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Parish turns murder to grace

Special Report Writer

The story began on an afternoon in June 1996 when an Hispanic teen shot and killed an Anglo youth on the border between Chicago and its northern neighbor, Evanston, Ill. And it reached a kind of finality in July 1997 when a Cook County judge ordered the killer, 19-year-old Mario Ramos, to begin serving a lengthy prison sentence for the crime.

But during the 15 months between these two events, this tragic affair had a deep and moving effect on the parish community to which Ramos belonged, and the parish community in turn had a profound influence on the families of both victim and killer, perhaps most especially on young Ramos himself.

In a letter to Ramos last July, parishioner Paul Joseph observed that his “incomprehensible” act had somehow “set in motion an extraordinary sequence of awareness, understanding, awakening, reconciliation and renewal within our community.”

The parish, St. Nicholas, was founded in south Evanston 110 years ago by German-speaking Luxemburgers. Today it is a 1,300-family, predominantly white, largely middle-class community of virtually every European nationality, with a sizable representation of Filipinos, Haitians, African-Americans and Hispanics.

In 1990 St. Nicholas became the home of a tightly-knit group of Mexican-Americans who were displaced when their former place of worship, a small neighboring church, was closed. Great efforts by the staff to integrate the Anglo and Hispanic parish segments have had limited success. Well-attended English Masses at 9 and 11 a.m. every Sunday draw few Hispanics, and a flourishing Spanish Mass at 1 p.m. draws few Anglos.

Yet the two groups seem to coexist in a spirit of mutual acceptance -- with occasional shared liturgies and social events. Scarcely a homily passes without the pastor, Fr. Robert Oldershaw, calling attention to St. Nick’s “marvelous, multicultural diversity.”

Insulting the Latin Kings

Mario Ramos and his family were regular members of the Hispanic segment at St. Nicholas. He had been an altar boy at his former parish. In June 1996 he was a slightly built, seemingly shy, bespectacled youth, virtually anonymous among the teenagers shifting restlessly each Sunday afternoon at the Spanish Mass.

Ramos graduated from Evanston Township High School on June 16, and the next afternoon he was hanging out with some of his buddies near a fruit store on a busy street on the far north side of Chicago. A car drove up containing two white and two black teenagers; one of them got out and entered the store to cash a check. According to later court testimony, Ramos ran past the car and flashed the gang sign of the Latin Kings.

When the occupants of the car did not respond appropriately, Ramos and his companions felt insulted. As the car drove away, Ramos and another youth, Roberto Lazcalo, pursued it on a bicycle, Ramos wielding a semiautomatic pistol. The chase would have been futile but the car was halted by a red light at Howard Street, the divide between the city and suburban Evanston. Ramos got off the bike, ran toward the car and fired one shot. The driver, Andrew Young, 19, quickly turned toward the passengers in the back seat.

“Are you shot?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

He lifted his left arm to reveal a growing spot of blood. In fact, the bullet had struck his left arm, torn through his heart, exited his side and lodged in the back of the seat. Young was less than a minute away from death. By the time his frantic friends got him to the hospital, attempts to revive him were useless.

Meanwhile several police officers near the scene of the shooting chased down Lazcalo and Ramos. Both were charged with first-degree murder. Andrew Young was one of the four children of Stephen and Maurine Young, residents of south Evanston and members of Evanston Bible Fellowship.

Andrew’s twin brother, Sam, had been with him in the car and had watched him seem to simply “fall asleep.”

At the hospital emergency room, Stephen said he was overcome with rage and “vowed” then and there that his outgoing, gregarious son, a talented speed skater about to begin studies in computer technology, would not die in vain.

Mario’s parents, Manuel and Maria Ramos, who have six children, speak little English. They were overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment at what had occurred and could not immediately face their community. After visiting their son at the Cook County Jail, they fled back to Mexico for several weeks.

Fr. Oldershaw, a tall, angular 61-year-old priest with a penchant for the dramatic, a love of music and a passion for lively, participatory liturgy, was also overwhelmed. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said later, “but I felt like we had to do something.”

As a longtime St. Nicholas parishioner, I heard the story of the killing for the first time in July when Oldershaw shared the details during a moving homily at Mass. A terrible thing has happened, he said. Two families have been touched by tragedy. How do we respond?

His personal response was to visit Ramos in the maximum security section of Cook County Jail, a monstrous institution housing, on the average, 10,000 prisoners awaiting trials or hearings every day of the year.

He found the young man full of confusion, remorse and self-pity. He only meant to wound the driver of the car, he said -- in order to prove himself a true Latin King gang member. How could it be, Oldershaw mused, that a young man could be attending Mass with his family one day and committing murder the next? He called together some 15 members of the parish’s Mexican community for a series of meetings to discuss the situation.

For perhaps the first time these leaders faced the awful implications of the cultural divide that separates Hispanic and Anglo-Americans. The incident and the subsequent meetings were “a wake-up call for us,” said Mario Tamayo, an accountant and active parishioner. “The older generation and many of the parents don’t know how to relate to the American dream, so they cling to one another,” he said. This was especially true for the Spanish-speaking community at St. Nicholas. The vast majority had come from one village, Ojo Seco, 200 miles north of Mexico City, and their roots still extended deep into the old country.

They might work and recreate and raise their children in this strange land, but many dreamed of the day they could go “home” again. Their children attending multiethnic, multiracial Evanston schools had other ideas -- college educations, careers in the American mainstream.

Their parents, said Tamayo, often provided little or no encouragement for such ambitions. Better to be a landscaper or laborer; better to stay with the community.

Feeling resentful and isolated, the young were easily attracted to the sense of belonging that is a vital part of gang culture. Mario Ramos was Exhibit No. 1. According to teachers and school officials, he had been a quiet, almost invisible presence during his elementary years and his first two years of high school.

He learned slowly but always gave good effort and was respectful. Then in his latter two high school years he grew surly and defiant. Even his physical appearance changed. He lost weight, looked tired and wasted. As he would later acknowledge, he had drifted into the world of the Latin Kings, a world of drugs, booze and violence.

“We have to knock on doors,” said Tamayo, “make parents aware. Even when they see what’s going on with their kids, they’re afraid to ask for help. They don’t want to bother anyone.”

The meetings and discussions in the wake of the arrest led to the formation of the St. Nicholas Concilio Hispano, headed by Tamayo. In January 1997, with the cooperation of Bill McCarthy, the parish youth minister, the organization inaugurated a Friday night drop-in center for Hispanic teens at the parish gym. Hardly a revolution but an important step for young people who did not feel comfortable in the parish’s traditional youth groups. With oversight from parents, the drop-in center quickly became an institution, regularly drawing 75 to 100 teens for basketball, dancing, listening to music or just hanging around.

Fruits of dialogue

In the months following the killing, Oldershaw and the Concilio brought in a series of speakers to dialogue with the congregation at the Spanish Mass. Evanston’s new police chief was the first, then the superintendent of the high school district, the superintendent of the elementary school district, a teacher, a school counselor. The discussions were frank, sometimes heated.

“We can’t communicate with you because you don’t speak our language,” members of the congregation told the authority figures.

“You parents have to take more responsibility,” they replied. “We have to work together.”

And they have begun to.

For the first time, the Evanston police department hired a Spanish-speaking counselor, and the City of Evanston hired a full-time outreach representative to the Hispanic community. Buoyed by better relations, a group of Evanston police in September cooked a meal and served it to some 300 Hispanic worshipers immediately after a Sunday Mass.

Week after week Oldershaw updated both parish communities about these developments in the parish bulletin, weaved the latest news into his homilies, urged parishioners to break barriers between Anglo and Hispanic, and asked for prayers for the two families affected by the tragedy.

Especially, he urged parishioners to write or visit Mario Ramos in prison. Thus began a surprising string of ongoing contacts between the pious faithful and the self-acknowledged killer.

“I saw the appeal in the bulletin,” said Arlene Bozek, a former school teacher, now a coordinator of in-service programs for an order of nuns, “so I went to see him. We hit it off right away.”

For more than a year Bozek drove to the jail to visit Ramos every week. “You could see the change coming in him,” she said. “If only he knew then what he knows now.”

They talked about current events, about the gospel, about his daily routine. “To tell the truth,” said Bozek, “this experience has really changed me, you know -- just doing what Jesus asks us to do.”

Paul Joseph, who is partially disabled and does not drive, began visiting Ramos two or three times a month and continued the practice for the better part of a year. For the sake of a 30-minute visit, he undertook a five-hour round trip on public transportation to and from Cook County Jail.

In between visits he corresponded with the youth by mail. In a letter to the judge handling the case, Joseph wrote, “Mario is an affable young man who has taken genuine interest in my welfare. As a matter of fact ... we end up talking more about how I am doing than about his experiences.” A score of other writers and phone callers reminded Ramos simply that he was not alone, that forgiveness is possible, that God can draw good out of the worst situation.

A different message

Responding to a letter from Julie Drew, an Evanston public school teacher, Ramos wrote that he had always heard that “blacks and Latinos can’t achieve anything.” But now he was getting an entirely different message.

“This kid came in here broken,” said jail chaplain Ron DeRose, a permanent deacon who visited Ramos regularly in his cell. “Then you could see a kind of healing starting -- he even reached out in friendship to his brothers in the unit. You don’t see that happen very often in here.”

Less than two months after the murder, Oldershaw met Andrew Young’s mother, Maurine, almost by accident and said he would like to talk to her. She was guarded, he said later, “but I sensed something else there too.”

Soon after, her husband, Stephen, called Oldershaw. He said he didn’t understand why no one in the Ramos family had called or apologized. “They are all devastated,” the priest told him. “They don’t know how.”

That call led to innumerable visits and conversations during the next 12 months between the Protestant Youngs and the Catholic pastor. “You could see that in the midst of all their hurt and anger, they were trying to cling to the gospel,” said Oldershaw. “We talked a lot.”

He and some members of the Ramos family attended the ongoing series of court hearings concerning Ramos, who was represented by a public defender. At one of these, Oldershaw sat beside Ramos’ mother, Maria, on a bench in the spectators’ section of the courtroom. Unexpectedly Andrew’s father, Stephen, walked in and sat on the other side of the priest. The two parents had never before seen one another.

Hesitantly, Oldershaw asked if they would like to meet. Both nodded, so he rose and introduced them. They shook hands, then sat down side by side on the bench, held each other’s hands for many moments and simply wept.

Words at that point would have been futile. Later in the judge’s chambers, Maria had her first opportunity to touch her son; in previous visits they had always been separated by a glass partition. As the two embraced, Oldershaw glimpsed Stephen Young waiting outside in the courtroom -- alone.

At least, he thought, Maria Ramos can hold her son; Stephen Young can never again hold his.

In November Roberto Lazcalo, Ramos’ accomplice, went on trial before a jury, was promptly convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Though it was clear he had not fired the weapon, Lazcalo had a long list of previous charges and convictions. In addition, testimony indicated that he was the supplier of the weapon and instigator of the shooting.

Oldershaw feared that Ramos would get an even stiffer sentence. His concern was exacerbated by indications that the overworked public defender representing the young man was not doing enough.

By the day of the parish holiday banquet, held at an upscale Evanston hotel in early December, Oldershaw had become so agitated that he could not get into the spirit of the festivities. He spotted parishioner Bob Pantoga, a lawyer attired in a tuxedo, and buttonholed him on the spot. “You’ve got to do something,” said Oldershaw. “We’ll raise the money to pay you.”

Pantoga, who had 13 years experience as a criminal lawyer, went to see Ramos the next day and instantly agreed to take the case free of charge. “What could I do?” he said later. “My pastor calls, I gotta respond.”

Besides, Pantoga was struck by the vulnerability of young Ramos. “Such a little kid,” he said, “just a little boy -- and just beginning to see who he really is.”

For the next nine months Pantoga handled every aspect of the defense. Better than anyone else, he knew that Ramos, who admitted the crime from the beginning and intended to plead guilty, would receive an exceedingly long sentence, but he hoped the evidence of contrition and the signs of rehabilitation would count for something.

Meanwhile, Stephen Young, who had sworn his son’s death would not be in vain, began to direct his grief and his energy toward gun control. During the investigation and prosecution of the case, it was revealed that the weapon that killed his son had been purchased in 1994 at a suburban gun shop. The buyer was Mariano DiVittorio, who was subsequently arrested and convicted as a so-called “straw purchaser,” that is, one who obtains weapons legally, then sells them at a profit to felons or gang members.

According to federal data, only 10 percent of guns confiscated by police in crime situations are stolen. The overwhelming majority have been bought by people like DiVittorio who do not have criminal records and can get unlimited amounts of weaponry with only a minimal amount of falsification.

After his apprehension, DiVittorio was given a six-month sentence and three years of probation. He was a free man long before the gun he placed in the criminal pipeline killed Andrew Young. Stephen Young joined the Illinois Coalition Against Handguns and became a leader in the campaign to ban weapons or at least change state laws that permit multiple gun purchases. He organized marches against guns and letter-writing efforts to legislators. He put together a citizens’ conference against gun violence and headed a support group for survivors of crime. For a long time after the tragedy, he said, he was still “entangled by vengeance.” But with support from St. Nicholas and his own church, including his pastor, the Rev. Martin McCorkle, he was discovering in this activity a healthier focus: “a way to honor the memory of Andrew.”

Still, he had nothing but contempt for the gun dealers and straw purchasers whose participation in death and injury was so cool and deliberate. “They are the ultimate criminals,” he said.

Conversion in prison

By the spring of 1997, visitors to the prison and those who corresponded with Ramos described him as a transformed, repentant, even aggressively evangelistic young man totally devoid of self-pity. Chaplain DeRose attributed much of this to the support and prayers of so many parishioners. “I really think his faith is genuine,” he said.

To the members of the St. Nicholas youth group, Ramos sent a long letter, which was widely quoted and reprinted in the parish bulletin: “I would like for you to be patient, if you please, and try to understand ... what life is like for someone like me that might have to spend the rest of my life in jail for a murder that was unfortunate ... not only for the family but for myself also. As I come to an understanding that I was blind from the truth, I must live with a burden that will be with me always. ... I knew that for me to help myself I had to take a step and say ‘I’m sorry,’ and once I did that, that is when God took over. It was harder than I thought. For God’s ways were all different from mine. ... Though I may never be able to see my adulthood (outside prison), I can sure do something to prevent someone from making the same error I made and see their life pass away. It hurts to be here, to sit here and just see life pass you by. It is nothing to be proud of or happy about. ... So don’t neglect the help that is there for you. Let us thank God that we do have people who care. ... So let’s not make our lives any more hurtful than they already are.”

In early June, with the time of his sentencing drawing near, Ramos decided he must also speak directly to the Youngs. “If it was possible,” he wrote in a letter to Andrew’s parents, “I would change places with your son and die in his place instead. But there is no action which you or I can take to bring back Andrew or change what has been done. But by God’s assurance we know that he is in God’s hands. ... Though I could spend the rest of my life in jail, I don’t even come close to the hurt your family must be going through. I hope that some way you may find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Ironically, as Ramos composed his letter, Maurine Young was typing one of her own to him -- a long, painfully candid exposure of her soul. “You don’t know me, though I suspect you’ve heard of me,” she wrote. “I am Maurine, Andrew’s mom. I’ve thought of you and prayed for you many times since you shot and killed my son.”

She told of her early years as a Catholic, her drift from the church, and an extraordinary encounter she had with some evangelistic women years later. They had asked her the searing question, “So how’s your life?” Her life, she had acknowledged, was awful and she was falling apart. But through the concern of these Christians, she said, she came to realize that God was with her, and “I recommitted my life to Jesus.”

The letter concluded, “You’ve probably heard Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. I’m writing to tell you IT’S TRUE. He desires to lead you on a new adventure. If He is for you, who can be against you? Well, I don’t know whether you’d ever feel up to asking my forgiveness for killing my son, so I’ll go first. ... I FORGIVE YOU!”

The two letters crossed in the mail. This simultaneous apology and forgiveness, so rare in an era accustomed to angry cries for retribution, struck the parish and the entire community. “I think we’ve been touched by the pain in both families,” said St. Nicholas member Rita Swarczewski, a grandmother of 13 who corresponded with Ramos. “We’ve prayed for both sides, and then to see this happen on both sides -- it’s very moving.”

The local newspaper, The Evanston Review, ran a series of stories on the effort to turn the tragedy into a time of grace and wrote about the unusual “emotional healing” that seemed to have settled on everyone concerned. Commenting on his wife’s letter, Stephen Young said he joined fully in her sentiments. “I came to realize that first I must forgive as an act of obedience to Jesus’ command in Matthew 18,” he said. “And when I did that ... God did the rest.”

Manuel Ramos, father of Mario, had perhaps the most difficult struggle. His wife and children attended the Spanish Mass regularly, accepting with tears and bowed heads the prayers and sympathy of their people. But for an exceedingly long time Manuel could not face the community. He waited outside during Mass.

Then one Sunday he approached Mario Tamayo and said he would like to cook food and sell it to the people after Mass to help pay for the legal defense of his son. “Thank you,” said Tamayo, “but it is not food, it is your presence that we need here in the church. You are one of us.” After that Manuel Ramos returned to the community.

The sentence

On July 3 Mario Ramos stood before Criminal Court Judge Henry Simmons Jr. to be sentenced for his crime. Oldershaw was among those who asked for mercy. “During the past year,” he said, “I have witnessed through personal visits, phone calls and letters a deepening and broadening of sorrow, remorse and repentance on Mario’s part. ... Christian faith calls me to hate the sin but love the sinner. ... Faith asks more. That we believe that redemption is possible, that a person can change and that there is a justice that heals. ... I plead with you to balance justice with mercy in sentencing Mario. ... I firmly believe that Mario Ramos’ life need not be lost. It can be saved, it is being saved. Many people have participated in this saving.”

But Simmons said the nature of the crime left him very little flexibility. He handed down a sentence of 40 years in prison -- 15 years fewer than given Ramos’ companion in the murder. Because of a truth-in-sentencing statute enacted by the state legislature only days before the crime, Ramos must remain in prison until the year 2036 when he will be 58 years old; there will be no reduced time for good behavior.

Many of those closely involved, including Oldershaw and Pantoga, were distressed at the outcome. They had hoped for a miracle. But Mario Ramos himself seemed to take it in stride. In September, he sat in the 8-by-15 foot cell at County Jail he shared with another young Hispanic and said he sometimes feels happier in prison “than out there.”

“I’ve come to know who I am,” he said. “I realize I have to pay my dues. But I am forgiven and I have peace after a lot of hard years.” A week later he was transferred to a state prison near Joliet, some 40 miles from Chicago.

Lawyer Pantoga immediately began organizing a prison ministry among St. Nicholas parishioners -- with volunteers writing and visiting Ramos regularly. Said Pantoga, “Mario’s going to have to fight tooth and nail” to keep from being swallowed up in the brutality and horror of prison life. He’s got to have an immense survival instinct.” But if prison officials know that people on the outside are coming to see him and are concerned about his welfare, said Pantoga, that can make a big difference.

Mario Tamayo said, “I promise, we will not forget Mario Ramos.”

In mid-October, students from Evanston High School organized a rally and march inaugurating a campaign against teen violence. More than 1,000 participants heard the teen leaders call for a renewed concentration on “the three Rs”: respect for others, regard for oneself and responsibility for one’s actions.

Oldershaw then reminded the crowd that for the three Rs to take effect, they must be rooted in the spirit of a fourth R -- reconciliation. And he told again the story of the letters that crossed in the mail.

Back at Cook County Jail, Chaplain DeRose gazed at the high walls topped with razor-sharp barbed wire surrounding the sprawling structure and admitted he was still in awe at what had occurred. “You know,” he said, “if every parish did what St. Nicholas did, we might be shutting down this whole place some day.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997