By Ed Langlois

Of the Sentinel

OREGON CITY - Thirteen years ago, 21-year-old Rob Elledge had hit his stride. He was attending Portland State University and Clackamas Community College. He had dreams and resources.

Now Rob Elledge is a memory to his family. He is a photo on the wall to those who visit the Elledge home, high above the Clackamas River. A brutal sociopath saw to that.

A man who cast himself as a friend of the family engineered Rob's murder in that same house one night in 1986. He and two other men ambushed the student at his home, crushing his skull with a baseball bat, strangling him and injecting him with a massive dose of horse tranquilizer. They buried Rob's body 10 miles away and began plotting ways to get their hands on his cars and other belongings so that they could pay off a drug debt.

While Rob's family wondered what had happened to their usually communicative son, the mastermind of the killing came back to the Elledge home, feigning sympathy. He continued the unthinkable charade for six weeks as the family hoped and prayed.

Eventually, one of the accomplices confessed. Police unearthed Rob's body. It took eight months to build the case against the organizer. But after three grueling trials, the three murderers went to prison.

That is the story, though more than a decade old, that replays in Mary Elledge's mind day after day. She and her husband Bob and their three other children live with the nightmare that became real. They are tortured by wondering about Rob's suffering.

A mother's anguish - softened but abiding - has led Mary Elledge to reach out, to speak out and to pray.

'I never realized the agony of the crucifixion until my son was brutally murdered,' says Elledge, a member of St. John the Apostle Parish and president of the Oregon Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. 'For the first three years, my husband and I could not go to Mass without crying and having to leave early. Your loved one

doesn't get killed just one time, he gets killed thousands of times over in your mind. We actually have the same symptoms as someone who has gone through a war.'

Parents who lost children to murder have a skyrocketing divorce rate. They even have an increased incidence of cancer and other diseases.

With great energy, Elledge has launched into her work of mercy for those with tragedies like hers.

Each month, she publishes a newsletter and holds a meeting, lending an ear and giving practical advice to start the healing.

'At one of our first meetings, I asked members to share a funny story about their loved ones,' she says. 'It was probably one of our best meetings. Laughter can set our spirits free.'

With three or four dozen murders per year in the region, there are plenty of 'survivors,' as Elledge calls the families of murder victims. The Oregon chapter of Parents of Murdered Children has 2,000 on its roster. Nationwide, the movement counts more than 100,000 members.

Elledge is well known enough that she was called to Oklahoma City in 1995 to comfort families of children killed in the bombing of the federal building there.

She steadily urges parents to tell the story of the murder, searing as that may be to the soul. It starts the healing after a level of trauma that scientists say actually alters brain chemistry.

'Most survivors feel as if they are losing their minds,' she says, her voice halting with emotion. 'It may take months before you can say the name of your loved one and tell of the murder scenario. It is so painful because it tears away the denial.'

She tells grieving parents that they will never be the same for their other children, but must take steps to see that the siblings of the victim have their needs met.

The upcoming holidays can be hard, she explains. Then the gap in the family looms large.

'Survivors' grief gets softer,' Elledge says. 'It doesn't just go away.'

Amazingly, Elledge worked in hospice care until 'retiring' just recently. The lives of the dying fascinated and inspired her. She says that people near death, those who have accepted their situation, give love more generously than any other group.

'Hospice care is the closest anyone will ever get to an angel,' she says. 'They are not bothered by everyday trivia.'

In addition to pushing her to service, Elledge has found that her son's murder set forth a poetic muse.

'Poetry was never my thing,' she says. 'But when you are absolutely dying inside, who knows what happens?'

One of her poems pleads for someone simply to listen to her:

Please listen to my story;

it plays over and over in my mind.

If I can share this heartache,

I might leave some pain behind.

Jan Bassett, victim advocate for the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, says that families going through lengthy trials must re-live the murder often and in a public setting.

'With a homicide, the grief is so much longer and so much deeper that it does not go away for a long time,' Bassett says. 'You have to talk about recovery in the broadest possible terms. It may mean people just go back to work or develop a sense of humor.'

Bassett has observed that survivors with a faith community are at an advantage when it comes to healing.

'When there is a homicide, you learn to experience your helplessness,' she says. 'It is a perfect prelude to turn yourself over to God. You have reached the bottom. Some people drink, some turn to drugs. Some people turn to God.'

Part of Elledge's mission is to let everyone know what survivors need. Many friends try too hard to say something right and often bungle. She tells the story of one man who attempted to comfort a survivor by saying that he, too, was facing hard times because his car was beginning to wear out.

After Rob's death, the priest then at the Elledge's parish did not know what to say, so he stayed away. Months later, he called and confessed his dilemma.

'I really respected that,' says Elledge, admitting that the simple presence of the priest would have been a great comfort in the early weeks.

'I never ever blamed God for this,' she says. 'I believe God gave us all free will. I believe He was as angry as we were.'

Elledge and the organization do not usually take political stands. For instance, she will speak neither for nor against the death penalty. But she has testified in Salem in favor of victims' rights bills. The organization's Web site decries the early release of murder inmates and even publishes names and descriptions of prisoners who do get out.

'As Catholics we have an obligation to see that there is justice for people,' Elledge says. 'We just don't want people to go through what we did.'

Not long after Rob's death, the Elledges paid for a courtyard garden and waterfall at St. John the Apostle. Father Don Buxman, pastor, points to the prayerful place as an example of the way this family works; they offer much, but do it quietly.