Written by Bob Rakow
A week has passed since a triple murder and suicide shook Oak Lawn—the latest in a series of tragedies that has battered the community in 2014.
While many ultimately will forget the events, first responders continue to cope with the devastations.
The most recent incident occurred last Wednesday when John P. Conta allegedly killed his parents—John and Janice Conta—and nephew at the family home in the 9800 block of 51st Avenue. Conta then set the house on fire and killed himself with a gunshot while in a car in the house’s garage, police said.
An Oak Lawn firefighter who responded to the blaze saw Conta kill himself, officials said. The body of Conta’s nephew, 5-year-old Matthew Meier, was discovered in the house later in the day, they said. Family members celebrated the boy’s fifth birthday at the house the previous night, police said.
That level of tragedy—suicide and the murder of a family members—can wreak havoc on the emotions of even the toughest and resilient first responders.
“Especially when you have a tender-age (involved), I think it affects everybody,” said Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Mike Kaufmann.
The October death of six-month-old Vivian Summers, who allegedly was killed at the hands of her grandmother, Alfreda Giedrojc, a long-time Oak Lawn resident, was one of the most heinous crimes Kaufmann had witnessed during his career, the veteran officer said.
“Everybody can relate to a young, infant baby. For all of us, it touches (the) heart,” Kaufmann said at the time.
Both the police and fire departments offer various services to anyone affected by the tragedies that are part of the job.
“It doesn’t stop when we leave the fire scene,” Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets.
Sheets said he and his commanders apply a “now-what” approach after a fire or other incident concludes. The health and welfare of the firefighters is at the top of that methodology, he said.
Firefighters are offered a variety of resources, including services provided via the village’s employee assistance program or Genesis Therapy, village manager Larry Deetjen said.
Sheets added firefighters often elect to talk with their colleagues during tough times.
“You have the camaraderie of those firefighters that were there,” Sheets said. “We have individuals who have been here a long time.”
The Chicago Police Department offered its peer counseling program to Oak Lawn’s first responders following last week’s incident. Some officers prefer to peers rather than supervisors about the rigors on the job, Kaufmann said.
“Everybody is affected quite differently,” Kaufmann said.
“In additional to offering professional help, each individual copes with stress, violence and tragedy through their own networks consisting of family, loved ones, special friends, church and other support groups.”
Oak Lawn Trustee Terry Vorderer, a retired village police officer, agreed that various incidents can affect first responders over the long haul.
“Talking about these things does help,” said Vorderer, who joined the Oak Lawn force shortly after returning from a tour as an infantryman in Vietnam.
He said the “macho, get over it” approach prevalent in his day is gone.
In fact, the Oak Lawn Fire Department looked to therapy dogs this week to assist firefighters looking to cope with last week’s fire.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, three golden retrievers from the K-9 Comfort Dogs program visited firefighters at Station 2, 6451 W. 93rd Place. The program is sponsored by Lutheran Church Charities and is designed to bring compassion to those affected by a calamity.
“When anybody pets a dog, it relaxes them,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity.
He added that some people will talk to dogs about their involvement in or feeling about an disaster before speaking with another person.
“The dog serves a tool,” said Hetzner, who added that golden retrievers are used exclusively by the program because “by nature they are lovers.”
Last week’s fire isn’t the only tragedy Oak Lawn first responders have had to cope with in recent weeks.
In early February, a fire on the west side of the village lives of two elderly women.
Kathryn Lomec, 73, was pronounced dead Feb. 8 shortly after a blaze at her house in the 10100 block of Lawrence Court, officials said. Her sister and caretaker, 74-year-old Mary Bruce, died three days later at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, according to news reports.
There were no smoke detectors in the house and officials have not released the cause of the fire.
In January, a fierce argument between an Oak Lawn man and his wife may have led the man to burn down his house a few hours after the dispute, prosecutors said.
Arunas Samoska, 48, was charged with two counts of aggravated arson and one count of residential arson Jan. 13 after appearing in Bridgeview Court where a request for bond was denied, according to police.
Oak Lawn police and fire departments from several communities responded Jan. 11 to a house fire/explosion in the 8900 block of 55th Court. The house was engulfed with fire and required about one hour to extinguish.
Prosecutors said Samoska poured gasoline throughout his home, including the living room and the bed in the master bedroom. The vapors ignited when he went to his garage to get more gasoline, prosecutors said.
The explosion and subsequent fire rendered the home a complete loss, officials said. No one was in the home at the time of the explosion and there were no injuries. The houses on each side of the fire were occupied but no one was injured.
But fire has not been the only cause of tragedy in the community in 2014.
In late January, an elderly Oak Lawn died from cold-related causes. Antoinette Diesness, 86, of the 8700 block of Meade Avenue, died from hypothermia due to cold exposure, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Heart disease and dementia were contributing factors in her death, the medical examiner said.
A neighbor found her lying in the snow near her home, police said. She was the 17th reported cold-related death this winter in Cook County, authorities said.