Suspected gunman argued with family night before apparent killings, fire

Written By BY STEFANO ESPOSITO, MIKE NOLAN, STEVE METSCH and JON SEIDEL Staff Reporters Posted: 02/28/2014, 10:29am
Array Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Michael Kaufmann said Wednesday morning a death investigation was being conducted after a fire at a home in the 9800 block of South 51st Avenue. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media

John P. Conta was a drifter — albeit a brilliant one — whose travels took him all over the globe, and across the country in an old van with math equations scrawled in paint on the windows.

Sooner or later, the 36-year-old former math teacher would usually drift back to his parents’ home in Oak Lawn, neighbors and friends said.

But when Conta — now suspected of killing his parents, his nephew and then himself in a murder-suicide early Wednesday — showed up unexpectedly on his parents’ doorstep last fall, something was different about him.

He had scruffy hair, a scraggly beard and hardly wanted to talk to people, said Jean Smoots, a good friend of Janice Conta, the roamer’s mother.

“I’m living with a terrorist,” Smoots recalled Janice Conta saying.

All the same, Janice and John C. Conta, opened their doors to their returning son.

“They didn’t even know where he was for three or four years, and one night there’s a knock at the door,” Smoots said. “I give them credit. They welcomed him back.”

Investigators were still trying to figure out a possible motive in the slayings Thursday, but one source told the Chicago Sun-Times that the younger John Conta had argued with family members during a birthday party for his nephew the night before the killings.

Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Michael Kaufmann declined to call that argument a “fight.”

“I don’t know if you can classify it as high as [an argument],” Kaufmann said. “It may have been about showing how to properly act in front of a child. It may have had something to do with that.”

But guests at the party have told investigators they believed the argument had been “amicably resolved,” a source said.

The child’s mother, Amy Conta, attended the party but returned to her Oak Lawn home a few blocks away, letting her son stay with his grandparents for the night, police said.

“There was nothing in her mind that would lead her to believe there would be a problem with leaving her son there,” Kaufmann said.

Wednesday morning, however, investigators responded to a grisly scene: John C. Conta, 67, and his wife, 68-year-old Janice Conta, were found dead inside their home ­— both shot in the head. Matthew Meier, the boy celebrating his birthday, also was found fatally shot in the head inside the home, which had been intentionally set on fire, the source said.

A fire commander on his way to work arrived at the home to find the garage door propped open with a baseball bat. Inside, the fire commander found the younger John Conta sitting in an SUV with its engine running, the source said. Moments later, Conta shot himself in the head with a shotgun, the source said.

By most accounts, the suspected shooter was brilliant but restless. He’d been married, briefly. He’d taught at a high school in California as recently as 2009, according to one Oak Lawn neighbor and a California court document in which John P. Conta is listed as the plaintiff in a small claims case. But then at some point, he headed to China, where he taught English as a second language. He’d also spent time in Russia, working as a potato farmer, Oak Lawn police said.

“He’d be gone every couple of years,” said one neighbor who didn’t want her name used. “Then he’d come back. He was kind of a drifter.”

The neighbor recalled a van John P. Conta owned three or four years ago that had math equations painted on the rear windows.

“He seemed like a decent guy,” the neighbor said. “He was happy. . . . You could just tell he wasn’t all there.”

Then last October, he showed up on his parents’ doorstep for the final time. If there were problems, neighbors didn’t notice it. John Conta’s behavior was never troubling enough to warrant a police visit, authorities said.

“We never heard anything or saw anything,” said Robin Conner, who lives next door to the Contas. “He [John P. Conta] would come out recently to shovel the snow. He even shoveled our driveway.”

Uncle John was at home for at least part of his nephew’s birthday party Tuesday, police said. And in the frigid predawn hours Wednesday, police say, he took one of his father’s hunting shotguns out of a safe. He is suspected of shooting both his parents and his nephew.

The younger Conta is then suspected of pouring gasoline in the basement and igniting it, investigators say. A gasoline can was found on the first floor of the home, Kaufmann said.

Before investigators could talk to him, Conta — sitting in the driver’s seat of an SUV in the garage — shot himself in the head, police said.

“Will we ever know what was going on in his mind? I don’t think we ever will,” Kaufmann said.

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