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Verdict gives grieving dad new start on life

'Brendis is not was' Rob Anderssaid his sBrendAnderswho was murdered Auror1998. Jaime Diaz Aurorwas convicted Thursday 15-year-old murder. | Brian

"Brendon is and is, not a was," Rob Anderson said of his son Brendon Anderson, who was murdered in Aurora in 1998. Jaime Diaz of Aurora was convicted Thursday in the 15-year-old murder. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:24AM

Since March 1998, Rob Anderson has chronicled a journey through grief that the Sugar Grove man was forced to take after his 21-year-old son Brendon was murdered on Aurora’s East Side.

Dozens of binders — filled with pictures, court documents, newspaper articles and his own eloquent, oftentimes-poetic essays — describe that odyssey. So do the 7,912 paper hearts — each one different from the other and each collected to represent the number of days his firstborn was alive.

Soon, Anderson will laminate the final pages to add to this almost 15-year documentary — pages from a yellow legal pad he used to take notes during last week’s murder trial of Jaime Diaz.

The purpose of the notes was not only to chronicle the court proceedings but also to give Anderson something to concentrate on as the testimony finally revealed the ugly details of how his son died those many years ago. As much as he wanted to shout, swear, even cry out in anguish, he knew it was crucial he show absolutely no emotion during the four-day trial.

And so, he put that emotion on paper.

Days one and two, which featured opening statements and the prosecution’s pivotal witness, were especially cruel for the family to sit through, as they learned how Brendon and his friend Elias Calcano were shot in the back of the head by Diaz, then their bodies mutilated even more by the killer, who doused the car with gasoline and set Brendon’s body on fire.

“It was like getting hit by a truck and surviving,” says Anderson of those two “wicked” days.

He points to his notes that slash across the legal pad in dark, jerky scrawls. The more intense the testimony, the more chaotic the writing becomes. When statements from witnesses — such as when the coroner described the extent of damage to Brendon’s charred body — became too much for the father to hear, he stopped jotting down words and instead drew dramatic block-like letters and other symbols that represented happier thoughts. His son’s full name. Hearts. The numbers 4-5-9, a code he and his son used to say I love you.

At the bottom of the last yellow page were two short entries: “5:09 out; 8:49 jury returns.”

Then, in even bigger, bolder letters, one final word: “Guilty.”

A cloud that had engulfed Anderson and his family like a “withering wet wool blanket” was finally gone. “Feb. 1 was our birthday,” he says. “It is the beginning of the rest of our lives.”

And before he gets on with that life, Rob Anderson wants to make a few points that he feels are important for others to learn from his journey with grief.

“The heroes” of this story, he insists, are Aurora Police Detective Greg Spayth, who was “the bulldog” behind this cold case investigation; Kane County prosecutors Greg Sams and Deborah Lang, who did “an incredible job” of laying out the case; and Judy Bland, the victims advocate who was with the family every step of the way since getting that call in November 2008 there had been an arrest in the murder.

Anderson also wants to make clear he harbors no hatred toward Jaime Diaz, for “he who angers you conquers you,” he says. “I do not forgive him, but I pardon him. I do not wish evil on him. But I hold him responsible for killing my son.”

He also wants others who are crushed under that same dark cloud to know there is a way to understand and navigate grief. While it will always be with you, he says, it is possible to learn “it is not your enemy.”

The journey to get there, he adds, is a long one; and it requires plenty of work. After all, it took him over two years to smile again.

“But it is possible to be happy again.”

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