The mother of a slain woman is heading to court on Thursday to seek custody of her daughter’s young sons.
Catherine Peters has had but one brief visit with her 18-month-old grandson, Alex, since her daughter, Michelle, was found fatally shot in the face in her Chicago Heights home on March 6.
Chicago Heights police initially questioned Michele Peters’ live-in boyfriend, George Kleopa, 33, in the hours following the shooting. He was eventually released without being charged pending state crime lab results of forensic evidence gathered at the scene.
He was arrested on July 24 and has since been charged with first-degree murder. According to prosecutors, Kleopa told police conflicting stories as to how Michele came to be shot.
Friends and family members allege that Michele, 30, suffered in silence after years of psychological abuse from Kleopa. She was said to be planning to move back to Hometown with Alex and the couple’s other son, Georgie, 7, at the time of her death.
Neighbors told police that they heard the couple arguing and then a gunshot, court records show.
Kleopa has pleaded not guilty to six counts of first-degree murder. He is free on a $200,000 bond.
“We’re going before a judge,” Catherine Peters said, who has been in and out of court all summer trying to get visitation rights. “My main plan is to ask for full custody and get the kids back with us. If not, I’ll have to settle for visitation.”
The boys did not attend their mother’s funeral at Our Lady of Loretto Church in Hometown. Peters said Georgie has been living with his father’s relatives in California.
“I’ve never seen Georgie,” Peters said. “They whisked him to California without even a goodbye. A week after Michele’s funeral I saw [Alex] at George’s mother’s house in Oak Forest.”
Peters said she is not even sure if Georgie is aware that his mother is dead. Chicago Heights police assured her that the boy was asleep when they found his mother shot inside the house.
“The detective who was one of the first on the scene said Georgie was sound asleep when police got there,” Peters said.
Georgie was removed from the house with a blanket over his head so he would not see his mother’s blood pooling on the living room floor, his grandmother said. Alex was awake in his playpen in the dining room when police arrived.
“Michele had a hard time getting him to sleep,” Peters said. “She would let Alex play for awhile and then she’d put him back to bed. It will never be in his mind even if he saw [the shooting].”
Peters has had three brief phone conversations with Georgie in California since her daughter’s death, each lasting a few minutes.
Her attorney, J. Samuel Worley, would not speak on the specifics of her petition, except to say that if there was ever a case for grandparents’ custodial and guardianship rights, it is Catherine Peters’.
“First and foremost, my understanding in general is grandparents don’t have custodial rights per se over the children,” Worley said. “The standard in which the issue of custody comes before the court is what is in the best interest of the child. It’s the court’s and attorney’s job to show the totality of circumstances that are in the best interest of the child.”
Illinois state statues concerning grandparent visitation rights were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Legislation was passed in 2005 and 2007 giving grandparents legal rights to visitation under certain circumstances, according to The New York Times Co.-run website, about.com.
Such circumstances include parents not living with one another, an absent parent, a deceased parent or a parent joining the grandparents’ petition for custody.
In Illinois, when parents surrender the child to any party other than foster care or the Illinois Department of Family and Children Services, the burden falls upon grandparents or other petitioners to prove that “the parent’s decision to bar visitation is harmful to the child’s mental, physical or emotional health.”
For Peters, who was intimately involved in the daily lives of her grandsons while her daughter was alive, the past few weeks with the start of school and the prospect of upcoming holidays like Halloween and Christmas, have been painful.
She says she has $122 left for attorney fees but is in it for the long haul. Friends have set up a fund to help Peters with legal costs.
“I don’t even know if [Kleopa’s family] are keeping her memory alive,” she said. “It makes me nauseous. It’s my biggest fear. At my house there are videos, pictures, her voice.”
The family of Michele Peters is accepting donations to help pay legal costs for custody and visitation of Michele's sons. Checks made payable to "Miracles for Michele" may be dropped off at any Archer Bank in Illinois for the "Miracles for Michele" fund.
For more information about the fund, contact Catherine Peters by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.