How we got the story: Looking back, but not staring, at a horrible case

March 4, 1999.

Many remember that fateful day in Naperville when we learned about the three Lemak children who were killed by their mother.

As the 25th anniversary of the murders neared, a group of editors and reporters began to talk about how we would report it. We looked for different perspectives to share as a community remembered that fateful day.

My first conversation with Ray McGury helped steer the story.

In that short conversation, McGury gave a glimpse of the magnitude not only of that day, but of the day before and the days after. The Naperville Police Department had just learned of the death of one their own to suicide the day before the Mari Lemak call came in. The day of the call, officers were shook to their core when they discovered the three lifeless children inside the Lemak home.

It was one of the most difficult weeks for any of the officers working the case in a time when officers did not talk about how they felt or mental health.

In my initial conversation with McGury, he made a point to share how he and others had been ordered into a debriefing session that week. Like other officers, McGury was reluctant to go. He could work out his demons at the gym, he thought.

“Interestingly enough, we all walked in with the same attitude, and 2½ hours later, we all walked out together,” McGury told me about that session. “We all stayed.”

To help tell the story, McGury connected me with other officers who worked the case — Bob Guerrieri, the Naperville police sergeant who supervised those processing the crime scene, and Jim Glennon, who at the time was the investigations commander of the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes Task Force.

Though I initially spoke to each person by phone, I decided to meet in person to talk about the events of the day and what the officers think about 25 years later. Each shared details offering a glimpse of how they worked together to get through the emotions they felt — whether it was offering a cup of coffee to a fellow officer or staying behind, off the clock, to stand shoulder to shoulder so TV cameras could not capture shots of the bodies being removed from the home.

All three shared how their leaders laid the groundwork for officers with that debriefing. They were mourning not just the children but the loss of a friend the day before.

“Naperville kind of set the tone … It’s OK not to be OK,” McGury said. “It’s not a sign of weakness.”

Though we could not get an interview with Lemak herself, we wanted to share her side of the story. Susan Sarkauskas spoke with Lemak’s attorney, Jed Stone, about her clemency efforts and the argument that the medication she was on did not come with a warning that it could cause suicidal or homicidal ideations. Anyone who knew Lemak before the murder, or now, “would wonder how is it even possible that this could happen,” Stone said.

We also posed the same question to investigators who had been on the scene. Each one talked about things she did in the days leading up to the murders — like canceling activities for the children or a cleaning lady appointment — that gave evidence she planned the murders. Hatred for her husband was her motivator, they said.

Each of the officers spoke about the children and how they shared similarities — whether in age or hair color — to their own children. Twenty-five years later, they wonder what could have been for them. They think of their friend, Mark Carlson, and what could have been for him or how he would have handled the investigation.

As I wrapped up my interview with McGury he offered a quote from a friend to explain how he views the anniversary.

“It’s OK to look back,” he said. “You just don’t stare.”

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