GARY — Two mothers stood before separate makeshift memorials this week, each gazing at photos of their children and crosses adorned with flowers.
The mementos in front of a tree at 28-year-old Darius Ross' Gary home and along Central Avenue, where 27-year-old Heather Talley's body was found, are among the few connections their mothers still have with their children, who were killed in a brutal triple homicide.
Their friend, friend Nicholas Edwards, 28, of Gary, also was found dead July 15 in Gary, the morning after going out with the couple to celebrate Darius Ross' birthday.
Though Darius and Heather did not have children of their own, they each were close with their sisters and often baby-sat for their nieces and nephews.
On Friday, 6-year-old Jada Brooks, Heather's niece, stood holding a cross while waiting for her grandmother to arrive so the family could place it along Central Avenue.
"I don't know where she's gone," Jada mused, after explaining the colorful summer dress she was wearing belonged to her aunt. Heather was like a second mother to Jada, said Jackelynn Talley, Heather's sister.
Just down the road in Gary's Marshalltown neighborhood Thursday, Darius' mother Anissa Ross walked several doors down to a memorial for him outside the home where he lived.
"That was the hardest thing I had to do in my life," she said. "Was bury my son."
'That's when I knew'
Anissa Ross last saw her son the afternoon of July 14, as he was leaving to get lunch and celebrate his birthday with Heather and their friends.
Her daughter, Delise Ross, called her the next morning and said Heather had been found dead, she said.
"That’s when I knew," she said.
She went to the police station to file a missing person report for her son. "By the time I came home, they was at my door, and I already knew."
She broke down crying.
She went to lunch with her son once a week. They talked about everything.
"I think about him every day," she said. "It's just hard, because it happened on his birthday."
Darius was not in a gang and never was a bad kid, she said. Even as a teenager, he would bring new people into their Merrillville home all the time.
"He never got into any trouble. He was just too friendly. He just welcomed in anybody," she said.
Heather was a social butterfly, too.
"He was crazy about Heather," Anissa Ross said. "She was sweet."
The couple enjoyed cooking and being around family. Boxing promoter and former professional boxer Floyd Mayweather is Anissa Ross' first cousin, and Darius was proud to tell everyone they were related, she said.
She recalled how Darius used to pop in at her house.
"He used to be like, 'Hey, momma, what you doing?'" she recalled. "I keep imagining him just walking through the door. I know he's gone, but it ain't really real to me."
She wants to know what happened to her son, she said.
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"I need closure. I just need closure," she said. "I need to know what happened."
'I just hope they find who did it'
Heather's mother, Diana Graczyk, also wants answers.
As her husband, Ken Graczyk, drove a cross into the ground on Central Avenue, Diana spoke to Heather's picture.
"Mommy loves you," she said, crying. "I'm so sorry I couldn't be here for you."
It was the second time the family had placed a memorial in that location.
The first one mysteriously disappeared, Diana Graczyk said. She wondered how someone could be so cruel to take down a memorial.
As the family drew together to say The Lord's Prayer, a monarch butterfly fluttered overhead.
It's horrible what the family has to go through, Diana Graczyk said.
"I just hope they find who did it," she said. "So they can't hurt nobody else."
She is planning a vigil at 7:30 p.m. at the Jean Shepherd Community Center in Hammond.
Heather's nieces and numerous younger cousins loved her dearly, she said. She was like a second mother to younger sister Abby Graczyk, 12.
"All the little ones just loved her," Diana Graczyk said. "And now she's not even going to be able to have her own baby."
'She was my everything'
Jackelynn Talley recalled how her sister was there to hold her hand when she had a baby. Darius arrived shortly after the birth to visit, she said.
The couple had been together for nearly four years, and they were in love. They talked about marrying during a trip to Las Vegas.
“She was his everything. They had each other’s back,” Talley said. “Their bond was so strong. They wanted to live life and travel.”
Jackelynn now feels anxiety about leaving her home, she said.
"We know they did nothing to deserve this. So I feel like if they did that to them, they could do that to me," she said. "It has affected our lives tremendously."
Jackelynn said her 2- and 6-year-old daughters ask often about Heather and Darius.
"We saw each other every day. There wasn’t a day that didn’t go by that we didn’t see each other or talk to each other," she said.
"All I do is think about her. She was like my best friend, my sister, my baby-sitter. She was my everything. I can’t look at pictures, because all I do is cry. We were so close."