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Town joins roll call of tragedy

Tribune staff reporters

Palatine lost its innocence long ago, somewhere in the hurly-burly after World War II.

Crime came to town as the population doubled and redoubled in the decades of growth. Burglarly. Drugs. Gangs. Even the occasional ghastly murder to remind residents that "it can't happen here" is a cliche that has passed into irrelevance.

In that respect, the franchise-choked suburb of 42,000 residents was little different from the communities that surround it- Rolling Meadows, Arlington Heights and Schaumburg-villages that time has not forgotten.

But now Palatine has joined a different roster of towns, one that includes Killeen, San Ysidro, Holcomb, Stockton and, locally, Winnetka, Somanauk and Cedar Lake-the shattered towns, the towns whose very names echo tragedy too enormous to place in any context.

Saturday afternoon, as word lit through Palatine that seven people had been found murdered at the local Brown's Chicken & Pasta, many residents were too stunned and too baffled by the lack of details to register grief.

Mike Shwantz, 22, a grocery stock clerk, was playing hockey on a frozen pond near the crime scene as a news helicopter chattered overhead in the slate sky. "I'm just shocked," Shwantz said.

"We're trying to figure out why it happened," his friend, 19-year-old Jason Klein, added. "There had to be more to it than robbery. There had to be."

It sounded more like hope than prediction.

"This doesn't change how I feel about Palatine," said resident Debra Mueller outside the entrance to the local public library. "But it does change how I feel about society in general: You try to protect your kids, but you can't."

Mueller and others said that friends from across the country had been calling throughout the morning to talk about the dreadful reports from " Palatine, Illinois, near Chicago," that were heard nationwide on radio newscasts.

Nobody really knew what to say. A grim procession of gawkers caused long traffic delays on eastbound Northwest Highway as they inched past the roped-off crime scene to look at the restaurant and shake their heads.

"There's not much to say. It's crazy," said Kathleen Serotini, 23, one of several dozen residents who drove to the Eagle Plaza shopping center just to sit in a parking lot in a warm car on a frigid day and watch the banal aftermath of tragedy.

"I saw it on TV and said, `Oh my God, I have to get over there,' " said her friend, Karen Carr. The women had been sitting there more than three hours, they said, and seen nothing, heard nothing.

But there was nowhere else in town to be, really, on a day when a bitter north wind made the temperature feel far colder than the low 20s that registered on the bank signs. Palatine has no indoor malls where people gather and no central shopping district as such. Business has spidered out along major roads that then blend into neighboring towns without clear distinctions.

History has no choice now but to remember Palatine for this weekend massacre, but it should remember too that the village started quietly in the 1850s, when white settlers moved onto the open land that was still being farmed by residents a century later.

It was still a rural community of 2,000 residents until the mid-1940s, when returning World War II veterans moved out looking for affordable housing.

Eventually, dairy farms-such as the one Ken Kolze, 58, rented behind what is now the local Kmart-were paved over.

They were sold to make room for subdivisions and the families moving west from Chicago in search of a safe, quiet town. The population soared from slightly more than 4,000 in 1950 to more than 26,000 in 1970.

"I used to hunt rabbits and pheasants across the street from here," said Kolze on Saturday afternoon as he sat drinking coffee in a local restaurant on Northwest Highway, just blocks from Brown's Chicken.

But now, said Kolze,"A trip to the 7-Eleven at night makes you wonder. I never used to give it a second thought."

Like others, Kolze knows the Friday night murders aren't as sudden and unexpected as they might seem. In his words, the close-knit community "didn't change overnight."

Kolze and others remembered the brutal murders committed by Dr. Lee Robin five years ago. Robin bludgeoned his 28-year-old wife 20 times in the head with an ax and drowned his 2 1/2-month-old daughter in the upstairs bathroom of the family's split-level house.

The case re-entered the public eye recently when doctors at Elgin Mental Health Center, where Robin was committed, unsuccessfully sought court permission to allow him to leave the hospital on his own for short trips.

Just two months ago, the long unsolved disappearance of Stephanie Lyng, a Palatine woman who was last seen on a rainy October morning 15 years ago, resurfaced when police arrested Lyng's husband, Edward, and charged him with her murder.

Others in town mentioned "the Erickson thing," to recall the shooting of a Palatine police officer in late 1991 by bank robber Jeffrey Erickson, who later took his own life. To residents such as Ron Zimmerman, 50, it's not the sporadic, bizarre crimes that worry him. Those can happen anywhere, he said.

What worries Zimmerman is the gradual but permanent changes that are altering the town he moved to 19 years ago-altering towns like Palatine all over the country.

Zimmerman brags that until a decade ago, when his last daughter was finishing at Palatine High School, he never used to lock his doors. But then "the gang element" began emerging in town. Between 1981 and 1991, home burglaries in the town increased by more than 50 percent, state police statistics show.

"Crime has crept up big time on us," Zimmerman said, taking a drag of a cigarette. Now the strange, shocking deaths are forcing him to re-evaluate his town.

"What makes me goofy is my wife works (at a restaurant) and opens up at 4:30 a.m. and it could've been her," Zimmerman said. "I'm going to tell her to keep her eyes open."

The news was so horrific that residents could be forgiven for exaggerating its portent.

"This is just the start of what's going to happen more and more in the suburbs in the '90's," said resident Carolyn Hellweg, standing in the foyer of the Palatine Public Library. "We're going to get as bad as the city."

But despite a past mottled with crime and mayhem, Palatine residents still felt "very comfortable, safe and secure," said Father John McNamara during an early evening mass Saturday at St. Theresa Catholic Church, where Mike Castro, one of the murder victims (according to friends of the family), was a member.

Before a packed congregation of more than 400 people, McNamara tried to answer why tragedy and confusion had hit the community in one reeling blow.

"We thought nothing could happen like this, yet we are faced with death," said McNamara, his voice steady and low. "We who are confused and bewildered need to reassert our confidence that God loves us and helps us in these moments.

"As we gather and return to our homes and neighborhoods," McNamara said, "take the strength of faith in the midst of tragedy and comfort those who mourn."

But the sting of tragedy will not fade easily, said Dr. Jack Ashenfelter, principal at Prospect High School in nearby Mt. Prospect, which dealt with the deaths of three students killed in a November 1991 car crash in which the driver had been drinking.

"It takes a community and it takes a school and it transforms it almost instantaneously and transforms the climate and brings about a new set of fears," Ashenfelter said. "In our case, it's the fears of drinking and driving. In this case, it will be the fears of safety and working at night."

Robert Carnahan, town council president of Cedar Lake, Ind., a town shattered by the deaths of seven local residents in a crash caused by a drunken driver in September 1991, said "a community depression settles in" after a tragedy of such scope.

"It brings people closer together in the end," he said, "but certain feelings never leave."

In Winnetka, which was devastated by Laurie Dann's murderous rampage through Hubbard Woods Elementary School in May 1988, "counseling was very important in getting everyone through," said former Trustee Paul Cruikshank.

Palatine Village President Rita Mullins said late Saturday that plans were in place for just such counseling programs, beginning with a program at noon Sunday at Palatine High School, where two of the victims were students.

"The entire community has gotten together to see what we can do," Mullins said, standing in the snow outside the Brown's Chicken restaurant. "There are all sorts of emotions running from sadness to shock to fear to anger, and I think the commmunity is prepared to band together to stabilize these emotions."

Mullins added that the local chamber of commerce would also meet Sunday to discuss safety issues for other restaurants in the village.

The local weekly newspaper last week listed the top 10 stories of 1992 in Palatine. No. 1 was the dispute that resulted in the removal of a Christian symbol from the village seal.

Until Saturday, Palatine was best known in the region as a town that lost its cross.

Now it is a town that has lost its anonymity.

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