The phone call early Jan. 9, 1993, rattled her sleep. Jennifer Shilling didn't fully understand the caller's first four words, but she's never forgotten them. "Your parents are gone," a family friend said. Shilling, then 23, drove before dawn to Chicago from La Crosse, where she'd just returned from Madison after her first week as an aide to a state representative.
She didn't hear the news reports that would have prepared her for the tragedy at her parents' restaurant in Palatine, Ill.
Her parents, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, and five employees were murdered at the family's restaurant during a robbery.
Later, at a family friend's home, those four words finally registered.
Your parents are gone.
Nearly two decades later, Shilling, now a Democrat in the state Assembly, is speaking publicly about the nightmare. She will share her story of survival Thursday during a fundraiser for the YWCA's Mediation and Restorative Services, a program that helps a victim heal and hold the offender accountable.
Tears still form in her eyes when she tells the story.
Both of Shilling's younger sisters should have been at Brown's Chicken & Pasta that night. One spent the night at dinner and a movie with a boyfriend; the other at the last minute decided not to stop in.
Her sister Dana noticed when she came home late Jan. 8 there were no tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow on the family's driveway. Her sister Joy called the restaurant, searching for her parents.
A cop answered the phone.
"She knew something was wrong," Shilling said.
Shilling's grandmother and two sisters arrived at the restaurant as police were sectioning off the building with yellow tape. An officer stopped the family just before they witnessed the massacre inside.
Shock and devastation paralyzed Shilling. Her family clung together and to their faith.
Nine years passed before police called in 2002 announcing two arrests in the case.
"My sister said, ‘Jen, they know who did this. They have a DNA match,'" Shilling said. "That was a great sense of release. We were holding our breath for 10 years."
Shilling endured two gut-wrenching, eight-week trials for the two men charged in the deaths, averting her eyes from the graphic videos and pictures shown in the courtroom.
"They brought up a flood of memories we had moved past. They opened up closed wounds," she said. "You don't forget the things you see and hear in court."
Juries convicted Juan Luna in May 2007 and co-defendant James Degorski in September 2009. Neither accepts responsibility.
"We've had justice and now we move on," Shilling said.
Still, she can't fathom forgiving the men until they admit to the murders. Closure doesn't exist, Shilling said.
"It's just a new normal," she said.
Shilling doesn't want to be called a victim.
She's a survivor.
Grief counseling, family support and memories helped her cope.
"The human spirit is amazingly resilient," she said.
Humor doesn't hurt either. Shilling and her sisters wrote a rap song based on the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and performed it for prosecutors after the verdict to show their appreciation.
She also credits an inner strength she didn't know she had until she needed it.
"If my sisters and I can survive this," she said, "we can survive anything that's thrown at us."