On the evening of Monday, June 11, 2001, Eastern Illinois University’s campus was deserted. The temperature was in the high 70s and falling. Most of EIU’s 10,531 students had returned home for the summer, but several hundred remained behind for summer classes, or to relax in the town they had come to love. I was back home in suburban Prospect Heights, relaxing after a long day working for the local park district. I would enter my sophomore year in August.
In a second floor apartment on 4th Street in Charleston, just a few blocks from campus, a small group of friends drank and socialized. The apartment door and windows were open, allowing a pleasant summer breeze to circulate among the party. Laughter, music, and light from the open door sounded inviting to anyone who happened to pass by on the sidewalk below. It was a nightly ritual to unwind from spending hours in stuffy classrooms or at tedious, temporary summer jobs.
The next morning, in a three-story apartment building near the corner of 4th Street and Taylor Avenue, 21-year-old Shannon McNamara’s roommate discovered her strangled and brutalized body on their living room floor. Shannon, from Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was a physical education major and sorority sister of the Zeta Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi.
Police found a credit card belonging to someone named Anthony Mertz in Shannon’s apartment, and a bloody knife in a nearby dumpster.
Mertz, a former Marine who lived across the street from Shannon, was soon arrested for the crime. Shortly after the murder, witnesses saw Mertz, 25, hide a .22 caliber handgun in the ceiling of the Student Rec Center, where he worked. It’s chilling to think I may have exchanged words with Mertz or at least crossed paths on my frequent visits to the gym.
The murder shocked EIU’s close-knit community. When the fall semester began, over 1,500 students and faculty marched in a candlelit procession from Lantz Gymnasium to Greek Court in honor of Shannon’s memory.
During his trial, two friends of Mertz testified that he bragged about killing 23-year-old Amy Warner, a mother of two, in her Charleston home on 7th Street in June 1999, as well as setting fire to an apartment building at 4th Street and Buchanan Avenue, behind E.L. Krackers, in February 2000. I recall walking past flyers asking for information regarding Amy’s murder still taped to the windows of businesses around the Charleston town square in the fall of 2000.
There was not enough evidence to charge him with those crimes, which remain unsolved.
On February 12, 2003, a jury took less than three hours to pronounce Mertz guilty of aggravated sexual assault, home invasion, and the first-degree murder of Shannon McNamara. Two weeks later, a Coles County judge sentenced Mertz to death.
After the guilty verdict, DEN news editor Nate Bloomquist wrote poignantly, “Mertz bloodied Charleston and Eastern’s standing as a Mayberry. Residents will deadbolt doors now. They’ll look over their shoulders a few more times, or maybe they won’t go out at night. The area’s innocence was lost through Mertz’s guilt.”
The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed his sentence on appeal. In 2011, however, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois and commuted the sentences of 15 convicts on death row, including Mertz. Shannon’s mother, Cindy, was understandably outraged. If anyone deserves to die for their crimes, it’s Anthony Mertz, who is currently serving a life sentence.
We grow up believing “you get what you deserve,” but that seldom reflects reality. Shannon McNamara was a model college student with a bright future ahead of her. What did she do to deserve such a brutal and humiliating end? Her murder taught a whole generation of my fellow EIU alumni, you can be intelligent, popular, athletic, and happy, and evil might still find you.