By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
The headlights flashing in Marc Kajs's rearview mirror were familiar. The light blue Honda Prelude had been following him for 20 miles that day. The 28-year-old waiter had worked the dinner shift at Urbana, and now he just wanted to go home and get to sleep -- he had to get up early Sunday morning to serve brunch. But the Prelude was behind him again, honking and then in front of him swerving, trying to run him off the road. This had been happening for months. At the stoplight, Marc's ex-boyfriend, Ilhan Yilmaz, got out of the Prelude, walked up to Marc's window and pounded on it, threatening to kill Marc. He said he was going to ruin both their lives. If Marc didn't love him, Ilhan didn't want anyone to have him -- and Ilhan didn't want to be alive either.
After three bouts, Marc was too scared to drive the hour down Veteran's Memorial Parkway. That country road feels like it has 500 stoplights, and Marc knew that the small lawn mower repair shops and thrift stores would all be closed after dark. No one would hear him if he screamed. Scared, Marc turned his car around and drove to the Montrose police substation at 802 Westheimer. Ilhan followed Marc inside the storefront while Marc made a report.
Marc told the officer on duty that he was scared. He told the officer that he didn't feel safe -- he didn't think his friends and family members were safe either, because Ilhan had been threatening their lives, too. Marc wanted help; he wanted protection; he told the officer that he wanted to get a restraining order and to prosecute Ilhan for harassment.
It was a Saturday night, and the domestic violence department was closed on weekends. The officer on duty gave Marc an incident number and told him to come back Monday.
Sunday afternoon Ilhan made good on his threat: Both he and Marc were dead.
Marc's family says that Marc went to the police for protection and was repeatedly turned away. By not protecting her son, the police sent Marc to his death, Gloria Swidriski feels.
Now, two years later, Marc's parents have filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city. His parents want someone to be held accountable for Marc's death. The family says Marc's requests for help were ignored and wants to know why.
Gloria thinks it might be because Marc was gay. After Marc's death, a sexual assault specialist from the Montrose Counseling Center told reporters that officers might have dismissed Marc's troubles with Ilhan as a "catfight." As an example of "the limitations of the police department," Melissa Martin of the Montrose Center talks about Marc in all of her same-sex domestic violence presentations. "They really fell down on the job with Marc," she says.
Marc's family believes that Urbana let Marc down, too. The owner, John Puente, knew that Marc was having problems with his ex, but Puente never banned Ilhan from the restaurant to protect his employee. Marc wasn't killed inside the restaurant -- he died on the sidewalk out front -- so Puente argues that it isn't his responsibility. Marc's parents are outraged that Puente just stood silently on the patio and watched Marc die.
"At Marc's funeral, the priest said: 'Don't look for revenge. Look for justice,' " says Marc's stepfather, Ed Swidriski, sitting at his kitchen table. "That's what we're doing here."
A theater arts major at the University of Houston, Marc wrote poetry about candy kisses and Sunday afternoons. Marc drank Skyy martinis and cosmopolitans -- he was the first to get to a party and the last to leave. If the invitation for a Friday-night party said "till ?" he stayed until Sunday. "I couldn't get him out of the house," remembers his friend Chris Prestigomo. Marc had a handful of best friends and people who loved him and who spoke with the Press for this article. This story is told from those interviews and from police reports.
Marc was smart, he was funny, he was quick-witted. He always won when they watched Jeopardy, Chris says. Marc and former restaurant owner Donna Gruber stayed up all night telling jokes, laughing. "He was a walking sitcom," Donna says. "He was my addiction." Marc wanted everyone around him to be happy. He wrote on the first page of his journal that he was waiting for someone to take him away. He wanted someone whose mind he could get inside, someone he could connect with.
Marc met Ilhan at JR's, Donna remembers. Ilhan had thick, black brows, cropped dark hair and an almost permanent five-o'-clock shadow. Marc felt sorry for Ilhan, says Gloria, because Ilhan was all alone. He didn't have anyone -- his friends and family were an ocean away in Turkey. Marc was a Hispanic gay man who was very in the closet. He had a secret side he didn't show everyone. Ilhan was a butch, straight-acting gay guy. He became Marc's first serious relationship.
Ilhan was smart, so he could keep pace with Marc's quick wit. Ilhan had a mechanical engineering degree, and contemporary business management degrees from schools in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. He was in Houston on a four-year student visa from Sivas, Turkey, to get his MBA at UH-Victoria. People remember Ilhan as quiet and kind.
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