CLINTON — Every one of the 5,475 days that have passed since three young siblings drowned in Clinton Lake have been difficult, but small things can bring the pain to its highest level again, according to relatives of the children who gathered Sunday for a memorial service.
It was Labor Day weekend — Sept. 2, 2003 — when Amanda Hamm and her former boyfriend, Maurice LaGrone, took her three children, Christopher Hamm, Austin Brown and Kyleigh Hamm, to the lake. LaGrone parked on a boat ramp with the car’s front bumper inches from the water.
LaGrone and Hamm told police the car accidentally went into the lake after he was unable to navigate the car up the ramp. The two adults escaped the rising water, but Christopher, age 6, Austin, 3, and their 23-month-old sister died after the car nosedived in eight feet of water.
Authorities deemed the incident an intentional criminal act and charged LaGrone and Hamm with murder. He is serving life in prison for the children’s deaths, and Hamm was cleared of murder charges during a trial that was moved to Macon County but sentenced to 10 years for child endangerment.
For those closest to the children, the 15-year stretch since the tragedy is compressed sometimes and seems like yesterday when the most common things send memories flooding back.
For Christopher’s father, Greg Hamm, warm weather is a tough time of year.
“Summer — because he would be playing baseball — but also birthdays, Christmas and this day,” said Hamm, who organized the memorial gathering for about 30 friends and family members. Life without the 6-year-old still has its roller coaster moments, he said.
Austin’s father, Craig Brown, said, “I pick and choose when I grieve” in order to keep from being overwhelmed too much of the time.
Shane Senters said he and the other two fathers rely on each other for support. “We’re brothers. We’ve been there for each other ever since it happened,” he said.
The fathers released red balloons to remember their children, who are buried together in Memorial Park Cemetery in Clinton.
Amanda Hamm, who became Amanda Ware when she married after her release from prison, did not attend the service. Her mother and stepfather, Ann and Lindy Powers, visited the gravesites earlier Sunday.
In her comments marking the anniversary, Ann Powers said her grandchildren “will never be forgotten in my heart.”
Powers recalled the special names the family had for the children and for her.
“Having them call me “Naunie“ — I miss that more than ever,” said the grandmother.
Efforts by Ware to rebuild her life in Chicago have proven difficult for her and the three children born since her release. Her two daughters and infant son were taken by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from her and her husband Leo Ware in 2014 after a doctor involved in the delivery of her son recognized her as the mother in the 2003 drowning case.
A long court battle ended with a guardianship that allows the parents visitation, but the children remain with a paternal aunt on Chicago’s south side. The Wares have divorced.