'I mourned her as if she were one of my own': Paramedic reflects on 2009 tragedy

 
 
Updated 4/17/2019 6:17 PM
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  • The Engelhardt family, clockwise from upper left: Alan, Laura (center), Shelly, Jeff and Amanda.

    The Engelhardt family, clockwise from upper left: Alan, Laura (center), Shelly, Jeff and Amanda. Courtesy of the Engelhardt family

  • Hoffman Estates firefighter/paramedic Steve Nusser is surrounded by, from left, daughter Brooke, daughter Holly and wife Caroline.

    Hoffman Estates firefighter/paramedic Steve Nusser is surrounded by, from left, daughter Brooke, daughter Holly and wife Caroline. Courtesy of the Nusser family

  • Steve Nusser, of Geneva, was among the Hoffman Estates Fire Department firefighter/paramedics who treated 18-year-old Laura Engelhardt following a stabbing on April 17, 2009, that claimed her life and the lives of her father Alan and her grandmother Marlene Gacek.

    Steve Nusser, of Geneva, was among the Hoffman Estates Fire Department firefighter/paramedics who treated 18-year-old Laura Engelhardt following a stabbing on April 17, 2009, that claimed her life and the lives of her father Alan and her grandmother Marlene Gacek. Courtesy of the Hoffman Estates Fire Department

  • After D'Andre Howard was found guilty in 2014 of murdering three members of the Engelhardt family in their Hoffman Estates home, an emotional Shelly Engelhardt, who survived the attack, and her son Jeff, who was away at college at the time, spoke with reporters.

      After D'Andre Howard was found guilty in 2014 of murdering three members of the Engelhardt family in their Hoffman Estates home, an emotional Shelly Engelhardt, who survived the attack, and her son Jeff, who was away at college at the time, spoke with reporters. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"I mourned her as if she were one of my own."

Hoffman Estates firefighter/paramedic Steve Nusser spoke softly as he recalled attending the visitation for Conant High School senior Laura Engelhardt, the 18-year-old student-athlete who was fatally injured trying to protect family members from an attack in the early morning of April 17, 2009, in the family's Hoffman Estates home.

Nusser, 49, was among the firefighter/paramedics who responded to the call of multiple stabbings about 6 a.m. that day.

"I don't think I expected to see what we saw," said Nusser, who, with firefighter/paramedics Matthew Fijalkowski and Daniel Kurzawinski, treated the victims. Laura's father Alan Engelhardt, 57, and her maternal grandmother Marlene Gacek, 73, were killed. Laura's mother and Alan's wife Shelly Engelhardt, then 52, was seriously injured.

What Nusser and his co-workers witnessed was the grim aftermath of a jealousy-fueled attack by D'Andre Howard, according to testimony at his trial.

The then-boyfriend of Laura's older sister Amanda and father of their infant daughter, Howard falsely accused Amanda of infidelity and attacked the family, telling her because she ruined their family he was going to torture and kill hers, according to testimony. Amanda Engelhardt and the infant escaped injury. The Engelhardts' son Jeff was away at college.

Nusser said tunnel vision took over, focusing him exclusively on Laura, who was about six years older than his oldest daughter. He asked her who stabbed her and she responded "Dre" or "Tre."

"It may be from watching too much TV, but part of me said: we need a cop to hear this," recalled Nusser, who summoned an officer.

On the way to the hospital, Nusser held Laura Engelhardt's hand.

"We're always offering comfort of some kind," said Nusser, a Geneva resident. "I think about how I would want my family treated and that's the way I treat my patients."

"Ten years ago my daughters were 12 and almost nine," he said. "Dealing with a young lady like Laura hit close to home."

On the way to the hospital, she asked the question paramedics and police dread.

"Am I going to die?" Laura said.

Trained not to lie, Nusser wanted to give the teen hope.

"Not if I can help it," he answered.

"I think that may have been the first time someone asked me if they were going to die and I wasn't sure," he said.

Laura Engelhardt survived surgery, but died later that day in the intensive care unit.

"I gave my daughters hugs as soon as they got home from school that day," Nusser said. Reading the newspaper account the next day, he had to explain to them why he was crying.

"Calls like that tend to have a ripple effect," he said, affecting even people indirectly involved in the tragedy as well as the first-responders, who Nusser says carry with them memories of every call they answer.

"This is one of the ones that sticks with you," he said.

It took jurors about 90 minutes to convict Howard. He received three life sentences without possibility of parole, plus 60 years for the attempted murder of Shelly Engelhardt. He is incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum security facility.

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