By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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."
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.
Living at home in Klein, Marc told his parents he was looking for an apartment nearer to downtown. The 25-mile commute was too much. He showed up during dinner one night with Ilhan and a U-Haul. "You look like brothers," Gloria remembers saying. She thought they were almost identical, except Ilhan was taller and quieter and smiled less. Gloria and Ed Swidriski say they never knew Marc was living with Ilhan. It never occurred to them to think that their son was anything but straight. But whenever they stopped by Marc's one-bedroom efficiency to visit or fix Marc's car, Ilhan was always there. Ilhan was a polite, charming young man who was always calm and courteous. He always offered Marc's parents a Coke and asked them to sit down. They thought Ilhan was just a friend.
About six months after moving out, Marc called Gloria around 3 a.m. His voice sounded muffled, choked, like he'd been crying. Gloria heard a female friend of Marc's in the background prompting him to go ahead and tell her. Tell her what? Ilhan had been beating him up, Marc said. Ilhan had threatened to call and tell her himself, and Marc didn't want Gloria to find out that way. "I'm gay," he told her. She didn't believe him. "I thought you knew," he said.
No. Marc always hung around girls. Pretty girls. He had girlfriends; he took a girl to the prom. And Gloria had always thought of him as manly. "It's not like he had dolls and aprons and I combed his hair like a little girl," she says. "He always had baseball hats, basketballs and a tricycle -- little boy stuff." The only time she had doubted Marc's heterosexuality was when she had found a book of matches from a gay club. She asked him if he went there. When he didn't answer, she told him she hoped he wasn't gay.
After the phone call, Gloria figured Marc was experimenting. Sometimes young men experiment, she says. She hoped it was a phase he'd grow out of. Gloria doesn't like talking about the fact that Marc was gay. She didn't join PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) or slap a rainbow bumper sticker on her car, partly because she's a hard-core Catholic. Gloria was able to push the idea of Marc and Ilhan being lovers further out of her mind that summer, when Ilhan got married. His four-year student visa was running out and he wasn't taking classes. Marc's parents and friends suspect it was a green-card marriage.
Marc kept calling Gloria, saying Ilhan was beating him. He told her not to tell Ed. Ed's a big guy who isn't into pink triangles. Marc wouldn't visit Gloria for days after these calls; when she did see him he was always wearing long-sleeved white linen shirts. Gloria thinks Marc was waiting for his wounds to heal. Friends saw Marc with a bloody lip and a black eye. After three months of Marc calling his mom saying his boyfriend was beating him up, Ed grabbed the phone from Gloria and told Marc to move out, that he couldn't stay in that apartment. Ed and Gloria drove their van over to Marc's and packed up his stuff. Marc didn't want to take the dishes or silverware or the dining room table he and Ilhan had bought together, because he didn't want to leave Ilhan with nothing.
Marc showed his parents that the bedroom door was off its hinges. He said Ilhan had tried to come after him with a knife. Ilhan laughed. He said Marc couldn't leave -- he owed him money for tuition -- but Gloria had paid his tuition. Ilhan said Marc owed him $30 for the phone bill. Gloria wrote Ilhan a $40 check.
Maybe Marc didn't take the stalking too seriously at first because it was familiar. Marc was used to being adored, idolized and fiercely loved. Marc's father died of leukemia when Marc was 11. Since then his mother took him everywhere -- even on dates with Ed. Whenever Marc was out, he had to check in with his mother. He was used to her calling up his friends' houses trying to find him.
What felt like hide-and-seek shifted into creepy I'm-standing-at-the-gas-station-at-the-corner-and-I'm-going-to-kill-you calls. Ilhan stopped wanting to know where Marc was and started warning him that he was going to die. After a few threats, Marc realized that Ilhan wasn't joking and called 911. The police wrote "threat to life" in the logbook, but there's no report of any further investigation, and the tape has been recorded over.
A few weeks later Marc was at Heaven dancing to the best club music in town. Marc loved to dance -- that's how he and Donna first became friends -- and years before he had won tickets to the Thriller tour in Laredo's "Dance Like Michael Jackson" contest. Marc was grooving to disco music on the dance floor, surrounded by walls covered in video screens. Ilhan followed Marc into the dark concrete club and told Marc he wanted him to come home. Marc wanted to dance. Ilhan started screaming at Marc and attacked him. Ilhan was escorted out of the club. Marc and his friends filed a report to a moonlighting HPD officer. The officer wrote down their driver's license numbers, but HPD has no record of the report. Officials told Ed and Gloria it must have been destroyed months later in a fire at the club.
One burly bouncer pulling him out of a club didn't yank Ilhan out of Marc's life. Ilhan kept calling and following and finding Marc. Feeling hunted, Marc lived out of his car, crashing at different friends' houses each night so Ilhan wouldn't know where he was. Marc kept moving. A few weeks after the Heaven disturbance, Marc was at another friend's garage apartment on Driscoll Street when Ilhan stormed into her apartment and started threatening to kill both her and Marc. After they told him to leave, Ilhan stood outside throwing rocks at the window, according to the police report. At 4:29 a.m. Marc called the police.
According to police reports, Marc told the officers that he and Ilhan had lived together for almost a year but that Marc had moved out six weeks before and Ilhan had been harassing him, trying to get him to move back in ever since. Marc mentioned the earlier threats and the Heaven disturbance, and an officer jotted them down. Marc wanted Ilhan to be given a trespass citation, something official and formal that would make him go away. When the cops arrived, Ilhan had left the window, but he was still circling the neighborhood driving past the apartment, watching. At the corner stop sign an officer pulled Ilhan over for a routine traffic check. Ilhan told the officer that while he was vacationing in Turkey, Marc had stolen a check and made it out to himself. Ilhan said he was just trying to get his money back. (Marc's family says Ilhan had told Marc to forge the check to pay some bills.) Ilhan handed over documents from Compass Bank showing that a forgery had occurred. Ilhan had proof, documentation, evidence -- all Marc had was fear and a witness who saw and heard Ilhan threaten Marc's life. The officer could have issued a warrant for Ilhan's arrest for making terroristic threats; instead he dismissed the trespassing and threat-to-life accusations and pursued the forgery. On the report filed, Marc switched from being the complainant to being the suspect.
Ilhan quit school and started delivering pizzas for Papa John's. That schedule meshed with his main activity: driving around town searching for Marc. In his Prelude with tinted windows, Ilhan followed a regular route past all of Marc's friends' houses, JR's, Pacific Street, the movie theater and Urbana, anywhere he thought Marc might be. He wanted to know where Marc was at all times; he wanted to know why Marc wasn't with him. "We ran into Ilhan all the time," remembers Marc's friend (and fellow Urbana waiter) Johnny Hooks. "He was a constant presence. He was always hovering in the background."
Ilhan broke into Marc's car (his grandmother's 1987 off-white Oldsmobile) three times. Once he smashed the back window and stole Marc's new brown leather jacket. In the pocket was Marc's psoriasis medicine, and Ilhan wouldn't give it back. Another time Ilhan stole Marc's books so he couldn't go to school. The last time, Ilhan took Marc's Compaq computer out of the back of the car. Marc's parents told him to go get that computer -- they had paid for it. Marc did. Ilhan called the police and reported the burglary. According to a late-November police report, Ilhan told the officer that he and Marc had been lovers until he threw Marc out. Ilhan admitted that Marc hadn't taken anything that didn't belong to him, but Marc had broken the new lock Ilhan had installed. The officers encouraged Ilhan three times to file charges.
For New Year's, Ilhan bought himself a gun. Marc's threat-to-life reports were on file, but Ilhan hadn't been charged with anything, so HPD approved the sale. By this time, Ilhan was calling Donna constantly, sometimes four or five times a night. Sometimes he'd repeatedly dial Donna's number, let it ring and then hang up. She banned him from her Clear Lake barbecue restaurant, Gruber's. Ilhan kept calling.
"You're going to be the first to die," he said.
Donna has a gun too; she wasn't scared. "Get your ass over here," she said. "I'll pop one in your butt."
On March 6, the day after his 32nd birthday, Ilhan came to Urbana and threw a bullet-riddled target at Marc. "This is going to be you," he said, and stormed off. Marc called the police, then his parents. He told Gloria that an officer had told him they couldn't do anything since Ilhan hadn't physically harmed him. After that, Marc was too scared to walk to Urbana's parking lot by himself. His co-workers escorted him to his car.
Ilhan called Marc's parents' house constantly. Marc blocked the number, so Ilhan called from pay phones. Ilhan tried to make Gloria worry that Marc was hanging out with dangerous people. He told her that he protected Marc and that Marc was safe with him. He told her he had served in the Turkish army. Other times he called Marc "a no-good slugger" and told Gloria that his military training would enable him to kill Marc. He loved Marc, so he could destroy him.
"I love Marc," Ilhan told Gloria. "I love him more than you do."
Two nights later Marc and Johnny got off work at Urbana and went to see the ten-thirty showing of the rerelease of Grease. Still clad in their black jeans and white shirts, the two went to the River Oaks Plaza on West Gray next to T.J. Maxx. Knowing Ilhan had followed him, Marc parked in the mini-lot behind the theater so Ilhan couldn't see his car from the street.
Marc and Johnny laughed and danced and sang the familiar songs all through the movie. They had a great time. When they walked out, Ilhan drove his car between Marc and Johnny. Ilhan got out of the car, twisted Marc's arm behind his back and threw Marc up against the wall. It was like one of the TBird fight scenes with Craterface, but no one was on a motorcycle and no one was singing. And this time the fighting was real: Ilhan started choking Marc.
Johnny ran inside and yelled for someone to call 911. He doesn't think anyone did, because it was after midnight and the 17-year-olds were trying to close up. Back outside, Johnny threw himself between Marc and Ilhan. Ilhan was yelling, and Marc was yelling back. Johnny told Marc to shut up and get in the car. Marc started the car, doubled back, opened the door for Johnny, and they sped off. They went down the street to Cecil's, a straight bar that's always filled with a dark, smoky haze -- a good place to hide.
Over a pitcher of Honey Brown beer, Marc said Ilhan hadn't done anything like that before. Johnny told him to go to the police, to get a restraining order. Marc said okay.
"Promise?" Johnny asked him.
"I promise," Marc said.
But Marc put it off. In the morning it didn't seem so bad. Then it got dark. That's when Ilhan followed Marc up Allen Parkway threatening Marc's life. That's when Marc went to the police and said he was scared. That's when they told him to come back Monday.
Afraid to leave the police station, Marc stayed inside until well after Ilhan had left. Marc got home at 5 a.m. Sunday, scared and shaken. He told his mom he was tired of running. He put a piece of cold pizza in the microwave, but he didn't eat it. He was too tired, too angry. He told his mother that he was outraged that at the station the police didn't have his reports on file; he wanted to know where they were. Sunday morning Gloria wanted Marc to stay home. She almost didn't wake him up to go to work. She wanted Marc to quit his job, buckle down and graduate college. She's a teacher; education is important to her. Marc told her staying home wouldn't keep him safe, despite his mother's shotgun, because Ilhan knew where he lived. If he stayed home, Ilhan could come to the house and hurt her and his little brother and sister, and Marc didn't want to put them in danger.
Marc grabbed his black Cirque du Soleil baseball cap, put it on backward and walked out the door. He got into his car, blew Gloria a kiss, honked twice at the corner and waved good-bye.
Marc called Donna that morning. He told her he was scared. She came to Urbana, sat at the solid cherry bar and ate brunch. Between tables Marc told Donna he hadn't been telling her everything and that he needed to talk. Donna says he showed her the bullet-riddled target. When his shift ended, Marc walked with Donna to her red Mazda MX6, parked in the first spot. They were going to get some drinks at the Blue Iguana and hang out until Marc's dinner shift started. It was a bright, sunny day. They felt safe.
Donna put the keys in the ignition, then spotted Ilhan walking toward them across the parking lot with a .25-caliber handgun. Ilhan was clean-shaven, and his nails were bitten to the quick. Before Donna could think to scream or turn the key, Ilhan fired a shot through the passenger window, hitting Marc in the chest. The glass shattered, and blood covered Donna's legs, soaking through her sundress. Sure that she had been hit, Donna ran inside Urbana and climbed into the cabinet under the coffeemaker to hide. Puente herded customers inside. Someone called 911.
Marc got out of the car and tried to wrestle the gun from Ilhan. Ilhan was six foot and 158 pounds of muscle. Marc was shorter and never went to the gym. Since this wasn't the movies, Marc wasn't strong enough to gain control of the gun and let good champion over evil. Since this was real life, Marc turned and ran. Ilhan followed, still shooting.
Then Urbana manager Craig Anderson (who didn't return calls from the Press) jumped over the patio railing and yelled at Ilhan to stop. Ilhan shot Marc twice more in the right thigh. Under the palm tree in front of the Chinese consulate, Marc fell. He never said a word; neither did Ilhan.
Ilhan looked at the manager, then emptied his gun into Marc. Ilhan fired eight bullets in all, hitting Marc three times in the face, twice in the thigh and once each in the neck, chest and groin. He reloaded, pressed the gun to his own skull and pulled the trigger.
Marc was dead on the spot. Ilhan died a couple of hours later at Ben Taub General Hospital.
Gloria played Janet Jackson's "Together Again" at Marc's funeral and quoted the W.H. Auden poem featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral. "He was my North, my South, my East and West.I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong." Gloria still has two children; she sees Marc in their eyes and smiles. But the bullets that killed him shattered her. She relives the shooting like a moment out of a Time-Life Books commercial. She remembers sitting in her bedroom, reading, when she felt a pain in her chest. The pain was so intense she lay face down on the bed, the same way Marc sprawled on the ground. Then the phone rang and she knew it was her Marc. She knew he was gone.
Gloria was so depressed after his death, she couldn't do her housework and cook for her family. And Gloria is an immaculate woman who counts ironing as her most relaxing hobby. No matter how many sleeping pills she takes, she wakes up at 1:30 a.m. (the time Marc called her from the police station) and can't sleep until 5 a.m. (when he got home). She's still waiting up for him. Some nights she tries his bedroom door, hoping he'll be in there, sleeping. Safe.
Pictures of Marc are on the piano and in the bookcases. She still has his contact solution and shaving cream in the bathroom cabinet. The clothes Marc was wearing when he died are in a box. Blood shows through the tape. There are three candles burning on her stove, two for Marc and one for his departed father. Marc named the miniature rabbit, Cadbury, whose cage is in the corner of the kitchen, and Marc's voice is still on the answering machine. Gloria listens to it every day. "It makes me think he's somewhere else," Gloria says.
Gloria can't stand to see pictures of Ilhan with Marc. Talking about Ilhan makes her cry. Talking about Marc makes her cry. She still calls his friends and their relatives, wanting to talk about Marc and keep his memory alive. Some stopped answering the phone or returning her calls. Relatives have asked her not to talk about Marc because it's too upsetting. They can't take her tears or the fact that she can't get past her anger and loss.
Maybe the lawsuits will give Gloria some closure and help her sleep. She just wants someone to admit that there was something more they could have done to help her boy. After the killing, Mayor Lee Brown went on the news saying the police department had handled the matter the best it could. Councilwoman Annise Parker says that unquestionably there's homophobia in the police department but she hasn't seen evidence that it affected Marc. She says there was nothing more the police could have done to help him. "If someone wants to get you bad enough, there's not anything anyone can do," Parker says. Even with the Secret Service, people still shoot the president, she says. Kline, of the Family Violence Unit, agrees. Protective orders, pieces of paper, don't work unless the person abides by them, and if the aggressor is bent on killing himself too, he won't care what the punishment for the murder is because it won't apply to him. The only thing officers can do is tell the victim to "stay safe," avoid work and places the batterer expects the victim to be; women's shelters take men too.
Gloria has filed a federal suit against the city for violation of Marc's constitutional rights, due process and equal protection. Attorneys Robert Rosenberg and Stephenie Shapiro argue that the police created a dangerous situation by not enforcing domestic violence laws and ignoring the stalking and terroristic threats. The lawsuit also deals with the fact that HPD didn't have anyone on staff to help Marc that weekend, when it's known that most domestic violence happens on the weekend. A state court lawsuit has also been filed against Urbana and the owner of the property, BTI/Hawthorne Square, LTD., for failure to provide appropriate security. The attorneys argue that the owner of Urbana failed to protect his employee. He knew Ilhan was a threat, but he didn't ban Ilhan from the restaurant. Maybe that wouldn't have prevented Marc's murder, but it would have given Marc one more safe place to be. Donna banned Ilhan from her restaurant, and he went away. Maybe Ilhan would have steered clear of Urbana. Owner Puente says Marc's death is not in any way his fault. Marc was not shot inside the restaurant, he died on the sidewalk out front -- and Puente doesn't even own the land the restaurant is on. As for it not being Urbana's property, the lawyers argue that the restaurant knew they were in a high-crime neighborhood and could have asked the property owner to hire a security guard to patrol the parking lot and protect patrons. Urbana stayed open for dinner that night; it did a pretty good business, Puente says. Customers left stacks of cards saying what a great guy Marc was. Puente never sent a sympathy card, or flowers, or went to Marc's memorial service or funeral.
The police chief, C.O. Bradford, said Marc's death was an unfortunate tragedy. "I don't want it to be just 'an unfortunate tragedy,' " Gloria says. "It shouldn't have been a tragedy." Bradford told newscasters that he couldn't find any reports Marc had filed, except for the one 11 hours before his death. One report is not enough to gauge how serious a stalker is. A few months later HPD discovered two more reports that Marc had filed.
Since Marc's death, HPD's Family Violence Unit has been decentralized, and it's now open downtown from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekends. Officers have gone through "sensitivity training" too, but they said they would have gone through that regardless. There were four deaths as a result of domestic violence in April, Kline says. There are 25 officers and a three-foot-tall stack of 2,500 reports. She tries to document and pursue everything, but domestic violence is hard to prove and even harder to prevent.
That's not enough for Gloria. Marc's unpublished novel says he didn't want to end up just another cross on the side of the road. Right now, Gloria says, that's all he is. She wants more -- because her son is gone and she can't ever have him back.
E-mail Wendy Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org .