HAMMOND — One thing went right for Garrard McClendon on the worst day of his life.

The CLTV news figure learned Oct. 19, 2009, his parents, Ruby and Milton McClendon, were identified as the elderly couple who had been fatally shot and dumped in a Cook County forest preserve.

After the shock and disbelief wore off enough for him to drive to their Hammond residence, he was on the highway when he foresaw police officers, FBI, yellow and red police tape, friends and family crying and news trucks.

"Something told me that even though you don't know who killed your parents, you have got to forgive the perpetrators," McClendon said.

"When I got to my parents' house, it was exactly as in the vision. One of the reporters put a mic and a camera in my face and asked what I had to say about this. I said, 'My parents were good people. They didn't deserve this, but I want to put it on record that I forgive the perpetrators.' That was a tough night," McClendon said.

Eight years later he is filming a documentary, "Forgiving Cain," as an act of catharsis, featuring families who have gone through the horror of having a loved one taken by homicide and are still processing the aftermath.

He said the death of a young Hammond woman killed in Indianapolis 20 years ago still brings bitter tears to her mother, who relives the crime and recounts the hallmarks of life her daughter would have experienced, if she had lived.

He spoke with the family of Francisco "Frankie" Valencia, a junior at Chicago's DePaul University.

"He was a nice guy, a political science major who went to a Halloween party the same year my parents got killed," he said. "A few people show up who want to join the party who weren't invited. They were turned away. They came back and shoot the place up and killed Frankie Valencia."

McClendon and his documentary crew combed through national news stories to find families in Mesa, Arizona; Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee. "We looked for the stories that are just extremely painful," he said.

"Toward the end of the interviews we started to see the majority of the families forgave the perpetrators. For some it took a year, for others it took five years, some even longer than that," he said.

McClendon said forgiveness is the survivors giving up their malice without expecting anything in return from the forgiven. He said it definitively is not condoning the evil that was done.

Reo Thompson, 25, and accomplice Gregory Brooks Jr., 26, are each serving 120-year prison terms for breaking into the McClendon home and murdering the elderly couple.

After striking Milton McClendon in the head with a vase and leaving with $70 cash, jewelry, a gun and the McClendons' car, Thompson and Brooks returned, to finish them so they couldn't later identify them to the polcie.

They forced the victims into the trunk of their car and eventually drove to a Cook County forest preserve in Calumet City and executed Milton, 78, and Ruby, 76.

He said, "I was doing a TV show called 'Garrard McClendon LIVE' at WGN CLTV in Chicago. Right before I was about to go on air, there was a phone call at my desk and it's my wife calling. She said, 'Leave the studio, get to your parents immediately.' I said, 'For what?' She told me to give the phone to Jerry Riles, my producer. He takes me to the parking lot and delivers this devastating news.

"After I forgave the perpetrators (on camera), it is as if the neighborhood woke up because there were 130 tips after that night and then seven days later, the day of the funeral, is when they apprehended two young men.

Hammond police said they obtained security footage of the suspects selling the McClendons' jewelry at a Cash For Gold store in Hammond, along with statements from witnesses who saw them in the McClendons' Cadillac days after the murders.

"They were good, God-fearing people who wanted to raise their family in a modest way in a uplifting way and be an example to the community and neighborhood," McClendon said. "My dad was a retired U.S. postal worker, a Korean War veteran, loved model airplanes, model cars and model trains. My dad coached Little League baseball. He coached track. My mom was a switchboard operator. She was a Cub Scout den mother."

He said the family had lived in Hammond for several generations.

"The neighborhood started to change a little and some streets were compromised as my parent were getting older." He said there was talk of moving to Munster, "but my father said no, I'm not going to run."

McClendon said he, family and friends went to the courtroom to follow the case.

"We were very fortunate that there were guilty pleas, as opposed to going through a trial. We got justice within one year," he said.

"Forgiveness is separate and apart from their 120-year sentence. Do I want them to be in prison? Yes. Do I forgive them? Yes. I don't have any malice toward them in terms of my forgiveness. However, my forgiveness has nothing to do with how they are judged in the legal system. That is something I have to let go. I cannot go on with my own life if I think about this and harp on it. If I want more bad things to happen to these young men, then I can't be free." 

He expects the documentary to be released this spring at selected screens in Chicago and for a PBS roll-out in late spring.

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Lake County reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.