Amy Leichtenberg turning pain of sons’ slayings into purpose
"Moving Beyond Murder" Exclusive Interview with Amy Leichtenberg
Wednesday September 9, 2009
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Amy Leichtenberg clings to the memory of that final morning with her sons – when the two boys were hers, healthy and alive.
She replays it in her mind, looking for things she could have done differently or words she could have used to convince authorities that the boys were in danger.
She watches herself call the LeRoy Police Department about 9 a.m. March 7 to tell the on-duty officer that she won’t allow her sons to spend a court-ordered weekend with their father because of his increasingly erratic behavior. She hears the officer threaten to arrest her, and she winces as she caves to his authority.
Leichtenberg hurriedly packs two backpacks for the boys, kisses them goodbye, tells them that their mama loves them to the heavens and back. She sees them climb into a car with her ex-husband, an unemployed pharmaceutical salesman who has vowed to cut her open, frequently threatens to kill himself and allegedly violated her orders of protection 56 times.
She shudders in hindsight, knowing her sons were walking toward their deaths.
Duncan and Jack Connolly, ages 9 and 7, never returned from that visit. Their bodies were found in a remote area of Putnam County three weeks later. Their father, Michael Connolly, hanged himself from a nearby tree.
“Nobody took me seriously,” Leichtenberg said in her first extensive interviews. “I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering why no one would listen to me.”
Law-enforcement records, court transcripts and other public documents obtained by the Tribune paint a troubling picture of a system that often ignored Leichtenberg’s cries for help and instead aided her ex-husband as he worked toward supposed redemption. Despite his odd behavior and criminal record, Connolly received the benefit of the doubt from police, prosecutors and a family court judge in McLean County in central Illinois.
Leichtenberg, 39, has filed an official complaint against Judge James E. Souk, who granted Connolly unsupervised visits. She also wants more information about disciplinary action against LeRoy Police Chief Gordon Beck, who was suspended for a week without pay shortly after the Tribune reported that his department had thwarted an Amber Alert request for the boys. No reason was given for the punishment.
Neither Souk nor LeRoy officials would agree to be interviewed for this story. “We will handle our own,” Ald. Nancy Bentley said.
Leichtenberg, however, feels very much deserted as officials close ranks and decline her requests for information. After two months of allowing friends to lead the charge, she plans to take a more active role in calling attention to the tragedy.
“I can’t bring back my sons, but maybe I can save someone else’s,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen again to anyone else, not even my worst enemy.”
As Leichtenberg says this, her mouth curves into a small, ironic frown. Her worst enemy already is dead, having killed himself after landing the last and most painful blow of their volatile 20-year relationship.
Leichtenberg met Michael Connolly at a local Denny’s in 1989 while they were both students at Illinois State University in Normal. She was a townie working toward a teaching degree; he had grown up in Schaumburg and wanted to go into sales.
At age 20, Leichtenberg overlooked the way Connolly seethed when she talked to other men or insisted on knowing her whereabouts. She was so smitten, she agreed to leave school early so they could marry and move to the Chicago suburbs.
The insecurities and jealousies that disrupted their dating followed them into marriage. She complied with his order to sever ties with her family, though former Algonquin neighbors said she often came to their homes to call her mother. He berated her, calling her a drunk, a whore, a terrible mother.
She separated from him several times, only to reconcile, before they finally divorced in 2007. She had grown up in a close-knit nuclear family and thought her sons deserved the same. “You want to believe that things will get better,” she said.
In court records back to 2005, Leichtenberg detailed threats against her and asked that Connolly’s visits with her sons be supervised. Her letters describing how Connolly vowed to commit suicide or harm her were enough to obtain several orders of protection against him in the last four years.
She wrote in a petition for an emergency order of protection in 2005: “He went into a rage again and told me if I didn’t get home he would kill me. I went home, and he told me if I ever take his boys again he would hunt me down and kill me and my parents and cut us open.”
Moving doesn’t help
The orders couldn’t keep Connolly at bay and neither could Leichtenberg’s move from Algonquin to LeRoy, a town of 3,500 near Bloomington-Normal. A review of police records suggests Connolly knowingly violated the order of protection 56 times between July 2006 and October 2007.
Against Leichtenberg’s wishes, the McLean County state’s attorney’s office collapsed the complaints into six cases, which were plea-bargained down to one misdemeanor count. Connolly received a suspended sentence in February 2008 and was ordered to attend domestic abuse counseling. State’s Atty. William Yoder has said he does not second-guess any decisions his prosecutors made in the case.
Connolly, acting as his own attorney, set his sights on gaining unsupervised visits with his sons. Court transcripts show he acted inappropriately in court , often arguing with the judge and once asking for an order compelling Leichtenberg to provide receipts for any sex toys she might have bought. His vitriol toward his ex-wife was so well-known that deputies escorted her to and from the courtroom.
Even Judge Souk, a former prosecutor, acknowledged Connolly’s past behavior when he initially rejected unsupervised visits last year.
“It would be taking an awful chance to send children to an individual with that kind of depression and your history of having made threats of suicide,” Souk said in April 2008. “What if I make a misjudgment and you are presently suicidal and you hurt yourself in the presence of your children or, even worse, you hurt the children along with yourself?”
Connolly, who had followed Leichtenberg downstate, participated in many early supervised visits at the McLean County Family Visitation Center. The facility temporarily discontinued its services in May 2008 after he became increasingly paranoid and talked about suicide during a conversation with an employee, according to reports filed with the court.
In Connolly’s requests for unsupervised visits, he frequently claimed such interactions “were in the best interest of the children,” the standard by which custody and visitation matters are, by law, to be decided. Souk responded by setting behavioral goals, instructing Connolly to move out of a homeless shelter, get a job and stop harassing his ex-wife. Connolly followed the orders and the judge awarded him unsupervised visitation in October in keeping with laws designed to give children a chance to maintain relationships with both parents.
Souk also permitted Leichtenberg to drive by Connolly’s Bloomington apartment as often as she liked during visits to make sure the boys were safe. Her attorney, Helen Ogar, warned that wouldn’t be enough. “His behavior is escalating in terms of his obsession with Amy,” she told the judge.
In late February, Connolly, 40, lost his job and became enraged when he learned that his tax rebate was being garnished for failure to pay support, police records show. Leichtenberg worried that Connolly’s mounting financial woes could give him reason to finally make good on his promise to “pay her back.” Her attorney told her that if she felt that strongly she should keep the boys home and encouraged her to call the police to let them know about her plans.
Connolly spent March 6 at an East Peoria casino, where he gambled with $300 he had borrowed from his father and a friend. He told a fellow patron about his messy divorce and vowed to kill himself if he didn’t win.
He lost. And then headed to McLean County for the boys.
About 9 a.m. March 7, Leichtenberg spoke with the on-duty officer, a patrolman she considered sympathetic to her cause because he had taken at least three reports related to the protection order and supported charges against Connolly in each one, police records show. He stunned Leichtenberg when, she said, he threatened to arrest her if she kept the boys from their father.
“I should have taken them and run, but I believe in following the rules,” Leichtenberg said, breaking into sobs that shook her entire body.
In a statement provided to the Tribune, Beck said Leichtenberg had asked for advice and was told officers cannot give permission to people to violate court orders.
Afraid of being arrested, Leichtenberg said, she quickly stuffed clothes into the boys’ backpacks. The brothers arrived at the police station in time for the handoff, and her weekend of worry began.
Authorities know that Connolly took Duncan and Jack to the Bloomington library and later to a soup kitchen for lunch. That evening, he ordered pizza and paid for it with a check that bounced.
Leichtenberg drove by his apartment at least three times that night and said she saw his car there each time, including her final check at 9:30 p.m. On Sunday, her friend spotted Connolly’s car driving toward Bloomington at 11 a.m.
When the boys failed to return at 6 p.m. as scheduled, she asked LeRoy police to issue an Amber Alert. The department initially resisted the request and gave Connolly an hour’s grace because it was the first day of daylight-saving time, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
Amber Alert delay
LeRoy authorities eventually submitted the alert request at 11:55 p.m., after turning down the sheriff’s department’s offer to help. When the state contacted LeRoy to verify the application, police said they did not believe the boys’ lives were threatened – one of four key criteria for an alert.
“[LeRoy officer] advised Michael has never harmed children in the past and there are no previous police reports to indicate harm or threats toward the children,” Illinois State Police Trooper John C. Thompson wrote in an e-mail at 2:09 a.m. March 9. “[LeRoy officer] indicated NO he did NOT believe the children were in danger of bodily harm or death.”
LeRoy placed a “stop and hold pending investigation” on Connolly and his car and asked state police to issue a bulletin. Those notifications, however, do not have the same public reach of an Amber Alert.
In his written statement, Beck blamed both the state police for the denial and Leichtenberg for being unable to immediately produce a copy of the court-ordered visitation times.
Beck turned the case over the following afternoon to Sheriff Mike Emery, who read the police reports and sensed the boys could be in danger. An Amber Alert was issued at 8:23 p.m. Monday – more than 26 hours after Leichtenberg reported her sons missing.
“The alert should have gone out at 6 p.m. the previous day,” Emery said. “Being 26 hours behind was heavily on my mind.”
Amid a nationwide search for her sons, Leichtenberg went to the courthouse to confront Souk. She said that he cried and told her he never expected this to happen. He told her that he and his wife prayed for the boys’ safe return every day.
On March 29, the boys’ bodies were found in their father’s car near a Putnam County Christmas tree farm. Autopsies showed that both had elevated levels of psychotropic medications in their systems. Jack died of a stab wound in his back and Xanax intoxication. Duncan died of Seroquel and Xanax intoxication.
Connolly hanged himself about 60 yards from the car with a knotted rope his sons once used to climb trees at their Algonquin home. He did not leave a note.
The Putnam County coroner will not estimate the time of death, though the car was first spotted in the secluded area March 14. Department of Justice statistics suggest 74 percent of tragic outcomes in child abductions take place in the first three hours.
“My greatest fear is that they died during the 26-hour period in which they would not send out the Amber Alert,” Leichtenberg said. “I will spend the rest of my life wondering if that could have saved them.”
She said her life “has become an endless game of ‘what if.’ ”
“What if someone had believed me? What if they saw the same warning signs that I did? What if they did something to stop it?”
Leichtenberg initially blamed Souk for the boys’ deaths, though she now counts the LeRoy police and prosecutors among those who could have done more. She has filed an official complaint against Souk and is weighing her options in regards to the others.
“If they did something wrong, I want them to be held accountable,” she said. “But if they did something every single judge, prosecutor and police officer in the country would do, then the laws need to be changed.”
Leichtenberg’s newfound activism provides a brief respite from her endless grief.
She still can’t sleep in her home and hasn’t been inside the boys’ rooms since she picked out their funeral clothes. She doesn’t like to go to local restaurants because she can feel people stare at her. And she avoids any social situation in which she could hear the words “I’m sorry,” a sincere expression that she no longer has the strength to acknowledge.
Instead, she goes to the cemetery three or four times a day to find peace. She cleans the boys’ grave site during visits and talks to them in a soothing voice. She leaves Batman toys for Jack and Incredible Hulk paraphernalia for Duncan. The ritual, a series of seemingly small gestures, offers her something missing since that morning she kissed her sons goodbye.