Mother of teen slain in Cicero still seeking justice after 11 years. ‘Time doesn’t heal all wounds.’

“There’s always that empty seat, that empty chair at the table,” said Rosa Sanders, 44. “There’s always that question of, ‘Who would you be today? Would you have kids of your own?’”

SHARE Mother of teen slain in Cicero still seeking justice after 11 years. ‘Time doesn’t heal all wounds.’
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Rosa Sanders stands next to her son’s grave. Kevin Anthony Sanders was fatally shot Nov. 22, 2010 in Cicero.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For the last 11 years, Rosa Sanders has brought birthday balloons to the grave of her son, just 15 when he was shot and killed steps from his home in Cicero.

She started with 16 balloons and has added an extra balloon each year for the age he would’ve been if he were still alive.

For most of those years, she has dutifully called detectives and asked once again if they were any closer to finding Kevin Anthony Sanders’ killer. The answer is always no.

Police say they have reopened the Sanders case at least three times but have found no credible witnesses to the shooting in the alley of the 1600 block of 55th Court days before Thanksgiving in 2010.

“I believe someone saw what happened and is too scared to come forward,” Sanders said. “I know it was raining and it was dark already, but there’s always someone that saw something.

“I know if it was their family member, their child, they would want somebody to come forward,” she added. “That aspect has been very difficult to live with.”

The strain of grieving for her son while waiting for justice has taken a heavy toll. Sanders questioned her faith and even wondered about ending what her life had become.

While her family has pulled her from the brink, Sanders said these past holidays were hard as she watched her two youngest children open Christmas presents, as happy as she remembers Kevin Anthony was.

“There’s always that empty seat, that empty chair at the table,” Sanders, 44, told the Sun-Times. “There’s always that question of, ‘Who would you be today? Would you have kids of your own?’”

Last month in Chicago, a mother’s plea for justice for her slain 8-year-old daughter was answered by an arrest within days of the shooting. But for mothers like Sanders, the wait seems endless.

Elizabeth Ramirez knows how that makes grief all the harder to bear. She lost her son a decade ago and formed a group to counsel and support parents.

“Me as a mother, I’ve been grieving for the past 10 years,” Ramirez told the Sun-Times. “But I was also looking for justice for my son.”

She encourages parents to do what Sanders has been doing all these years.

“We as mothers want to help these detectives,” Ramirez said. “We’re not asking to drop what they’re doing, just take a look when you have a moment. Any little information could help our cases.”

‘God couldn’t save him’

Sanders remembers her son as smart and athletic, “very funny and kind to everybody.” Though he had an outgoing personality, his voice was usually soft when he spoke.

“He had plenty of friends,” Sanders said.

He was especially close to his sister Taylor, who was 8 when Kevin Anthony was killed. She had often watched her brother play pickup basketball at the park or youth baseball in North Riverside.

She said her brother kissed her forehead as he left the house, minutes before he was shot. Now 19, Taylor Sanders said she felt like she had “nobody to talk to anymore” after he was killed.

“He was like a role model because he was my older brother,” Taylor Sanders said. “It was weird not seeing him after he passed away because I’d see him every day.”

“I lost all motivation,” she added. “I think about him everyday ... it’s just sad.”

Annie Matos, 26, knew Kevin since she was 9 and they both attended Robinson Elementary School in Lyons. The two remained close friends.

“He came to my house one time unexpectedly, and he brought me all these balloons and started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ really loud, and that’s something I’ll never forget,” Matos said with a laugh.

Rosa Sanders said she can still see that rainy Monday evening when she came home and found her son — still in his khaki school pants — lying on the ground.

“My heart just sank, I just thought he got beat up,” she said. “He was murdered in the alley, right then and there.”

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Rosa Sanders places flowers on Kevin Anthony Sanders’ grave.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When she returned to work at an agency in Cicero that works with kids in foster homes, she’d often go to the bathroom or locker room and cry. “I didn’t even want to go on with my life,” Sanders said, her voice hoarse. “If I was driving down the expressway on the side, [I’d think] ‘What if I go off this bridge?’”

Sanders said her pain deepened each time she heard about other homicide cases being solved. “When I hear real life stories in the news where the case was solved right away, well, why couldn’t that have been my son’s case?”

It pushed Sanders, who grew up Catholic, to question her faith. “Here’s a child, 15 years old, but God couldn’t save him.”

‘Time is way overdue’

Sanders’ two youngest children, Noah and Gianna, were born after Kevin was killed. They know him from the stories told and the pictures of him throughout the house.

They and their big sister Taylor have helped her carry on. “The kids need me,” she said. “What choice do I have? I have to be here for my other kids.”

While she once questioned her faith because of the loss of her son, she acknowledges “it’s not my time yet, because God wants me here.”

Keeping busy — “keeping my mind occupied” — helps to combat the negative, but she still takes steps back, especially during the holidays and near her son’s birthday in August and the anniversary of his death.

“Every once in a while, when I do think about how it happened, it takes me to a bad depressing stage,” Sanders said. “I try to stay positive, but it’s hard knowing this person, so far, got away with murder.”

Sanders said she discovered Parents for Peace and Justice — the group formed by Ramirez — about four years after she lost her son.

“The families and the mothers who’ve lost a child ... they’re going to need all the support and help they can get in a tragic time like this,” she said. “The work they do is good.”

Ramirez’s son, Harry Rodriguez, was shot and killed on Oct. 23, 2011, in the 2000 block of North LeClaire Street in Cragin on the Northwest Side. Ramirez said she took to Facebook for help as the police investigation went nowhere.

She met Robert Torres, who became president of the organization, and they began meeting downstairs in Ramirez’s home. Parents for Peace and Justice offers support services like counseling and retreats for grieving parents.

“You can see the moms feel better after the counseling,” Ramirez said. “We’re letting them talk about their children.”

Ramirez said helping other parents has helped her cope with her son’s death.

“It helps me because I’m helping other mothers,” she said. “I’m going to be the person that tells this mom, ‘It’s OK to cry, it’s okay to feel upset, I know what you’re going through.’”

‘Most elusive homicide’

Last November, near the 11th anniversary of Sanders’ killing, the town of Cicero posted a notice calling the case “one of the most elusive homicide investigations that the Cicero police have conducted over the years.”

Cicero police said they’ve searched Kevin Anthony’s cell phone records and even conducted lie-detector tests but have turned up nothing to prosecute.

“I understand, she doesn’t want to hear it,” Cicero Police Chief Jerry Chlada told the Sun-Times. “All she wants to hear is: Justice has been served for someone who killed her 15-year-old son. I get it, 100%.”

The town has seen 37 homicides since 2012, according to police department data. Detectives have made an arrest in 68% of cases. Chlada said he’s hopeful an arrest will eventually be made in the Sanders case, too.

“Nobody wants to be assigned a homicide case and not be able to bring it to justice,” he said. “Nobody deserves to die.”

A month after the town posted the update, Sanders watched her youngest children, 5 and 7, tear open their Christmas presents in her home, now in Romeoville.

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Rosa Sanders smiles while holding her daughter.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

She remembered back to when Kevin Anthony was 9 and Taylor 2, both rushing to the Christmas tree in the corner and pulling at the red Winnie the Pooh wrapping paper.

“I’m incomplete,” Sanders said. “A part of me was ripped from my life and shattered my heart for eternity.”

She watched her children release balloons as she tied some to a tree near Kevin Anthony’s grave. She watched on, teary-eyed, as the mixture of red, heart-shaped and “Happy Birthday” balloons became harder to see as they drifted through the summer breeze.

“Time doesn’t heal all wounds, by any means,” Sanders said. “If someone says that time does heal, they definitely haven’t lost their child and had to bury their child.”

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