Marilyn Lemak tells Eric Zorn: 'I do think about my kids every single day'
DuPage County Judge George J. Bakalis' wish came true.
When sentencing then-44-year-old Marilyn Lemak to life in prison without the possibility of parole in May 2002 for the crime of murdering her three young children, he told her he hoped that "every day as you look at the (prison) walls, the floor, the ceiling, the bars, you will see the faces of these young children and hear these young voices asking you, 'Why, Mom? We loved you, Mom. Why did you do this to us?'"
"I do think about my kids every single day in some way or another," Lemak told me in August, speaking by phone from Logan Correctional Center roughly halfway between Springfield and Bloomington/Normal in the first published interview she has granted to a Chicago-area journalist. "Time has made it -- well, easier is not the word -- but I can now talk about it without turning into a blubbering, sobbing mess."
The "Why?" question has hung over this gut-wrenching story since March 4, 1999, when Lemak, a surgical nurse, methodically drugged and suffocated her children Nicholas, 7, Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3, in their picturesque Victorian home in Naperville. She then took a fistful of pills, slashed her wrists with a box cutter, stabbed a photograph of her estranged husband in the heart, bled onto her old wedding dress and lay down hoping to die.
"I was thinking, 'He doesn't want me,'" she said, referring to her now ex-husband, a physician who had moved out of the house and started dating another woman as the marriage had fallen apart. "'He doesn't want (the children). This is a good thing. We're going to be in a better place, and he can move on. Everybody's going to be happy. Everybody. He's going to be happy. I'm going to be happy. The kids are going to be happy. Everybody's going to be happy.'
"I wasn't thinking that it was going to hurt anybody, as crazy as that sounds. And I know it sounds crazy. I know it. How can somebody think that? But that's where I was.
"I've heard so many people say, 'Well, I've been depressed, and I would never kill anybody. I would never kill my kids.' And the only thing I can think to say in response is that you have probably never experienced the depths of hopelessness and helplessness that I was feeling at the time."
She awoke hours later and called 911: "I did it," she told the operator. "My husband didn't want us anymore."
The overwhelmingly awful story of the pretty, wealthy, well-educated professional who methodically murdered her children made headlines around the world.
She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Now 64, Lemak told me she has almost no memory of her trial and of the months prior to it she spent in the DuPage County jail. "I was a zombie," she said. "I don't even know what kind of meds they had me on, but they kept giving me pills and more pills, and I was also drawing into myself. I sometimes think I remember fragments here and there, but I'm not really sure if it's something that I remember or something that somebody told me."
She said she does recall feeling profound disappointment that Judge Bakalis didn't sentence her to die after a jury rejected her insanity defense, and that she remained suicidal during her first years in prison.
"I was constantly thinking, how can I kill myself? What can I do that's going to work this time?" she said. "And I did some stuff to myself. I gathered up lots of ibuprofen and lots of Tylenol to try to overdose. Then I turned into a cutter."
Nevertheless, she said, in 2005 she persuaded doctors to take her totally off the psychoactive medications they'd once said she'd be on for the rest of her life.
Reporters -- including me -- would write to her periodically to ask for an interview, but she said she threw all such requests into the trash because she didn't want to bring the story back to light and unearth all the pain associated with it for others as well as herself.
Lemak finally agreed in August 2011 to an on-camera interview with French filmmakers preparing a documentary on women who harm their children. She said she wanted to speak out about the role severe depression can play in dreadful acts of violence and that she naively believed that the footage would be seen only in France.
But portions and outtakes of that interview became the basis for Chicago-area news stories. And the local coverage gave former DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett the chance to publicly reiterate the view that Lemak had not been legally insane when she killed Nicholas, Emily and Thomas.
"She never had a break from reality," said Birkett, who is now an Illinois Appellate Court judge. "She knew what she was doing. She had a full appreciation of her conduct. It was a combination of depression, revenge and guilt over what she had done to her marriage even before she had killed her children."
That explanation did not satisfy her, Lemak told me. She was still haunted by the question Judge Bakalis had put into the mouths of her dead children: "Why?"
Janet Lagerloef, a freelance writer from Sugar Grove, helped point Lemak in another direction. She was among those who had been writing unanswered letters to Lemak, in part, she told me, because her battle with depression "as a mother who had experienced her own dark years" led her to believe this was not a simple story of an angry wife taking revenge.
Lagerloef, who is finishing up a book on the case, began helping Lemak look into the role that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drug Zoloft (sertraline chloride) might have played in her grotesquely distorted thinking in the days leading up to the murders.
The doctor treating her for depression as her marriage was dissolving had started her on 50 milligrams daily of Zoloft in June 1998 but gradually increased the dosage to 200 milligrams a day starting less than two months before she killed her children and attempted to kill herself.
The possible role that drug played in those actions forms the basis of the petition for executive clemency Lemak submitted last year to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in which she asked to be paroled. The petition cites the Illinois Supreme Court's 2006 decision in People v. Hari in which the court ordered a new trial for a man who'd shot his wife and killed a man she was dating. At the time, the killer was taking 25 milligrams of Zoloft while also drinking alcohol and ingesting Tylenol PM.
Lemak agreed to an interview with me -- her first with anyone but Lagerloef in 11 years -- as part of an effort to draw attention to her bid for clemency. Attorney Jed Stone of Waukegan sat in on the 54-minute call but did not attempt to guide or correct Lemak, who spoke in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice.
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin's office filed a response in opposition to Lemak's petition, categorizing her actions as "rageful" and saying prosecutors "do not accept" that "Zoloft made her kill her children."
Lemak told me that if she is released -- or even if she never is -- she intends to work to publicize the potential dangers of SSRI medications. For now, she said, she's leading a very routine life in prison, helping to paint walls, assisting instructors putting together course packets, inventorying instructional books and otherwise trying to fill the long days by being useful.
"I'm not trying to make excuses for myself," she told me. "I'm not trying to say, 'Oh, it wasn't me, it was just the medication.' But I am trying to understand what happened. How did this happen?"
• Eric Zorn was a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years. This story was edited and excerpted from an entry at his online newsletter The Picayune Sentinel, https://ericzorn.substack.com.