Daily Herald opinion: Naperville’s counseling mandate helped with the healing for police after Lemak killings

Twenty-five years ago today, Naperville police officers entered a crime scene that they recall vividly to this day.

They found a bloody wedding dress, a photo slashed with a knife, a bagel topped with peanut butter and crushed pills and three small, lifeless bodies in beds, one with just her hair sticking out from beneath a blanket.

The day before — on March 4, 1999 — Marilyn Lemak drugged and suffocated her children in their home. She then tried to kill herself.

The next day, she called police.

Processing the scene, investigating the details and gathering evidence for prosecutors took its toll on the police officers involved. But their supervisors made an important and, at the time, unusual call.

About a dozen officers were ordered to attend counseling.

It was not a suggestion: It was a mandate.

And the cops, used to toughing things out, were less than thrilled, recalls Ray McGury, the now-retired sergeant in charge of the unit.

But it made a difference; every officer in the session stayed to the very end, he said.

“Naperville kind of set the tone … it’s OK not to be OK,” McGury told reporter Alicia Fabbre, who along with Susan Sarkauskas revisited the case and its law enforcement legacy in a story Sunday. “It’s not a sign of weakness. You’ve got to get your mind right.”

It was a wise call, and one uncommon for the times, McGury said.

Police officers have long witnessed the worst of humanity. In Naperville, in the aftermath of the Lemak case, they were given a way to talk about what they saw, what they felt and how the pain of that day might linger.

From the start, police knew who killed the Lemak children: Nicholas, 7; Emily, 6; and Thomas, 3. They had to determine why.

Defense attorneys would go on to claim insanity, to argue that the murders resulted from medications she was taking to treat her depression. Prosecutors said she wanted to get back at her estranged husband, who had moved out and moved on with a new girlfriend.

Lemak was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole, though she is now seeking clemency.

The case of a mother killing her children drew national media attention. As they worked at the house in the aftermath, the officers involved — even once their shift ended — stuck around for one last nod to those children, remembers Officer Jim Glennon, then with the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes Task Force.

They did so, he said, to protect the dignity of the children and prevent their bodies from being swarmed by TV cameras clamoring for the perfect shot.

As the coroner took Nicholas, Emily and Thomas from their home for the last time, officers stood shoulder to shoulder to shield their bodies from view.

It was an act of kindness worth remembering in a case filled with details too painful to forget.

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