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One mom, 3 dead kids, and a terrible question – Why did Marilyn Lemak do it?

12-21-2001 Copy of a photo used in the murder trial of Marilyn Lemak of Naperville, who was found guilty by a jury at the DuPage County Judicial Center on Wednesday. She was charged in the killing of her three children to punish her estranged husband, David Lemak. (Photo copied by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

When she was a high school student in the southwest suburbs back in the 1970s, Marilyn Elizabeth Morrissey was the nice, pretty girl with the beautiful eyes.

“She had the coolest-looking eyes–crystal blue eyes,” said Renee Presbitero, 44, a former classmate at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park. “Back then, she was a really nice person.

“She didn’t stand out like some psycho or anything like that.”

More than a quarter of a century later, a jury is being formed this week to pretty much debate that very question.

Now better known by her old married name of Marilyn Lemak, Morrissey, 44, is scheduled to go on trial for the March 4, 1999, murders of her three children–Nicholas, 7; Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3–in their Naperville home.

Prosecutors plan to argue that the former surgical nurse killed out of revenge and resentment–revenge against her estranged physician-husband and resentment against the children she believed had driven them apart.

Before the murders, she made harassing telephone calls to Dr. David Lemak’s new girlfriend, left taunting notes for him and exploded in a murderous rage when she saw a car belonging to the new girlfriend, Janice Ryan, in the driveway of David Lemak’s new home, prosecutors say.

“She was angry, frustrated and outraged that David had begun seeing Janice Ryan,” DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett said during a recent court hearing. “There was no separation between her anger at Janice Ryan and David, and the murders of the children.”

But Marilyn Lemak’s lawyers plan to portray her far differently, as a devoted mother who suffered from postpartum depression and descended into madness as her marriage fell apart.

Mounting an insanity defense, they contend she wound up in a psychotic state–incapable of understanding what she was doing when she allegedly killed her own children.

“It’s the quintessential contradiction of a good mother causing the deaths of her three, beloved children,” said John Donahue, her defense lawyer. “It doesn’t get any worse than children being slain, particularly in such a macabre situation.”

A jury found Marilyn Lemak guilty Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001, guilty of killing her three young children, from left: Nicholas, 7; Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3, in her Naperville, Ill., home. The jury, which deliberated about nine hours, rejected alternate verdic
A jury found Marilyn Lemak guilty Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001, guilty of killing her three young children, from left: Nicholas, 7; Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3, in her Naperville, Ill., home. The jury, which deliberated about nine hours, rejected alternate verdicts of guilty but mentally ill or not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Chicago Sun Times)

If she is convicted, she could get the death penalty. If she is found not guilty by reason of insanity, she could be out in a couple of years or spend the rest of her life in a locked treatment center.

No one is denying she did it, but everyone is debating why.

“I can’t believe she was in her right mind,” said Glenn Landgraf, 62, a former neighbor. “But naturally, many families have been ruined by the sex and the ego and all that, but they don’t end up like this. That’s for sure.”

Poetry and Led Zeppelin

Marilyn Elizabeth Morrissey was born May 30, 1957, at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. Her father, William, an accountant for Peoples Gas, and her mother, Carol, lived in the Ashburn neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, but by 1961 they had moved to Palos Heights.

For years, they lived in the quaint Ishnala subdivision off Harlem Avenue in a two-story, brick and white-sided house with a circular driveway rounding from a quiet street, Kiowa Lane.

In 1974, she graduated from Sandburg High School, which counts former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas among its more famous alumni. Her senior yearbook featured quotations from everyone from English poet Lord Tennyson to pop singer Cat Stevens and the rock group Led Zeppelin.

It offered little insight into the young woman. She was not listed as active in any extracurricular activities.

But Marilyn Morrissey was normal “as far as teenagers go,” said Presbitero, who described herself as an acquaintance who was shocked when she learned a few years ago what had become of her old classmate.

“She was a pretty girl, a nice girl, but who knows what can turn your buttons,” Presbitero said. “I couldn’t believe it. Of course, you can’t believe it.”

After she graduated from high school, Marilyn Morrissey began attending Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. She earned an occupational career certificate in business in 1977 but continued studying biology and other classes at the junior college until 1982, according to the college’s records department.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rush University College of Nursing in 1984 and her master’s in nursing four years later, a Rush spokesman said.

Marilyn Morrissey met David Lemak while both were studying at Rush, and the two later married, according to published accounts.

‘Always very steady’

From the outside they were a handsome, happy family. They lived in a historic three-story Victorian house they purchased near Naperville’s downtown in 1991 for about $405,000 after David Lemak completed his residency. They painted the home a bright cranberry red and spent at least $100,000 restoring and renovating it, winning local awards.

The Lemaks removed an old rope-pull elevator that the previous owners had installed.

“We found it terribly ironic that they took it out because they didn’t want the children hurt on it,” said the previous owner, who asked not to be identified.

David Lemak was an emergency room physician at Hinsdale Hospital. Marilyn Lemak worked as a part-time agency nurse but gradually cut down her hours as their family grew.

“They had two dogs,” said Landgraf, who lives a few doors away from their former residence. “It was very normal and good. The kids were good and polite, and she was always very steady.”

A schoolgirl walks by the former Lemak residence on her way home from school in late February. One year after Marilyn Lemak was found in her home with the bodies of her three dead children, memories linger for the neighbors and schoolmates who were shocke
A schoolgirl walks by the former Lemak residence on her way home from school in late February. One year after Marilyn Lemak was found in her home with the bodies of her three dead children, memories linger for the neighbors and schoolmates who were shocked by the incident in March, 1999. | Sun-Times file photo.

‘Uncomfortable in my own house’

But inside the rambling, award-winning home, the marriage was falling apart.

Marilyn Lemak filed for divorce in 1997, but then withdrew the petition.

“Nothing changed except I had a change of heart,” Marilyn Lemak said during a later divorce hearing in September 1998. “I just felt that, you know, my–‘How could I do this to my children?’ is what I felt.

“I said to Dave, you know, ‘Please, promise me that things will change,'” she said, according to a transcript.

But Marilyn Lemak filed for divorce again in June 1998. In the hearing in September of that year, she said her husband was “emotionally unavailable,” undermined her authority with the children and left her feeling “ignored as a parent and as a wife.”

In one instance, Marilyn Lemak said she had punished their 7-year-old son by sending him up to his room, but when her husband came home, he allowed the boy to join the family for dinner.

“And he kind of in a very loud whisper to my son said, ‘Well, maybe if you are really nice to Mom, she will let you go to Blockbuster and pick out a movie to watch tonight,'” Marilyn Lemak said. “I felt belittled. I felt like, you know, I had no say in what had gone on all day.”

She said she felt humiliated when her husband wanted to invite his parents to their home and she objected.

“I said because I feel uncomfortable in my own house as it is,” she said. “To have other family scrutinizing us is, you know, not–it’s humiliating, and I feel that way quite a bit in front of our family and friends, and I have to play the one big happy family routine.”

She told the court in 1998 that the marital stress was causing her to uncontrollably clench her jaw and was giving her severe headaches, irregular menstrual cycles, and neck and back tension.

The kids knew the marriage was in trouble.

“My 7-year-old and my 5-year-old are now trying to give me advice on how to fix the problems,” Marilyn Lemak said at the 1998 divorce hearing.

Copy of a photo used in the murder trial of Marilyn Lemak of Naperville, who was found guilty by a jury at the DuPage County Judicial Center on Wednesday. She was charged in the killing of her three children to punish her estranged husband, David Lemak. (
Copy of a photo used in the murder trial of Marilyn Lemak of Naperville, who was found guilty by a jury at the DuPage County Judicial Center on Wednesday. She was charged in the killing of her three children to punish her estranged husband, David Lemak. (Photo copied by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

‘I did it’

David Lemak moved out of the home on Feb. 11, 1999, settling into an apartment two blocks away. When she learned he was seeing Ryan, Marilyn Lemak allegedly left notes for him to find as he moved out.

“What do you call someone who has a girlfriend while still married? The liar, the cheater–David Lemak,” one note read, according to prosecutors.

Jurors will hear about those notes and a harassing phone call Marilyn Lemak allegedly made to Ryan on Feb. 19, three weeks before the murders. Ryan, who filed a police report on the incident, said a woman called her anonymously and said either “you can’t have him” or “you can’t have them,” according to prosecutors.

Police couldn’t trace the call back to Lemak’s home or cell phone. Lemak later told a mental health expert she had called Ryan, but she denied speaking with her.

Then, when Marilyn Lemak saw Ryan’s car parked in David Lemak’s driveway on March 3, her anger turned murderous–and it turned toward her children, prosecutors say.

A day later, Marilyn Lemak allegedly drugged the children, sprinkling an anti-depressant medication she was taking on their peanut butter-covered bagels. She then suffocated them one at a time, pinching their noses and covering their mouths with her bare hands, authorities said.

Pieces of evidence used in the murder trial of Marilyn Lemak of Naperville, who was found guilty by a jury at the DuPage County Judicial Center on Wednesday. She was charged in the killing of her three children to punish her estranged husband, David Lemak
Pieces of evidence used in the murder trial of Marilyn Lemak of Naperville, who was found guilty by a jury at the DuPage County Judicial Center on Wednesday. She was charged in the killing of her three children to punish her estranged husband, David Lemak. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

She took an overdose of pills and slashed her own wrists. She spent the night in the house with her dead children, but when she regained consciousness the next day, she allegedly called 911. The taped conversation was played in court during a 1999 pre-trial hearing.

“I did it,” a wavering, thin voice said. “My husband didn’t want us anymore.”

Marilyn Lemak was found in the house with the dead children. Her wedding dress was lying on the floor, spattered with blood.

A photograph of David Lemak and Ryan was found with Ryan’s face slashed and an Exacto knife stuck in David Lemak’s heart.

As paramedics prepared to move her out of the house, she stunned them with a request, according to testimony at the hearing. She asked if she could kiss her dead children goodbye.

Emergency workers did not comply with the request.

Prosecutors plan to argue that long before the killings, Marilyn Lemak resented the children, blaming them for driving a wedge between herself and her husband, and for making it difficult for her to continue working as a surgical nurse.

Donahue plans to argue that Lemak was insane at the time of the killings.

She had been seeing a doctor for her depression in the months before the killing. But it was a family practice specialist, not a psychiatrist or a therapist, according to her attorneys and court documents.

A ‘spartan’ existence

The Lemaks’ divorce was final in October 1999. As part of an agreement reached later, she promised to return to her maiden name. They sold the house in Naperville in September 1999, about six months after the murders, for $885,000.

The new owners repainted it a less-flashy mix of brown and tan with gray accents.

Marilyn Morrissey is now locked behind a solid steel door with a 10-inch-square window in it. A deputy sheriff checks on her every 15 minutes.

LEMAK, MARILYN, Illinois Department of Corrections photo
LEMAK, MARILYN, Illinois Department of Corrections photo

She has spent two years and eight months behind bars–virtually all of it in a solitary, 6-by-10-foot cell in the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton. Her world now contains a toilet, sink and mattress on a concrete block pedestal.

“It’s rather spartan,” said John Smith, the sheriff’s department’s chief of corrections.

She leaves the cell about once a week to visit the jail’s recreation room, which contains weight machines, exercise and athletic equipment, Smith said. She often walks laps on a makeshift track that circles the room. And she reads lots of books, mostly fiction.

“She just does a lot of reading,” Smith said. “She’ll go to the library, check out an armload of books and lay on her bunk and read. Then she’ll go back and get another armload.”

Morrissey eats her meals in her cell–when she eats at all. Her attorneys say she has dropped about 80 pounds since her arrest, meaning the 5-foot-5-inch woman now weighs scarcely 100 pounds.

She appeared in court Friday, her face gaunt and pale, her hair long and streaked with gray, her lips clenched in silence, her once-riveting eyes covered by large eyeglasses.

“She killed her three kids!” whispered a woman in the jury pool.

It was a long way from Carl Sandburg High.

“She seemed like a really nice person,” said Presbitero, who was not in court. “It’s horrible, but who knows what pushed her to it?”

Contributing: Stephanie Zimmermann