I always dreamed that when I grew up I would marry . . . the man of my dream, tall, dark & handsome, educated with a great job."
—Kimberly Garnett, in a college essay
It must have looked like Kimberly Garnett's dream had just walked into the Club D'Elegance in Dolton.
Sitting at a maroon cocktail table amid the club's mirrored walls, Garnett glanced at Robert Thompson and his buddy. Those were two fine-looking men, their heads stylishly clean-shaven. She and her best friend, Antoinette Williams, giggled at gale force.
Tall, dark, handsome—check, check and check.
Looks were exchanged, then flirty words. Before long, Garnett and Williams were sitting with Thompson and his friend.
In the parking lot after karaoke wound down, Garnett said she was tired. Thompson hoisted her up for a piggyback ride as she chortled.
Garnett had met her next boyfriend, and her fate.
She did not know that Thompson would someday force her to end her friendship with Williams. Or that he would beat her so severely that her employer would photograph her face for evidence. Or that the moment would come when Thompson would order the children into their bedroom, shut the door and unleash on her a shattering storm.
That night at Club D'Elegance, there was no foreboding for Garnett, only spark and ignition.
But unknown and unseen, a timer had been set. It was ticking.
Garnett was a single mother, but she didn't really approve.
"Where has the Black family gone?" she wrote in an essay for a class at Robert Morris College. "The Black family used to be cherished, adored. It was almost sacred. If you had it you were stupid if you let it go. Now it's almost impossible to find.
" . . . I wish I had the conversation with my mother growing up that it's not OK to have children & not be married; it's not OK to raise a family on your own."
Garnett had been brought up in a single-parent family herself. Mildred Garnett, a machine operator at the Nabisco plant on the South Side for 37 years, raised three daughters on her own after her separation and divorce from their father. All three of her children built successful professional lives.
Even so, Kimberly Garnett wanted to be married and raise her children in a family with a mother and a father, united in love and reveling in simple family pleasures.
Could Robert Thompson be that partner? Or was she projecting her dreams onto the wrong man?
Within months of that first meeting in 2000, she placed her bet. Garnett, 26, and her two young sons moved into Thompson's home on the South Side.
Antoinette Williams, who lived nearby, visited often. She had met Garnett at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, where Garnett was a secretary and Williams an adoption specialist. The two had become fast friends who enjoyed walking and shopping together.
In the beginning, Williams thought her friend and Thompson seemed a perfect match. He cooked dinners for Garnett's kids. He watched movies with them. Sometimes he put on a big pot of gumbo and invited his family and his own children—he had had four with four different women—to play cards and chess late into the night.
He was charming, too. Williams remembered her friend returning from a football weekend with Thompson in New Orleans. She was glowing.
Marki Lemons, an ex-girlfriend of Thompson's and mother of his 12-year-old son, knew the appeal well. "He could do a pedicure for you, rub your feet, then roll you over and give you a massage and cook you dinner at the same time," Lemons said. "I always said Robert should be a gigolo."
But not a husband, Lemons said. He was fun, and she stayed close to him. But he didn't seem stable enough to be marriage material.
She never saw him being controlling or violent. Neither did Valery Wright, a CTA bus scheduler and mother of his 18-year-old son. When they had words—"I'm a very outspoken person"—he would walk away, she said. Several friends at the CTA, where he worked as a bus operator for 10 years, said he was a sociable family man who avoided confrontations.
But Kimberly Garnett's family was not among his fans.
After she met Thompson, Garnett started skipping family gatherings. It was a glaring absence in a close-knit family that never met a birthday or graduation that didn't call for large-scale celebration. One time she didn't show up for Christmas.
She made excuses. Robert had made other plans. She had washed her hair and fallen asleep.
To her sister Tonia, Thompson was freezing them out. "He would blame us for . . . things," said Tonia, a social worker. "He would say he was the only one who was on her side, who would help her."
On the increasingly rare occasions when Garnett did spend time with her family, Thompson would call her cell phone constantly.
And Thompson did not seem pleased at Garnett's increasing success. When she graduated from Robert Morris with a bachelor's degree and honors, a large contingent from her family attended the ceremony at McCormick Place. Thompson went fishing.
His own work life held less promise. After he left the CTA, he drove a truck for the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation, then for an ice company and a long-distance trucking company.
Williams was beginning to see another side to the family man. He seemed awfully strict with Garnett's sons, especially the older boy, Armon, who never took to calling Thompson "dad." If the boys didn't eat all their food, he would yell at them so furiously that Williams was taken aback.
That's just Robert's way, Garnett would tell her friend.
Two years after Garnett and Thompson got together, they were expecting a child of their own. Garnett was particularly happy to be pregnant with a girl.
Still, her dream of a stable family life remained elusive. It was during this time that Thompson took up with an ex-girlfriend.
Garnett found out and, after the baby was born, took all three children and moved into a coach house behind a family friend's home in Dolton.
She had discovered one of Thompson's secrets. But she didn't know of another. A decade earlier, his sister had signed a criminal complaint accusing Thompson of battery. She said he picked her up off a couch, threw her to the floor and grabbed at her clothing. Thompson was sentenced to a year's court supervision.
On her own again, Garnett created a serene and well-ordered home for her children. But, Williams thought, Garnett seemed lonely. She returned to Thompson within months.
Professionally, her star was rising. She got a job handling customer service at a small, luxury pet-product company, Pet Ego, working out of a three-person office along Michigan Avenue overlooking Millennium Park.
The company's president, Emanuele Bianchi, Italian by birth and design sense, liked her soothing, upbeat manner on the phone and her megawatt smile.
At work, Garnett mentioned that she and her boyfriend argued. He constantly called to check up on her. If Pet Ego's operations manager, Helena Pavlikova, told him she was out to lunch, he accused her of lying.
Thompson's suspicions escalated after Garnett went on trips with Pavlikova and Bianchi to work at trade shows in Orlando and Atlantic City. After the Orlando trip, Thompson went through her cell phone and grilled her about a man's name he had found—a businessman who had helped Pet Ego at the show.
Then there was the day Thompson came to the office, sat in a chair and watched everything Garnett did. For four hours.
What seemed to bother him, Antoinette Williams thought, was that Garnett had discovered a new sense of enjoyment and satisfaction in the job, outside their relationship.
Now Garnett's boss, Bianchi, found himself glancing at her and noticing something other than a smile.
A few times her face had looked swollen and darkened in spots. Was that a smudge of dirt, or the mark of a fist?
One day, there were no maybes.
There was blood in the white of one eye. Her lip was swollen.
Bianchi asked whether her boyfriend had struck her.
Garnett told him that he had.
Had she called police?
She had not.
A well-traveled entrepreneur, swift to make decisions and accustomed to getting things done, Bianchi wanted to help Garnett.
"I told her, 'If you want to take a break, go to a hotel. Or you take my apartment, I [can] go to Italy for a week,' " Bianchi recalled.
He offered her his credit card to buy a plane ticket. She could go to Italy, he told her, and stay with his family; his mother there would be happy to watch her children.
She declined the offers. But Bianchi made one more: He wanted to photograph her face. She might want to call police someday, he told her, and pictures would give her proof.
At first she turned that down too. But after a few hours, she told him she had changed her mind.
She sat at her desk and Bianchi took several shots of her beaten face. He stored them in his camera's digital memory.
They were to become evidence of something Bianchi could not yet imagine.
Chapter 2: A storm unleashedKimberly Garnett made one last bid for escape.
She took the three children, moved out of Robert Thompson's house and moved in with a sister.
She told her mother she was tired of all the arguing and was never going back. She told her sister that Thompson had struck her. She didn't offer details.
To a close friend, though, she revealed her true fear:
"I want to be alive to raise my children."
Tonia Garnett had watched her sister Kimberly fall in love with Robert Thompson. She had seen the relationship fray, and she had wondered what really was going on.
But not until she attended a professional training seminar on domestic violence did she finally—and completely—understand.
She sat down, opened her binder and read a sheet titled "Ten Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship."
Jealousy. Control. Eruptions of violence.
Her sister's life matched almost every one.
That night, she called their older sister and told her Kimberly was in trouble and they had to help. But Tonia Garnett consoled herself with the thought that for now, Kimberly was safe. She and her children had moved into Tonia's house in south suburban Lansing.
Kimberly Garnett apparently felt distant enough from Thompson that she went out on a date with another man.
Marvin Johnson Jr., a friend from her and Thompson's bowling league, had been a flash point for the couple. Thompson suspected Garnett of cheating on him with Johnson. He had called Johnson repeatedly and asked what was going on. Johnson had said they were just friends, a characterization he maintains to this day.
But while she was apart from Thompson, Kimberly Garnett told her best friend, Antoinette Williams, that she was going out on a date with Johnson. Williams baby-sat for her.
It seemed like another sign that the separation might hold. Garnett's mother even began searching for an apartment for her.
Garnett had been with her sister two weeks when she came down with what she thought was strep throat. She knocked on Tonia's bedroom door and told her she needed someone to go with her to the emergency room. Tonia had to go to work. But she was terrified that Kimberly would ask Thompson—and that this one act could bring about a reconciliation. She begged her to let their older sister, Wendy Giles, help.
Giles called to make the arrangements. But Kimberly told her not to worry; Thompson could meet her there.
"You don't need to call him," Giles insisted. "I'll meet you at the doctor."
But Garnett went with Thompson anyway.
That's it, Tonia thought, she's going back.
And she did.
Tonia sat on her bed while her sister packed her clothes. Again and again, Kimberly's cell phone rang. Thompson wanted to know: Where was she? When was she leaving?
A few days later, Williams got a phone call. Garnett told her that she and Thompson had gotten back together and that he was upset Williams had baby-sat when Garnett went on the date.
Williams could hear Thompson in the background, shouting that Garnett and Williams could no longer be friends.
"I can't be your friend any more," Garnett repeated.
Both women cried.
They never spoke again.
On an evening in May 2005, Emanuele Bianchi, Garnett's boss, walked up the front steps of Thompson's South Side house. He had come to calm down Thompson. Garnett had just told him by phone that she was quitting her job at his pet-product company because Thompson demanded it.
Bianchi had heard Thompson shouting in the background. When he asked to speak to Thompson, Thompson told him to stay out of their business or he would kill him.
But Bianchi had lived in rough neighborhoods and wasn't scared. He thought he might be able to soothe Thompson. Having seen Garnett show up at work with a beaten face, he wanted to try.
Bianchi would later recall what happened that night. Thompson stepped onto the porch and began screaming. If Bianchi got between him and Garnett, he would kill them both, he vowed. He shook his fist in Bianchi's face. He made the shape of a gun with his hand and pointed it at Bianchi.
"I'll kill you if you say once more, 'Take my apartment' or 'I'll pay for a ticket for you to get away from him,' " he yelled. "I'll kill you for that!"
Bianchi was horrified to hear Thompson repeat every offer of help he had made; Garnett had told Thompson everything.
Thompson yelled for her to come out of the house. She stepped onto the porch, her face swollen.
"Tell this a------ what type of bitch you are," he ordered.
"Please, Robert," Garnett begged. But she obeyed.
Bianchi was scared now.
Thompson listed his demands: Garnett should work fewer hours so she could have more time with the kids, her two sons from a previous relationship and their 3-year-old daughter. She shouldn't work out of town at trade shows. She should make more money.
Yes, yes and yes, Bianchi agreed. Anything Thompson wanted, Garnett could have.
Thompson's anger seemed to abate. He told Bianchi he was brave to come see him because Thompson had intended to kill him.
"So we're OK?" Bianchi asked Thompson. "We settled everything?"
Unbelievably, it seemed like they had. Thompson even hugged Bianchi.
Then he hurled Garnett's cell phone to the ground. He ground it into pieces with his foot.
"That bitch has to learn this lesson," he said.
With Bianchi off his porch, Thompson wanted to talk with someone else: Marvin Johnson Jr., the bowling league friend Thompson suspected of being Garnett's lover.
He called Johnson at the suburban hotel where Johnson worked as a desk clerk. Thompson told him he was coming over to "whup" him, Johnson recalled. When he arrived, however, the two men ended up in an amiable chat. Johnson repeated his insistence that he and Garnett were just friends. Thompson seemed to believe him, and the two men shook hands.
But Thompson's fury wasn't spent. It accompanied him home.
The children heard the yelling begin. They knew there was trouble. They had seen it before; the oldest, 10-year-old Armon, had seen Thompson hit his mother numerous times.
That very day, Armon already had endured Thompson's anger. Thompson had punished him for throwing out his lunch sandwich at school instead of eating it. He had beaten him on his bare buttocks with a 2-by-4, the "paddle" he regularly used to discipline Armon, until the boy bled.
Then, Armon later recounted, Thompson had played chess with him. Only he set unusual rules: If Armon won, they played again. If Thompson won, he beat Armon with the board.
Now Thompson and Garnett were in the living room screaming at each other. Down the hall in the bedroom the three children shared, Armon heard something about Marvin Johnson. The quarrel ebbed; Garnett told the children to go to bed.
Armon fell asleep, waking briefly when he heard his mother scream. Then he woke again when his younger brother got up to go to the bathroom.
Koby, 6, opened the bedroom door a crack. Both boys looked into the hallway.
Their mother was lying on the blue-carpeted floor. Thompson was sitting on her, yanking out clumps of hair. She was screaming.
Koby wanted to get to the telephone to dial 911. But Armon, fearful that his brother might get beaten, too, wouldn't let him leave the room.
Armon looked back into the hallway. His mother was crawling away from Thompson on her hands and knees.
Thompson saw the boys in the doorway.
"Get back in the room," he ordered, closing the door.
Armon heard the sounds—crack, crack, crack—the sound of wood hitting flesh, a sound he knew from it hitting his own.
About 2 a.m., the phone rang in Bianchi's South Loop townhouse. It was Garnett.
Bianchi heard Thompson shouting in the background again, dictating what he wanted Garnett to say—that she had had an affair with her bowling league friend, that she was a bitch.
Bianchi heard slapping sounds in the background. He heard Garnett say, "Don't do it, Robert. Please stop, Robert."
She repeated everything Thompson told her to say. But one thing she said unprompted: "Mind your own business," she told Bianchi. "I'm not your problem."
Over the next hour, Bianchi's phone rang twice more. Again Thompson told him that if he didn't stay out of their business, he would kill him. Again, Garnett told him not to get involved.
Bianchi sat on his bed in the pre-dawn silence. If he called the police, would it save her or make matters worse?
He obeyed Garnett's request. The phone did not ring again.
Chapter 3: If they could go backTen-year-old Armon heard his mother's voice coming from behind her bedroom door.
"I can't breathe," Kimberly Garnett said.
It was morning, and Armon was walking to the bathroom. He saw clumps of his mother's hair strewn along the hallway floor.
Armon's brother, Koby, 6, saw a red-soaked towel on the table in the living room.
"What's all that blood from?" he asked Robert Thompson, his mother's boyfriend.
"It's nothing serious," Thompson told him.
At noon, Thompson called Garnett's mother.
"Do you know who this is?" he said.
"No," she said.
"This is Robert," he said. "I killed Kim."
Mildred Garnett dropped the phone like it was burning.
Looking back, you can see the chances missed: The sister whose refuge Garnett abandoned because of a sore throat. The suspected lover who thought he had doused Thompson's jealous anger, but was mistaken. The boss who agonized over whether to call police, then deferred to Garnett's repeated requests that he stay out of it.
You can examine them all. But the virulence of an abusive relationship and the difficulty in predicting the consequences of seeking help make it impossible to know what, if anything, could have prevented what happened.
What happened was this:
Robert Thompson beat Kimberly Garnett to death with a 2-by-4. The medical examiner testified that she had been struck at least 30 times on her face, chest, abdomen, back, arms, legs and buttocks. Some of the blows left bruises in the shape of the board. One surrounded a bite mark. Her eyelids were so swollen they had to be pried open for the exam.
The cause of death was multiple blunt trauma due to assault, the medical examiner testified. The bruises and two fractured ribs caused such extensive blood loss that her internal organs had failed. It had taken her between a half-hour and a few hours to die, and she would have died in pain.
The jury took less than 30 minutes to convict Thompson of first-degree murder.
Judge Lawrence Fox sentenced him to 50 years. Thompson, 45, is serving the sentence in Menard Correctional Center and appealing the verdict.
The case had been unusual for the number of outsiders pulled into it, said prosecutor Jennifer Coleman. But in other ways, it had been a classic domestic-violence murder—sparked by an abuser's fear of losing control, in this case to Garnett's increasing independence.
"It really started to escalate when this man felt she might leave him," said Coleman, deputy supervisor of the domestic violence division of the Cook County state's attorney's office. "The biggest bruise on her body was on her buttocks. It was almost like he was disciplining a kid."
His method, the prosecutor observed, was far more brutal than simply shooting Garnett. "It was consistent with the way a lot of these guys work," she said, "to make it long and painful."
Garnett's family, which had T-shirts made with her image and attended every court appearance en masse, has rearranged itself to address its loss.
Mildred Garnett retired from Nabisco to raise her grandchildren. They live in a split-level home on a quiet street in the south suburbs. The children see a therapist regularly. "She's my friend," Koby, now 9, said cheerily. But sometimes his grandmother worries about Armon, 13, who saw the most and says the least.
Tonia Garnett, a social worker, became a domestic violence counselor and now works with Metropolitan Family Services on the South Side. She keeps a picture of her sister taped to her computer. "If I can help one person out of the 20 I see," she said, "I think I've done something."
Two months after her friend's killing, Antoinette Williams quit her job and enrolled in nursing school at St. Xavier University. In addition to her work as a real estate agent, she wanted to be a nurse, and Garnett's death prompted her to act.
"I was inspired by her life," said Williams, who is godmother to her friend's children. "I thought, 'I'm still here. I still have the opportunity to make my life what I want.' "
Marvin Johnson Jr. is haunted by the role he unwittingly played in Kimberly Garnett's death. He thought he had convinced Thompson that he and Garnett were just friends, only to find that he had shaken hands with a man just hours before he would beat Garnett to death.
"I would like to talk to him and say, '. . . I wish you had fought me. Just take it out on me, get it out of your system, instead of bringing it home,' " Johnson said.
Thompson's friends have tried to reconcile the fatal beating with the man they thought they knew. They have failed.
"I cannot even fathom this from the Robert I was in a relationship with," said Marki Lemons, mother of his 12-year-old son.
It seems impossible to her that Garnett's independence threatened Thompson. "The exes, the mothers of his children, are all very successful. A couple of us have advanced degrees," Lemons said. When she got pregnant with Thompson's child, she was in her last year of graduate school, about to get her MBA.
A domestic-violence murder sends waves of shock, grief, rage and regret washing over everyone it touches. And through the devastated waters lurks a question: Could someone have done something to save Kimberly Garnett?
Tonia Garnett will never forget sitting on her bed watching her sister pack to return to Thompson. She knew Kimberly was being abused, but she never imagined that her life was in danger.
"You realize it wasn't your fault," she said. "I always look at it as . . . this is how God had to save the children. I don't think she was mentally ready to leave. And in order for those children to have a better life, this is how God had to do it."
Williams doesn't know what she could have done beyond urging her friend to leave Thompson, which she did. In a way, though, she understands why she stayed.
"I can't just sit here and say, 'Oh, he was a demon every day of the week,' " she said. "He wasn't a horrible person all the time. . . . And when he wasn't, that was the part Kimberly loved."
But the peace some have made eludes others.
"You ask yourself questions: Why didn't we call the police? Why didn't we do something?" said Helena Pavlikova, the former Pet Ego operations manager who drove that night with her boss, Emanuele Bianchi, and waited in the car during his harrowing encounter with Thompson. "You kind of blame yourself."
As for Bianchi, he has passed judgment on himself, and it is harsh.
Driving home from the confrontation with Thompson, he and Pavlikova agonized about how to help Garnett. First thing in the morning, they vowed, they would find her an apartment. Desperate, Bianchi even considered drugging her and putting her on a plane to safety.
But in the morning, Bianchi learned of Garnett's murder. Instead of flying out of town for a presentation to a pet superstore, he spent the day and part of that night with the Garnett family. He took police to his office to retrieve photos he had taken of Garnett with her beaten face.
Again and again, Bianchi has replayed his decisions.
"I'm not the main responsibility. He's the guy that killed her," Bianchi said. "But we are all responsible. Her family, her neighbors, the people she worked with—that's me.
"I am the worst in the group. Because I knew what was going on that night."
He should have either stayed out of it or gone all-out and called police, he says now. Confronting an enraged man was a middle ground, he thinks, and a mistake.
"I made it worse," he said.
Kimberly Garnett died on May 17, 2005, at the age of 30, leaving behind three children and hard lessons for everyone touched by her murder.
Some of them think they would know better what to do next time. All of them hope they will never witness a next time.
But someone, somewhere, will.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun