If anyone in Altamont can claim a storied life, it’s Ina Maroon.
In her 80’s, Maroon looks back at her days raising five children, facing struggle after struggle and coming out a survivor each time. And on the morning of Tuesday, April 23, Maroon took time out of her preparations for a move and sat down with the Altamont News and St. Elmo Banner to speak about her experiences.
Maroon begins her own story with the story of Jackie Harris, her daughter, who sits beside her in her living room near downtown Altamont. Harris’ life was average until a bout with hepatitis at age four, a life-threatening experience that changed an otherwise average childhood.
(Deb Schultz, a longtime friend of Maroon’s, comments later on the story that Maroon left out—when Harris came down with hepatitis, Maroon was living in the country and had no car, phone hookup, or ambulance service. She carried Harris through snow to a neighbor’s house, where a state police officer met them to bring Harris to a doctor. Harris may not have survived without Maroon’s trek through the snow that day.)
The illness left Harris with brain damage that persists to this day; she cannot live alone, and cannot be unsupervised in Maroon’s home for any period of time. However, both Harris and Maroon are proud to note Harris’ success with art, including a series of landscape and still life acrylic paintings produced while Harris worked at Community Support Systems of Teutopolis’ Developmental Training art program. Though she hasn’t painted in some time, having ceased to attend CCS months ago, Harris’ artwork appears on a number of greeting cards that have been sold at a few different retail locations in downtown Altamont, and are now displayed for purchase at the Dairy Bar.
Maroon continues her story with possibly her most famous daughter, depending on the conversation: Cathy Jo Harris. Cathy Jo was one of four children from Maroon’s first marriage, and the 12-year-old joined her mother, two sisters, and brother in Maroon’s move from Decatur to Newton after the sudden death of Maroon’s first husband.
In April 1976, some time after both her father’s death and the family’s move, Cathy Jo was sent out to a local grocery store to pick up ingredients for dinner. Before she could return home, Michael Lett, an escaped inmate of the Norman Beatty Mental Hospital in Westville, Ind. (now the Westville Correctional Center), abducted her from the grocery store parking lot. With the aid of a car stolen from the Norman Beatty parking lot days earlier, Lett drove Cathy Jo out of town where he later assaulted and murdered her, leaving her body on an abandoned road before fleeing to Naples, Fla.
Before abducting Cathy Jo, Lett made the mistake that was eventually his undoing: propositioning a teen, Tonoah French, in Olney, who managed to avoid Lett and return home. The French family, after finding out that Cathy Jo had gone missing in Newton, submitted their story to the Olney police; by chance, FBI agent Darrel Addis was present in the station and recognized Tonoah’s description of Lett. He contacted Norman Beatty to inquire about Lett, only then finding that Lett had been missing for three unreported days.
“I’ll never forget [his] name,” says Maroon of Addis.
From that point forward, Maroon was deeply involved in Lett’s trial. Lett, who had been jailed for car theft in Fort Myers, Fla., was transferred to Taylorville for a multi-day trial. “I don’t remember much of it; it was very nerve-wracking,” Maroon says.
Ultimately, Lett was convicted of six charges—aggravated indecent liberties with a child, a sentence of 100 years, theft over $300,000, a sentence of 10 years, armed robbery, a sentence of 25 years, concealing homicidal death, a sentence of 10 years, aggravated kidnapping with no ransom, a sentence of 199 years, and first-degree murder, a sentence of 199 years—and is likely to serve for his entire life, with parole possible in September of 2065 according to the Illinois Department of Corrections’ website. He comes up for review every few years, and Maroon is sure to send a letter to his parole board before each review.
“I definitely don’t want him paroled,” she says. “If he was out he’d just do it again.”
The next daughter Maroon speaks of is Cecilia “Cissey” Johnson, whose passing in February of this year sent waves through the family. Johnson was born with a hole in her heart and suffered respiratory issues as a newborn; her case was severe enough that doctors claimed she wouldn’t live to see her first birthday.
Johnson, despite ongoing health problems throughout her life and well over 200 hospitalizations, lived to eventually see 50. She was, like Harris, employed at Community Support Systems, and lived at home with her mother and sister.
Altamont residents may remember Johnson’ photo displayed on a donation jar in the Dairy Bar. For a number of years following a lupus diagnosis and an incorrect medication regimen, Johnson suffered hip deterioration that eventually left her bedridden for the last few years of her life.
Johnson was a bright and well-loved woman who enjoyed dancing, Elvis Presley, and television (often accurately predicting the outcome of plots on Bonanza reruns while watching with her family), and her passing changed the family significantly. Harris, still mourning her sister, now stays at home to be with her mother instead of attending CSS, and Maroon’s income has dwindled. During Johnson’s life, Maroon was paid for her services as a full-time caregiver, but she is now supporting herself and Harris exclusively from Social Security income (Maroon is not paid for Harris’ care, despite acting as her full-time caregiver).
In the wake of Johnson’ death, Maroon and Harris are preparing to move out of Altamont. The two originally intended to move to Vandalia to live in a modular home on Maroon’s son’s land, but found they could not afford the project. They now plan to find an apartment in Effingham to be nearer to medical services. These days, Maroon has racked up her own laundry list of health problems, chief among those being kidney disease, for which she undergoes a two-and-a-half hour dialysis session three times weekly. Maroon also struggles with diabetes, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), congestive heart failure, and osteoarthritis.
Even so, Maroon counts herself blessed with family and dear friends. When asked her secret to survival and success, she answers immediately and briefly: “Just the good lord above.”
Maroon’s loved ones are currently raising money to support Johnson’s funeral fund as well as Maroon’s medical and living expenses. A GoFundMe is collecting online donations: visit the “Helping Ina Maroon” fundraiser at GoFundMe.com/f/helping-ina-maroon to help meet the fundraiser’s $1,000 goal. Additionally, for those who do not wish to donate digitally, donations are accepted via mail to the care of Deb Schultz at 9 Do It Drive, Altamont. Finally, interested supporters may find copies of Harris’ art in the form of greeting cards for purchase at the Dairy Bar of Altamont at a rate of $5 per card. Visit Maroon’s Facebook profile (@ina.maroon) to view examples of these paintings.