‘Working every day toward forgiveness’: 15 years later, loss remains for Engelhardt family

FILE – An emotional Jeff Engelhardt and his mother, Shelly, spoke with reporters in 2014 after a jury found D’Andre Howard guilty of murdering three members of their family in 2009. Howard was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murders, plus 60 years for the attempted murder of Shelly, who still lives in Hoffman Estates.

Jeff Engelhardt has lived two lives. The first ended 15 years ago, when he lost his father, younger sister and maternal grandmother to an unprovoked attack by his older sister’s fiancé, whom his family had welcomed into their Hoffman Estates home.

His second life began the next day.

“There’s a before and an after,” the former Northwest Herald reporter said.

The April 17, 2009, attack claimed the lives of Engelhardt’s sister Laura, an 18-year-old Conant High School student-athlete beloved by friends and family; his father Alan, a 57-year-old stay-at-home dad whose kindness and boundless capacity for forgiveness was passed on to his son; and his grandmother Marlene Gacek, 73, who sparked Jeff’s interest in journalism by encouraging his curiosity and challenging him to ask questions.

Shelly Engelhardt, Jeff’s mom, also was seriously injured. His older sister, Amanda, and her infant daughter were unharmed. Jeff was away at college at the time.

Fifteen years after a senseless act of violence claimed the life of Jeff Engelhardt's father, Alan, upper left, and younger sister, Laura, center, the now-married father of two still chooses forgiveness. The attack on the Hoffman Estates family seriously injured his mother, Shelly, upper right. Amanda Engelhardt, lower left, was unharmed. Neither was Jeff, lower right, who was at college. "I am my father's son," he wrote in a 2011 Daily Herald essay. "And as my father's son, that means I choose the path of forgiveness."

“You feel a little directionless when something like this happens,” he said.

Sustained by their unshakable faith and the support of friends and family, surviving members of the Engelhardt family waited more than five years for justice. It came in 2014, when Amanda’s former fiancé, D’Andre Howard, was convicted on three charges of first-degree murder and the attempted murder of Shelly Engelhardt.

Prosecutors said the early-morning attack resulted from Howard’s anger over unfounded allegations that Amanda was cheating on him. The couple argued, and Howard ordered Amanda out of their apartment, authorities said.

Hours later, he showed up at the Engelhardts’ home, where the argument continued with Howard threatening to torture and kill the family. He threatened Laura, Amanda and Shelly with a knife, then tied them up with yarn. After he untied Laura, the college-bound athlete grabbed the knife he had set aside and stabbed him. The fatal melee ensued.

Howard, now 35, received three life sentences plus 60 years and remains incarcerated at the maximum security Pontiac Correctional Center.

Marlene Gacek, the mother of Shelly Engelhardt, was one of the three people fatally stabbed in April 2009 at the Engelhardt family’s Hoffman Estates home. Her grandson, Jeff Engelhardt, says her encouraging him to ask questions and be curious inspired his career in journalism.

Jeff’s family, which now includes his wife and two children, provides him an anchor 15 years after the tragedy. So does his career. A Southern Illinois University graduate and former Daily Herald intern who worked as a journalist after college, the Schaumburg resident now serves as the communications manager for Little City, which assists people with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Working with that population is something I’m passionate about,” said Engelhardt, whose career was inspired by his aunt, who had autism and was present during the 2009 attack but was unharmed.

This day, and on holidays and life events, it’s impossible not to feel the loss of his family, he said.

“Reflecting on days like this is difficult,” he said. “This is the chance I get to keep people who were so special, to keep their memories alive. That always means a lot.”

Good memories now outweigh bad ones.

“With time, you remember the things that made those people you love so great,” he said. “And you do what you can to make them proud.”

His kids’ friendship reminds him of the closeness that he and Laura shared. It took a tragedy to teach him something his children seem to know instinctively: Cherish your loved ones.

“They seem to appreciate the time they have with each other,” he said.

He and his wife encourage their children to be curious and open-minded. He nurtures their kindness, a quality his father, sister and grandmother shared, and he promotes forgiveness.

In January 2011, almost two years after the murders and as the bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois awaited Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, Engelhardt wrote an essay for the Daily Herald.

“I live with what happened every day and have mulled over what I would like to see become of the man I believe took my family away,” he wrote. “My vision was blurred for a while, but the decision became very clear after I remembered where I came from.

“I am no governor, but I am my father’s son. And as my father’s son, that means I choose the path of forgiveness. This is not a call to repeal the death penalty. Rather, this is a declaration of dedication to a path of peace.”

Fifteen years after senseless violence forever changed his life – and those of his mother, older sister and extended family – and 13 years after penning that essay, Engelhardt’s convictions haven’t changed.

“Keeping your heart as open as possible … [and] working every day toward forgiveness is the best path,” he said.