News & Politics » Our Town

Lisa' Legacy

How Tom Santoro turned a parent's worst nightmare into a lacerating lesson for dating-age girls.

by

comment

Wearing a black polo shirt with "Dear Lisa" stitched in yellow across the chest, Tom Santoro stands in front of a group of 35 high school girls taking a self-defense class. The lights dim, and he starts a video chronicling the 18 years of his daughter Lisa's life.

Lisa as a toddler in sunglasses, in a Minnie Mouse Halloween costume, in pictures from high school dances. In one scene she's standing with two other girls, arms across each other's shoulders. One of them says, "We're going to be Hawkeyes together." As the video comes to a close, Lisa's at her high school graduation leading a prayer: "For an end to violence in this world, may people who know violence be blessed, and that someday innocent people will no longer have to know the pain and suffering violence brings, we pray to the Lord."

The lights come on. The girls are crying, their faces red. Santoro quietly asks if they have any questions.

In July 1994 Lisa was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Since then Santoro has visited classrooms across Chicago and the suburbs and in 26 other states lecturing about the warning signs of dating violence.

A year after Lisa died Santoro spoke at a memorial for her, and afterward he was approached by someone who worked for the Cook County Circuit Court. Soon he was talking to groups of girls and boys at high schools throughout Cook County as part of a dating-violence prevention program run by the court's domestic-violence unit. "I didn't know much about dating violence," he says. "I just talked about Lisa and kind of listened to them talk about dating violence. So then the more I went out, the more I learned from them what they were saying, and then eventually I was doing a program."

A couple of years later Santoro, still working as a deputy chief with the Cicero fire department, was offered a full-time position with the court. He decided to quit fire fighting and take it. Two years later, in 1999, he began his own program, which he called Dear Lisa (dearlisa.org). "Working at the circuit court you're confined to just the Cook County area," he says. "On my own I was able to travel anywhere I wanted to."

On this day Santoro, who's 55, will talk to three classes of girls taking a self-defense course at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He's been coming to the school for six years. "Sometimes a student will come up to me and say, my older brother or sister saw you," he says. "Sometimes I think they're looking for someone to open up to."

Santoro has talked to as many as 2,000 students at a time, but he prefers smaller groups. He says it's easier to reach the kids in the back--the ones who disappear in the rear of an auditorium. "I want them to realize what dating violence is," he says. "A lot of kids have no idea--besides physical and sexual abuse, of course. But they have no idea about control and verbal abuse. Some laugh it off. Some don't want to say anything because they don't want to get their boyfriends upset." A recent Massachusetts study found that one in five girls age 14 to 18 has been involved in some sort of violent dating relationship.

The bell rings, and a second group of girls filters into the classroom, talking in whispers.

Santoro steps forward. Elbows at his side and hands clasped, he asks the girls if they're dating. A few raise their hands. He begins to go down a list of possible abuses a girl could face in a relationship and asks someone to define domestic abuse.

"Violence in the home," says one girl.

He nods. "You're not born a victim or an abuser," he says. "It's a learned thing--you learn to accept it."

Later he warns them about the wrong type of relationships, saying,

"You need to look for a guy who respects and trusts you."

Lisa Marie Santoro had a wonderful laugh, says her father: "It was the type of laugh you could hear from the second floor all the way to the basement." He says she was happy and well liked. She spent time volunteering, was a cheerleader, and wanted to be a writer. She was also looking forward to attending the University of Iowa in the fall of 1994.

As summer approached, she decided to break up with her boyfriend of five months. "I didn't like him, but I didn't dislike him," says Santoro, who doesn't mention the boy by name. "He wasn't in her group of friends. He was an outsider, kind of quiet."

A month and a half after the breakup, after Lisa began dating someone else, her ex-boyfriend called her. He said he wanted to exchange some things they'd given each other over the months they'd been dating. Lisa agreed to meet him.

On July 28 Santoro came home on break around 6 PM. He says his wife, Barbara, told him she'd been uneasy as Lisa drove off with her ex-boyfriend. "When he pulled away she said she looked at him and got the most evil look," Santoro says. "And she said, 'I can't wait till Lisa gets home tonight.'"

Santoro went back to work, and around 1 AM Barbara called. Lisa's curfew was midnight, and she hadn't returned. Santoro called the ex-boyfriend's house but got the answering machine. He drove to the boy's house and was met by the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car. "I knew my daughter was dead," he says.

During the court hearings that followed, the Santoros were surrounded by family and friends, including 50 to 60 firefighters. "It was very emotional, very draining, difficult," Santoro says. "I mean, you're sitting 30 feet away from the person who murdered your daughter."

Santoro says Lisa had never shown any signs that she was being physically or sexually abused. But as the case progressed he realized how little he'd known about her boyfriend.

The day Lisa broke up with him he told friends he was so upset he was going to beat up the next guy he saw. And he did--a complete stranger. He also began stalking Lisa without her knowing. "His friends knew this happened," says Santoro. "Maybe they didn't know what he was going to do to Lisa. But they still could have called and told her."

Nearly two years after Lisa was killed, her ex-boyfriend's plea bargain got him 75 years in prison.

T.J., Lisa's younger brother, was 16 when she died, and Santoro says he was devastated. Barbara kept Lisa's room just as she'd left it--books still line shelves, and her stuffed animals, pictures, and clothes are still where they were nine years ago, though Santoro says occasionally his wife wears some of Lisa's shoes and sweatshirts.

In the months following Lisa's death, Barbara's mother died. Later Barbara found out she had breast cancer. At one point she contemplated suicide.

"It hurt so bad," says Santoro. "I used to guard myself from making sure I didn't have too good of a day or I knew I'd crash." But, he adds, "I think the peaks and valleys get easier."

He started going to an Oak Park support group for parents who'd lost children. The facilitator told him to start writing in a journal to get out what he was feeling. He began writing letters to Lisa.

"A lot of times I'm asked by kids about anger and forgiveness," he says. "I say no. He's never apologized--not that it would have helped. I don't think about him. I had to let it go."

Santoro tells the girls that the cycle of violence can trap both the abuser and the victim. Tension and arguing lead to a big blowout and violence. Afterward apologies flow, along with promises to change. Time passes, and the cycle repeats itself.

"Imagine you're free to date," Santoro says. "This guy in a red sports car--a real hunk--asks you out. The guy's name is Tony." Santoro smiles. "I'm Italian." He continues: You're on the date and you're sitting in his car. You take the gum out of your mouth and go to throw it away in his ashtray. As you do so, you pull it out all the way and the tray spills across the car floor. Tony calls you stupid and slaps you. Santoro asks, who would stay with Tony after that first date?

None of the girls raise their hands.

"In the last six years," he tells them, "I've had 17 girls raise their hands."

He goes on to a second scenario. This time the first date is wonderful--there are flowers, dinner at an Italian restaurant, and a kiss at the door. "Oh my gosh, girls," he says. "He's the best and hottest kisser in the world." He mimics a teenage girl. They laugh.

He goes on. It's been five months, and Tony has never hit you. But then he starts telling you your skirt's too short, you can't talk to your friend Frank anymore, you can't see your friends anymore. You start to accept his behavior and begin to think he might be right.

There's a big party Saturday night, and Tony's going to get to see a friend he hasn't seen in years, so he wants you to be ready at 8 PM. He asks that you wear his favorite sweater and your hair down. You agree. On Friday, Tony has an accident and gets a ticket. Meanwhile, you spend the day talking on the phone with a friend. When Tony arrives you're not ready. You leave late and hit traffic on the expressway. He's yelling and swearing at you. And then he hits you. Santoro asks, who would break up with Tony now?

Four girls raise their hands.

He asks the others why they would stay.

One girl says, "I wouldn't want a good five-month relationship to end because of one bad day."

Another says, "He's on probation now. He's in trouble now."

"You need to know you are a person," Santoro tells them. "You're a human being, not an object."

He then pulls out a couple of the letters he's written to Lisa over the years. "Dear Lisa. It was cold at the cemetery today. I had to shovel the snow away from the headstone. I seen a beautiful deer and the sun was shining brightly. It would have been a perfect day if I could just hold you one more time. I love you dearly, Daddy."

"Dear Lisa. Last night I had the most wonderful dream. I was holding you and brushing your hair away from your face. I gave you a kiss, and you looked up at me and said, 'I love you, Daddy.' Love, Daddy."

Santoro asks if the girls have questions.

There are no hands.

Santoro says he'll answer the question girls are always afraid to ask: How was Lisa killed? With a baseball bat.

He describes his relationship with his son and says he always made sure that he told T.J. he loved him and that he hugged him. He says that even with his friends around, T.J. still hugs his father and tells him he loves him. "Every day," he says, "let your family know how much you care about them."

He tells them the boy Lisa was dating before she was killed just got married, and the Santoros were invited to his wedding. He says it was hard to watch the bride and her father dance: "Lisa was my only daughter. Now I'll never have that chance. Sometimes at weddings I have to leave at that point."

He ends by giving the girls a few signs to watch out for. Does the ex keep calling? Does he start stalking you? And if he asks for his stuff back, don't meet him alone. "Lisa may have been alive today," he says. "But she didn't know, and neither did I."

He hands the teacher a stack of quizzes the girls can take as a way to evaluate their own relationships. Then he hands out bright yellow ribbons with a white dove on them. He says they're dating-violence-prevention ribbons and tells the girls to put them in their rooms, their cars, their future dorm rooms.

Santoro once gave his presentation at the University of Iowa, where Lisa had been accepted. "It was one of the goals I had set for myself," he says. "I said I wanted to go to Iowa and speak in every state. That was my hardest presentation. They put me in the same room I was in with Lisa for orientation." But after his speech two girls approached and gave him a hug. They had their yellow ribbons from high school.

"I think it's great what he's doing," says one girl after the bell rings. "Some girls really don't think about this. People usually only think, 'Hey, that only happens on TV,' or whatever. But in reality it can happen to anyone."

Santoro keeps a book of letters and E-mails he's received over the years from students and teachers. "I am not in a violent relationship," one student wrote. "I'm not even in a relationship, but what you talked about today hit me hard." Another wrote that she saw a friend in his presentation: "I wanted to thank you for opening my eyes and helping me see that sometimes a bad feeling is much more than just a feeling." Another confessed, "I am E-mailing you because there is an abuse problem in my family. My brother hits his girlfriend."

"If I reach one girl," says Santoro, "I did something for Lisa. I did something for the victims of dating violence and domestic abuse."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

Add a comment