On what would have been her 42nd birthday, over two dozen of Therese Pender's family and friends gathered last Thursday evening at the site in River Forest where she was murdered last month. In a solemn ceremony that began with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm and concluded with participants singing "Amazing Grace," the gathering celebrated the life of a person all agreed was a gentle and giving soul who had done nothing to deserve her brutal fate.
Therese Pender, who had filed for divorce from her husband, James, in December of 2004, was beaten to death with a hammer March 16 near the corner of Lake Street and Park Avenue as she walked home from the Central Avenue Metra station after work around 6:15 p.m. James Pender was apprehended by River Forest police minutes later on the Canadian National Railroad tracks a block north of the murder site, reportedly in possession of a hammer and a knife.
Therese Pender had been living with a friend in the 700 block of Park since January after obtaining an Order of Protection from her husband, who reportedly was stalking her after she moved out of their Harwood Heights apartment.
Therese Pender had requested that River Forest police maintain a special watch on the home she was living in, and, because of their concern for Therese Pender's safety, members of her friend's family usually dropped her off and picked her up at the Thatcher Avenue Metra station. However, Pender walked home alone that night because she'd taken an earlier train.
The Lake Street parkway and the lawn in front of 500 Park Avenue still bear the scars where evidence technicians dug up the sod in an effort to preserve, presumably, blood and tissue evidence. Her family and friends transformed the largest patch of naked earth into a repository for the numerous flowers they brought.
Numerous participants at the vigil struggled mightily to honor the spirit of celebration, with tears common, and shoulders shaking as the occasional sob slipped through tightened lips. Pender's grief-stricken father, Keith Acheson, was unable to look at the speakers, who stood by the spot on the lawn where his daughter's life ended. He instead held his mouth tightly in his hand, eyes closed or looking down and away.
He was clearly listening, however. When Therese's friend and high school prom date Lou D'Asaro said that Therese "invoked the spirit of spring, a time when we plant seeds to bring forth beautiful things," Mr. Acheson broke down in wracking sobs, which intensified as D'Asaro continued.
"Therese planted a seed in all of us, a seed of love. It's important to remember what she gave us."
Any bitterness expressed last Thursday evening centered around the perceived failure of law enforcement to adequately protect Therese under the order of protection she had acquired.
"The criminal justice system needs to be changed," D'Asaro told the gathering. Noting that five women are killed every day in the U.S. by their partners, he urged that the Violence Against Women Act be re-funded.
Two individuals involved in investigating just what failures may have occurred stood at the back of the gatheringâ€"Wayne Holik, a private investigator, and attorney Richard Mallen.
"We're investigating how the death could have been avoided, among other things," Mallen said before the ceremony. He noted that Therese Pender wasn't a jaded person, but a kind person who "got along with everyone."
"Maybe too kind," he added.
Ironically, last Thursday was also the day 54-year-old James F. Pender, Jr. appeared before a judge at the Maybrook Courthouse. A sullen looking Pender entered the courtroom last Thursday tightly escorted by three sheriff's deputies, with others standing by.
Dressed in an orange Cook County Jail jumpsuit, his thinning, uncombed hair askew, he stood before the judge with dour demeanor and hard, turned-down mouth and listened as Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Colin Simpson placed hundreds of pages of documents, crime scene photos and 911 tapes and audio recordings into evidence. Simpson also notified the judge that a Cook County Grand Jury had returned a 3-count indictment against Pender, superceding the original charges against him. The new charges include murder, armed robbery and aggravated stalking. The judge set a May 2 court date for Pender's arraignment on those new charges.
As James Pender sat in his cell in Cook County Jail, Therese Pender's loved ones, candles in hand, were slowly walking to the Central Aveune Metra station in River Forest, retracing her final steps.