Since the 4 a.m. phone call she received one year ago today, Catherine Peters has lived with a dagger in her heart.
On March 6, 2012, her only daughter, Michele Peters, 30, was fatally shot in the Chicago Heights home that she shared with her live-in boyfriend and two young sons.
The boyfriend, George Kleopa, 33, has since been charged in Michele’s death. Kleopa has pleaded not guilty, maintaining the shooting was an accident. Prosecutors offer a different version of events, charging that Kleopa changed his story five times while being held for questioning by Chicago Heights Police.
Michele grew up in Hometown and attended Oak Lawn Community High School. The slain woman’s family and friends claim she was a victim of domestic violence, alleging that Kleopa psychologically abused and wore Michele down during their near decade as a couple.
At the time of her death, Peters says her daughter’s bags were packed and that she and was preparing to move back into a Hometown co-op with the couple’s sons, Georgie, 8, and Alex, 2. Kleopa wasn't going with them.
“I can’t believe it’s March 6 already,” Catherine Peters said. “Everything is happening so fast I haven’t had time for it to sink in but last week it started to hit me. She’s gone and she’s not coming back. It’s a hard reality and something I have to live with and accept.”
In the business of learning to “live with and accept,” Peters has walked the lonely path of grief known only to parents who’ve had to bury a child.
There were the twelve agonizing weeks before Kleopa’s arrest, where he spent his 33rd birthday having his mug shots taken at Cook County Jail on July 25, 2012. He currently remains free on $2 million bail.
She’s also fought for visitation of her grandsons, Georgie and Alex, but she would prefer full custody. Both boys are living with Kleopa’s sister in California. Peters has only seen them twice in the past year and showed up unannounced at a custody hearing in California last September. The case has since been moved to an Illinois court.
“I still want them back,” she said. “I don’t have as much money as [the boys’ guardians] do, but I know I can do a good job. Before a judge tells me they’re better off in California, I’ll fight tooth and nail.”
Prosecutors have told Peters to stay strong because it may be years before Kleopa is brought to trial. They believe that once trial starts, it will have high media visibility.
At a court hearing in January, Peters shared a tearful embrace with Kleopa’s mother.
“She initiated it,” Peters said. “She told me her son needed me and I told her my main focus was the boys and us coming together as a family. All I want is for us to have a relationship so they know how much we love them and how much their mother loved them.”
Every Sunday, Peters and her fiancé, Dave Bird, go to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park to visit her daughter’s grave. In the snow-filled cemetery on a recent Sunday afernoon, Peters shows mysterious trinkets left on Michele’s grave: some broken rose petals, votive candles, and a plaque, which reads, “Memories complete the soul.”
She thinks she knows who’s been leaving them.
Friends and family of Michele Vivian Peters will gather tonight (Wednesday) on the one-year anniversary of her death to remember the good times at T.C. Pub, 9700 S. Cicero Ave., in Oak Lawn. There will be food, karaoke and a split-the- pot raffle, proceeds of which will go toward a memorial fund for Michele’s sons. Guests are asked to arrive at 7 p.m.
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