Carol Szynal last heard from her ex-husband Gary Brown on Monday, in a text message about how much he was looking forward to a vacation in San Francisco.
A day later, Brown and a woman who shared a West Rogers Park apartment were found stabbed to death after firefighters were called to a small fire, authorities said.
Brown, 64, and Chun Xiao Lee, 48, were lying side-by-side on a bed, wrapped in blankets, in the bedroom of a third-floor apartment in the 6400 block of North Sacramento Avenue, police said. Officers found a melted gasoline container and other canisters with flammable liquids, a law enforcement source.
Police were saying little about the deaths and there were no reports of arrests. Both Brown and Lee died from multiple stab wounds and cuts in homicides, the Cook County medical examiner's office determined following autopsies today.
"It's a tragedy, he won't see his children marry, he won't see his grandchildren and he won't see retirement. He was a year shy," said Szynal.
Brown was an attorney who worked as a prosecutor and city attorney in Kankakee. He once pitched in the minor leagues for the Montreal Expos.
Szynal said her former husband was a good friend she met 40 years ago while they were students at Indiana University. She said the two were married for 27 years and had twin daughters, Christina and Jessica, and a son Timothy.
"He's always been a wonderful man, he was talented," she said.
Brown graduated from Indiana University in 1971 with a business degree. While attending college, he pitched in the Montreal Expos farm system from 1969 to 1971, according to Szynal and his LinkedIn page.
He went on to John Marshall Law School, where he graduated in 1976. Brown worked as an assistant state's attorney in Kankakee County for about a year and as a city attorney in Kankakee under Mayor Russell Johnson for about eight years, according to Szynal and his LinkedIn page.
Then he went into a private practice for 21 years before leaving the field of law, she said. He went to work at a non-profit organization, the Howard Area Employment Resource Center, where he taught computers, she said.
About a year ago, Brown moved into the apartment in the 6400 block of North Sacramento Avenue where Lee lived. Brown needed a place to live and Lee's roommate had moved out, Szynal said. The two had met at the center, she said.
Charles Hardwick, manager of the center, said the office was closed today after they found out about Brown's death.
"He was just a decent guy, he loved his family," said Hardwick. "I can't believe this, I can't believe what has happened."
Hardwick said he hired Brown about six years ago and was surprised that he took the job because of the relatively low pay for the amount of education and life experience Brown had acquired.
"The guy had an amazing life," said Hardwick. "He worked here more hours than I could afford to pay him for."
He said Brown was supposed to be at work on Tuesday morning and they became worried when he failed to show up.
Hardwick said Brown met his roommate, who was from China, while she was at the center conducting research for a project on business models and they did computer work together. They eventually moved in together and were joined by another roommate.
Brown's life revolved around his work, family and an obsession with photography, Hardwick said. "The man took a million pictures and I am not exaggerating," he said.
He said he had a particularly soft spot for one of his daughters who has a disability. "Whatever she achieved and however she achieved it he was really proud of her," said Hardwick.
Hardwick said Brown often sent his paychecks to his ex-wife and his children.
He said Brown created the syllabus, manned the computer lab and taught classes six days a week. Each class had at least 54 students. When officials told the students the reason they were closing, the students were in shock.
"You would have thought we told this whole room of people that one of their relatives had died," said Hardwick. "Gary was just a staple. . .If you said it was somebody's birthday Gary would be the first one to go into his pocket and lay a $20 on the table and buy a cake or do something."
Hardwick believes that Brown must have been killed early in the morning otherwise he would have been at his job. The bodies of Brown and Lee were discovered around 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Ahmed Jaafar said he was in his second-floor apartment, about to sit down for a meal with some relatives, when he heard a thump from the apartment above around that time. He said it sounded as if someone fell from their bed.
"What the hell is going on?" Jaafar, 22, recalled thinking.
He and his relatives -- mother, sister, sister-in-law and nephew -- then heard the blaring of the building alarm and Jaafar ran upstairs to see what was going on. He saw black smoke billowing from the top of the door to Apt. 3E, along with the strong smell of natural gas.
Jaafar said he went back downstairs, called 911 and got his family out of the building. He had to help his mother out slowly because she uses a walker after breaking her leg in an auto accident a few months ago.
He knocked on some neighbors' doors to alert them of the fire, he said. Firefighters soon arrived.
"Our apartment is all wet because of the water. . .a big mess," said Jaafar, who said there was a fire in the other building in the complex earlier this year.
He said he knew a woman who lived in Apartment 3E, but not very well.
"This neighborhood is amazing. But there are a couple of. . .gangbangers," said Jaafar, who moved to the apartment from Syria 2 1/2 years ago.
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