time when her children were that age.

Shortly before the murders, Shelly was laid off from her full-time managerial job at Abbott Laboratories. Last summer, once she felt mentally healthy enough to hold a job again, she resumed her job search. She sent out countless resumes, touting her decades of experience in the pharmaceutical business, and landed a few interviews. But no job offers came.

"Maybe it was the economy. Or maybe people recognized my name and thought, 'Oh, she's going to need to take a lot of time off for court dates or to deal with things,'" she said.

Shelly's now mulling whether to leave corporate America and enter nursing school. Her long-buried interest in nursing was reborn while she recovered from her stab wounds at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, where she said the nurses were amazing.

The Engelhardts currently have no health insurance - and are squeaking by on Shellys unemployment check and income from Shelly's part-time Jockey clothing sale business. To stay afloat, they've relied on the kindness of family and friends and tapped into some of the money donated to the family's memorial funds.

The morning after Christmas, a Cook County sheriff's deputy served Shelly with papers saying she owed $39,000 for the cleanup of the murder scene not covered by their homeowners insurance. The insurance and cleanup companies are wrangling over the bill in court, but Shelly fears she might still have to pay it.

The family's long-term finances worry Shelly, but she is no longer the frantic worrier she once was. Her faith in God has led her to a more calm, positive outlook on life.

"I know God will take care of everything," she said. "I've put it in the hands of God, and so far, He's been handling it."

Amanda Engelhardt declined to be interviewed for this story, but Shelly said she's working in a restaurant, is "a fantastic mother" to Stelliah, now 11/2, and maintains no contact with Howard.

Jeff will graduate from Southern Illinois University this spring as a journalism major, and plans to go to graduate school.

The room where the murders occurred has been stripped down and remodeled so it no longer resembles the old room. It's used mostly for storage, and is ignored at family get-togethers.

"Everyone in the family is trying whatever they can to bring life back into the house," Dacy said. "We go there a lot more than we did before. We try very hard to stay in contact with Shelly and let her talk about whatever she wants to talk about.

It was a hard situation, and it still is."

An earlier family portrait with daughter Laura, center, and husband Al, who were slain nearly a year ago.

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