The nightmare is the night: 20 years after Elgin's most notorious mass shooting
The desperate pounding on Steinar Andersen's door was ominous in the way only loud noises in the night can be.
His wife, Penny, was out with friends at JB's Pub, just two blocks away. She was not among the three women banging on his door to tell him she was in trouble.
Anderson swept his 11-year-old stepson, Travis, out of a peaceful dream and drove him into the middle of a nightmare. The police arrived at the same time.
"It was all chaos," Andersen said. "We arrived in a kill zone."
He saw Penny on the side of the road. The tears rushed from her eyes almost as fast as the blood escaped the bullet holes in her left arm and pooled on the ground.
Elgin paramedics tended to her in a triage fashion. There were too many victims to match with all the trails of red drops. No time to wait for more ambulances.
Penny was loaded into a car and taken to St. Joseph Hospital. It would be two hours before Steinar spoke to his wife and learned the extent of her physical wounds.
It would be seven years before the emotional trauma and Penny's disability allowed for some semblance of normalcy.
And it would only be now, 20 years later -- and after Penny died from cancer -- that Steinar Andersen can say he's found peace in his thoughts of Luther Casteel, the last man Kane County put on death row.
When the call came into the Elgin Police Department to respond to what we would now call a mass shooting at JB's, Bill Wolf thought it might be a prank. Wolf, who would be one of the lead detectives on the case, joked with colleagues just the day before about how slow it had been.
But it was very real. The shooter entered the bar with two shotguns, two handguns and at least 200 rounds of ammunition. As he shouted, "I am the king!" a torrent of bullets killed two people and wounded at least 16 others.
In what has become part of the legend of the event, a bar patron subdued the shooter when one of the guns jammed. The patron's identity is still unknown to most of the people whose lives he saved. Wolf said the man had a past as a gang member and shunned any recognition for his heroism.
With the shooter in custody, Wolf began his investigation at the Kane County jail. "I'd never seen someone involved in a case that looked like him," Wolf said. "He had shaved his head to look like the guy from the movie 'Natural Born Killers,' but it was a rush job. It wasn't a complete mohawk. He still had hunks of hair in different spots. And he had this gas mask."
Not having been at the bar, located at the northeast corner of McLean Boulevard and Lllian Street, Wolf didn't feel the impact of the event until he brought each surviving victim in to identify the shooter in police lineups.
"It was their first time seeing him again," said Wolf, who is now Schaumburg's police chief. "The emotions that poured out are something I'll never forget. He had just randomly shot these people for no reason, people he'd never met for the most part. There was just no reason for it, and that's what made it so difficult to process for all involved.
"To this day, if there was ever an opportunity, I'd like to try to understand why he did what he did."
JB's Pub in Elgin remained a trigger for nightmares and flashbacks for many of the people at the tavern that night. Many left Elgin to escape even accidentally driving past the pub. It was razed in 2014.
- Daily Herald file, April 2001
Trapped by memories
Bret McNamara also doesn't know why the shooting happened, but he was as close to the events as any eyewitness.
There was one patron between a 23-year-old McNamara and the 5-foot, 6-inch, 145-pound man who would shoot him in the leg that night.
He watched as the shooter got into an argument with a woman and grabbed a beer bottle by its neck to make a threatening gesture. That was enough for a bartender to call a bouncer to escort him out of the bar.
When the shooter came back an hour later, McNamara heard him before he saw him. "My back was to that door," McNamara said. "When he started shooting inside, I thought a music speaker blew or something. Everyone started freaking out."
McNamara dove away from the sound of the gunshots and army-crawled behind the DJ booth. A woman fell on him and screamed in terror.
"I just grabbed her by the face and said, 'We've got to get out of here or this is going to be bad.'"
Beyond the DJ booth was a door to the outside. McNamara made it out before he realized he'd left the friend he came with inside. Looking around, he saw the Taco Bell next door and a police officer with a gun drawn.
Concerned for his friend, McNamara opened the door and went back inside. The shooting was over. His friend was nowhere to be seen. McNamara would catch up with him later. But near the door, McNamara saw Jeff Weides on the ground. Weides, known as "Whitey," was one of the bartenders on duty that night.
McNamara worked at a bar in West Dundee and considered Whitey a friend in the local bar industry.
"I didn't know what to do," McNamara said. "He was bleeding out of his chest. I took off my shirt and put it over his chest and just sat there. He was still kind of breathing, but he wasn't talking. Then he stopped moving. He died when I had my shirt on him. I didn't realize. I was just a kid. I don't know if it was a police officer or a paramedic that pulled me off him."
McNamara walked out, dazed, and tripped over the lifeless body of Richard Bartlett, the first person shot that night. It was only after McNamara was outside that someone pointed to the blood seeping through a rip in his pants. A bullet had penetrated his leg and come out clean on the other side. Twenty years later, McNamara carries a permanent bruise from his knee to his ankle.
That wound was relatively easy to recover from. The 10 years of flashbacks and nightmares nearly every night was more difficult.
It wasn't long after the shooter was convicted and sentenced to death that McNamara left Elgin and eventually settled in Texas to escape the sights that would trigger the flashbacks.
Any time he sees news reports of mass shootings, the images come back. The noise. The blood. His shirt. "The nightmare is the night," he said. "As the years go on, it happens gradually less. Time has done what time does. Drugs, alcohol don't make it go away. You've got to face it."
McNamara seldom sits with his back to a door anymore. And he's become an adamant supporter of gun rights.
The conviction was a foregone conclusion to McNamara. But with the shooter already having served time in prison for a prior criminal conviction, locking him up again felt like inadequate justice.
"He was going back to his home," McNamara said. "I don't know that closure is what I was looking for. I wanted it to go away. I thought he needed to die."
The death sentence granted that wish. But when Gov. George Ryan cleared death row in 2003, leaving the shooter with multiple life sentences, it robbed victims of their sense of justice, McNamara and Steinar Andersen said.
A patron of JB's Pub in Elgin is overtaken with emotion after an April 2001 mass shooting.
- Daily Herald file, April 2001
A tiny island of grief
Penny Andersen lived long enough to see JB's demolished in 2014. "It's like closure for me," she wrote in a comment to a Facebook post about the building being razed. She wanted a memorial plaque placed at the site. A car wash opened there instead.
In the years after the shooting, she struggled with limited function of her left arm and hand. She couldn't tie her shoes. It took neurological surgery and years of therapy to be able to hold a glass and lift it. Her career as a waitress was over.
She cried almost every day for the two years after the shooting. The sound of fireworks every Fourth of July sent her scurrying into hiding places. She had a hard time leaving the house. And she lost all trust of men, including Steinar, who struggled to help Penny regain her normal life, even as he fought a tremendous sense of guilt that he wasn't able to protect her that night.
There were thousands of dollars in medical bills. Half a life of lost income. The Andersens found themselves competing with other survivors in the lawsuits that followed for enough money to cancel debts and losses. It wasn't enough.
A potential support system fractured in the process.
"If the victims' families could all get together and maybe find some peace among ourselves, that would be a good thing," Steinar Andersen said. "It never happened. We are still alone on this little island. And we don't know why."
Penny Andersen lost a battle with cancer in 2016. By the time she died, Penny and Steinar had repaired much of what was broken. That gives him solace.
It took longer for him to feel something less than fury about the fact the man who tried to kill his wife and ruined his family is alive. It was only through continued work with his Christian men's group that he found the ability to forgive.
Forgetting is more elusive.
"I'm at the point now where I put the forgiveness into a bucket, and that's where that life is," said Steinar, who lives in Huntley. "I'm slowly trying to change everything. I'm going to try to find a house in the middle of nowhere, far away from people. Just a 2-acre plot of land and plop a house on it. A total reset. And once I reset, I'm never going back to it. I don't ever want to talk about it ever again."