Lisa Acheson sits between her boyfriend Bill Janopoulos and Therese’s friend Betty Eilers, once again last week in Room 108 at the Maybrook Courthouse in Maywood, watching a process she never asked to be part of, unfold not unlike paint drying.
The March murder of Therese Pender on a River Forest street set several processes in motion. In one process, opposing camps of dispassionate professionals, purposeful and focused, deal in facts and allowable evidence, slowly laying the groundwork for the trial of Therese’s husband, James, her accused killer.
A second process is the civil lawsuit filed Sept. 8 against the Union Pacific Railroad for failing to hold James Pender after his arrest for allegedly stalking Therese in downtown Chicago. The family declined to talk about that case recently.
In a third, far more intimate process, ordinary people who are decidedly not dispassionate about Therese Pender struggle to process the senseless and brutal events of a cold March evening that stole away a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a friend.
The first process will conclude relatively soon, perhaps by late spring. The second will likely takes years to come to a resolution. The third may never fully conclude, but simply reverberate in the hearts and minds of those who loved a woman that one described as “an angel.”
As people come and go from the court gallery, Acheson, Janopoulos and Eilers sit quietly where they always sit, front row, left side, against the wall. James Pender appears momentarily at 10:12, but his case is “passed,” while the judge waits for the arrival of an attorney. Unlike most prisoners, who arrive in a Sheriff’s bus, Pender is driven from County Jail alone, escorted by three members of the Cook County Sheriff’s elite Special Operations Response Team (SORT). When Pender returns and stands before Judge Michael Tucker, he is partially shielded from the gallery by three very capable looking SORT officers.
As he leaves court the second time, Pender looks over at Acheson, Janopoulos and Eilers for a moment. It is a cold, glowering look that seems equal parts malevolence and contempt.
Asked if Pender looks at her often in court, Acheson says, “Every time.”
“He stares right through her,” says Janopoulos. Acheson shrugs it off.
“I’m here for my sister. It’s just good to know that he can’t hurt anyone now.”
Maybrook is not a warm place, but Acheson said that she’s grateful for the assistance and support her family has received from court personnel and the state’s attorney’s office. River Forest police, she adds, have been “excellent.”
“They’ve been very supportive. They’ve done their job.” That job reportedly included capturing Pender within a block of the murder scene minutes after he allegedly crushed Therese Pender’s skull with a hammer. Police say Pender was carrying a bloody hammer and had bloody hands.
Six hours after the court date, several miles south and a world away from the courthouse, Lisa Acheson sits down with her sister Jacqueline, mother Mary McCullars and niece Samantha Satterthwaite in the living room of her modest single story brick home in Brookfield. Janopoulos stands over by the door, watching.
The family is decidedly normal, working class, in blue jeans and feminine sweaters. It’s not hard to imagine them, like many of us, having their interpersonal ups and downs, perhaps uttering an occasional harsh word. But not being cruel, not engaging in the cold unkindness they say Pender allegedly inflicted on their sister.
And the women want this to be about their sister, not James Pender. But Pender’s presence is as inescapable now as when he allegedly manipulated and intimidated Therese into doing his bidding. Unable to tolerate Therese having any connection with anyone else who threatened his control over her, he reportedly hounded her every step. Between their May, 2002 marriage and the day Therese left him on December 19, 2004, Pender, the women say, devastated her finances, her spirits and her health.
Therese was caring, too caring, they say. Too focused on what others felt and needed.
“She always thought about other people first,” said her mother. “That was both her good point and her bad point.”
Therese simply wanted someone to care for and to care for her, they say. To share her joy of life, her love of people and her delight in the small things it offered, like Beatles songs. Instead, she choose a man apparently incapable of loving her for who she was, but rather for what he expected and demanded she provide him.
James Pender, Lisa Acheson notes, is an intelligent man, though with a superior mind that comes with a twisted spirit, an intelligence masking a host of shortcomings.
“As far as I know, he didn’t have another good thing about him,” said Mary McCullars.
“He could barely hold a job,” said Jacqueline.
“He wouldn’t hold a job,” her mother replied.
The slow process of coming to terms with their sister’s death is a mix of bitterness and aching affection, bitterness toward James and affection for Therese.
“When you wake up every morning, you notice something’s missing, and it hurts,” said Jacqueline. “But you just have to be brave.”
The bitterness also seeps in. More than once someone says something vengeful about James Pender, then apologizes.
“He gets a fair trial, but she never did,” said Jacqueline.
The women brighten a bit as they joke about Therese’s foibles and quirks.
“She was always late (to Christmas celebrations),” two people say simultaneously, eliciting laughter. “Lugging five gift-filled bags up the front stairs,” says another, laughing. Another jokes about the oversized glasses she used to wear. It’s a tiny bit of healing. “That’s what we’ll keep inside of us forever,” said Samantha. “Those little small things.”