Angela DeCicco and Don Weiss started dating in high school. Angela was a sophomore and Don a senior. She was pretty and petite. He was lean, handsome, and quietly reflective.
They lived in Berwyn, Illinois, which was located just west of Chicago. It was a nice suburban community, with busy shopping districts and neighborhoods of old brick bungalows. It was made up mostly of white ethnics: Italian, Polish, and Bohemian.
Angela was the youngest of eight children. Her family was of Italian origin, one side from Naples, the other from Calabria. Her father, Dominick, grew up in Chicago during the Prohibition era. As a young man, he ran with a tough crowd and reputedly had connections with organized crime. Upon meeting Angela’s mom, Josephine, he learned that her father had been abusing her. Dominick threatened the guy, saying he’d kill him if he ever touched her again. The threat apparently proved effective.
When Dominick proposed to Josephine, she said that she’d marry him only if he stopped hanging out with gangsters and got a steady job. He promised her that he’d go straight, and he made good on the promise. Shortly after getting married, he found a job as a printer for the Physicians’ Record Company in Berwyn, where he ended up working for fifty years.
Don was the youngest of three boys. His paternal grandfather was Jewish German, and his mother’s side of the family, the Rutherfords, hailed from northeast Arkansas. His father, Maurice, was a blue-collar guy with a lively mind and boundless curiosity. He had worked for the same trucking company in the Chicago area for more than twenty-five years. His mother, Dortha, was a sweet and wholesome woman who always tried to see the positive in people.
Angela got pregnant before the school year was finished. Don graduated and landed a union job as an order picker at a paint warehouse. It paid $4.75 per hour, which was decent money at the time. They told their respective families about the pregnancy and got married at the courthouse in downtown Chicago on September 7, 1974.
Angela gave birth to a boy on February 11, 1975, when she was still just seventeen. She and Don named him Mario. They didn’t want Mario to be an only child, and so they were thrilled when Angela got pregnant once again. This time they had a girl, whom they named Sheri. She was born on July 3, 1977.
The family bounced around over the next several years, switching apartments almost annually. They finally settled into a nice place in Cicero, an old town located only seven miles west of the Chicago Loop. Mario and Sheri loved it there. They had Mexican friends, Italian friends, and Polish friends. They’d play stickball in the street and spend hours exploring the network of alleyways in their neighborhood.
Though scarcely older than a kid herself, Angela adapted well to motherhood. She’d read to Mario and Sheri, take them on outings, and involve them with projects at home. She enrolled them at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Cicero, where she soon became a familiar face. She created a PTA chapter at the school and started weekend fund-raisers in the gymnasium. She organized the student vote whereby the school’s sports teams became known as the Wilson Dragons.
Angela also made certain that the kids didn’t have much idle time on their hands. She signed them up for floor hockey and other sports. She put Sheri in the Girl Scouts and Mario in the Boy Scouts, where he became a fixture on the roller derby team. She encouraged them to join the school band and saw to it that they put in the requisite hours of practice. Mario played the trumpet, and Sheri the drums.
The two children mostly got along together, though they were dissimilar in temperament. Mario was smart and articulate, with a brooding quality about him. He seemed like a kid with things on his mind. Sheri was almost preternaturally upbeat. She was a crowd-pleaser, the life of the party. She was the sort of kid who seemed genuinely happy only when everybody around her was also happy.
There’s an old family photograph of Mario and Sheri in which they’re standing side by side in a doorway and wearing Chicago White Sox T-shirts. He’s about nine years old, and she’s seven. They both have dark hair, and they’re as skinny as waifs. Mario is smiling, but the smile seems somehow cautious, tentative. Sheri’s gap-toothed smile is as bright as a summer morning.
As the older brother, Mario was always protective of Sheri. Occasionally he was protective to a fault. One day Sheri ran home and told him that a neighborhood boy had made her cry. Mario went looking for the kid, marched him into an alleyway, and beat the dickens out of him. Years later he finally got around to asking Sheri what the kid had done to make her cry. She said that he’d kissed her.
Don Weiss left the paint warehouse after Sheri was born and tried his hand at various technical service jobs. He worked as a typewriter repairman for IBM in downtown Chicago for several years, and in a similar capacity for a smaller company for several more years. He then took a job at the Chicago branch office of a data communications hardware company that was based out of Largo, Florida. He eventually accepted an offer to work for the company in Florida, which meant uprooting the entire family.
They moved to Largo on New Year’s Day, 1978. Mario was twelve years old, and Sheri ten. It was a new and different world for them. Located in the Tampa Bay area, Largo was a prototypical bedroom community, with none of the urban charm to which they’d grown accustomed in Cicero. The neighborhood where they now lived didn’t even have sidewalks.
The transition was especially difficult for Mario, who was rather a loner and didn’t make friends easily. He missed the old gang in Cicero, the kids with whom he’d grown up and played stickball in the street. He missed his beloved White Sox and the occasional trips to Comiskey Park for a ballgame.
It got a bit easier for Mario once he started high school. He and a classmate became good buddies, and the two of them would go bike riding all over town. One day they rode to a restaurant where Mario was hopeful of landing a job. He lied about his age and the guy who ran the place hired him on the spot as a busboy. It proved the first of many jobs that Mario would have as a teenager.
Sheri adapted without much fuss to the new life in Florida. She was more sociable than her older brother and so vivacious that other kids sought her out for friendship. She positively flourished throughout her mid- to late teens. She was a cheerleader for the Largo High School Packers football team. She played shortstop and second base for the school’s varsity softball team. She threw right and batted left, and was perhaps the team’s fastest player.
She thought that she might want to become a model, and her mom and dad paid for her to attend the Barbizon school of modeling in Tampa. She was certainly no less attractive than any of the other girls in the school, but her tiny stature proved an obstacle that even her zest and resolve couldn’t overcome. She stood barely five feet tall.
Sheri was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls basketball team and absolutely adored the team’s superstar, Michael Jordan. Her closet was full of Chicago Bulls jerseys, most of them bearing Jordan’s signature number 23. In 1994, Jordan decided that he’d also give baseball a shot. He signed with the minor league Birmingham Barons, who were holding spring training in Sarasota, Florida. Sheri made the three-hour drive to Sarasota for a preseason game, hopeful of meeting her hero in person. Prior to the game, she purchased a bouquet of flowers and asked a clubhouse attendant to give them to Jordan. The attendant must have pointed her out to him, because afterward Jordan stopped his Corvette at the gate where she was standing and rolled down his window. “Thank you for the flowers,” he said. Sheri melted.
She had lots of friends, most of whom she’d met at school. Her best friend was Tara Lintz, a beautiful young woman with thick brown hair and an infectious laugh. Tara was in the drama club with Sheri. Some people thought that she showed real promise as an actress.
Tara had moved to Florida from Palisades Park, New Jersey, when she was four or five years old. Sheri thought the world of her, but Mario and Angela were less sure about her. She struck them as aloof and superficial, and obsessed with material success. She also struck them as being jealous of Sheri and her more stable family situation. They wondered if she was somebody whom Sheri could really trust.
Sheri got a job as a waitress at a Thai restaurant on Clearwater Beach during the summer between her junior and senior years at high school. When she wasn’t working, she’d hang out on the beach with Tara Lintz and check out the guys. Apart from maybe catching a Chicago Bulls game on television, there was nothing that she enjoyed doing more. Mario had graduated high school by this time and was driving a 1992 Camaro RS with a T-top. He got so tired of Sheri borrowing it that he bought her a car of her own: a 1982 Chrysler K-car for $850.
Sheri was seventeen now, and she’d blossomed into a real beauty. She was petite and athletic, with lustrous dark hair and fine features. She radiated joy and confidence. Ever the protective older brother, Mario would half jokingly warn his buddies against trying to make time with her. “You touch her and I’ll crack your head open,” he’d say.
During her senior year at high school, Sheri’s happiness was put to a severe test. Her parents’ marriage was falling apart. The family home, once a place of peace and stability, was now fraught with bitterness and animosity. Don and Angela, once so happy together, were now at loggerheads. They argued constantly, and bitterly. It seemed only a matter of time before the marriage disintegrated completely.
Mario and Sheri blamed their dad. It was he who wanted out of the marriage. It was he who was responsible for making all of their lives miserable. There was a certain truth to this. Don did indeed want out. It wasn’t another woman. It wasn’t any one thing in particular. After twenty years, he simply thought that his marriage to Angela had run its course. Time was passing him by and he wanted to set his life on a fresh path.
Sheri graduated Largo High School in 1995 with a 3.35 GPA, and at roughly the same time Don and Angela formally separated. Don moved out of the house and got his own apartment, and divorce proceedings were set in motion. The actual divorce wouldn’t be finalized for another year and a half, but the entire process proved grueling for everyone. Mario and Sheri thought that their dad had betrayed them. They thought that he’d also betrayed their mom, who’d dedicated her life to the marriage and the family. They weren’t certain that they could ever forgive him.
Sheri worked as a waitress for a year or so after graduating high school. Then, out of the blue, she announced that she’d decided to join the Air Force. She said that she was looking for adventure, and that she also wanted to escape the turmoil at home. She seemed to think that the Air Force might be just the ticket for her. Mario tried to talk her out of it. He seriously doubted that his little sister was cut out for the highly regimented life of the military. He knew that he himself wasn’t.
Sheri wasn’t about to be dissuaded, however, and in September 1996 she went to Lackland Air Force Base, on the outskirts of San Antonio. Her mom and Mario visited her there in November of the same year and saw her graduate from basic training. Her dad tried to visit her also but she refused to see him. Don realized that this marked a decided deterioration in their relationship. The communication lines between them were now shut down almost completely.
After basic training, Sheri was stationed at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. There she was assigned to the military police’s K-9 unit, which meant that she was responsible for handling a military working dog. She functioned essentially as a police officer at Quantico, patrolling the vast base with her German shepherd. She seemed to enjoy the job, and in February 1997 she fell in love with a young Marine who was also assigned to the K-9 unit.
The young Marine was Chris Coleman, a strapping twenty-year-old who’d joined the Corps practically right out of high school. In early September 1997, upon discovering that Sheri had gotten pregnant, the couple decided that they’d leave Quantico and start a new life together elsewhere. Elsewhere was Randolph County in southwestern Illinois, which was where Chris’s family lived.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael W. Cuneo