The last time Debra Karels spoke to her three small children on Sunday night, they seemed “happy” and excited for her to pick them up from their dad’s house for a doctor’s appointment.
“They were excited to hear from me. They were excited to chat,” Karels told The Daily Beast. “They were not doing anything special, they just seemed excited that I was going to pick them up the next morning.”
But just hours later, Karels was calling the police, asking them to perform a welfare check at the house of her estranged husband, Jason Karels. When Round Lake Beach police entered the Camden Lane home, they found the three children—5-year-old Bryant, 3-year-old Cassie, and 2-year-old Gideon—dead. Their father was missing.
The grisly discovery sparked a massive search for Jason Karels, who was ultimately tracked down in his red Nissan Maxima on a local highway. He was arrested after a 17-minute, high-speed chase that ended in a crash. The 35-year-old father then admitted to drowning his three kids, adding that he’d tried to die by suicide himself several times after the slayings, police said.
Karels was transferred to a local hospital and remains in custody. The Lake County Coroner’s Office said Tuesday that preliminary autopsies of the three children indicate they all died from drowning, though it remains unclear where exactly they died. Police said there was blood at the house but not on the children.
“I am just in disbelief. You never think something like this is going to happen to you. I never thought he would do this to his kids,” Karels said. “But now I know, if you have any inkling of doubt, don’t ignore it and stick to your guns.”
Authorities have indicated that the shocking murders—which have shaken the tight-knit Illinois community—were “motivated from a domestic situation.” Debra Karels’ sister-in-law told The Daily Beast that Jason “had severe mental issues and refused to get help.”
“Unfortunately, there was domestic abuse in their relationship and Debbie was finally getting the strength to leave him and proceed with a divorce,” Christina Neuman Berg, who is married to Debbie’s brother, said on Tuesday. “But Debbie wanted to maintain a relationship with her kids’ father and let him visit them, and now we know that was a horrible mistake.”
Karels also noted that she had just started the divorce process and had left Jason a month prior, even taking out a loan to retain a lawyer. She said her estranged husband had pushed for visitation with the kids, something that she allowed despite a little voice in the head because he said he would “never hurt the kids.”
“He said ‘all my beef is with you,’” Karels said, noting that he even spoke about potentially joining the family on the doctor’s visit on Monday. “He wanted the kids to be peaceful.”
Breaking down in tears, Karels described her three children as “wonderful,” each having a unique personality. Bryant, she said, was a “very, very smart” kid who loved video games and was eager to start kindergarten this year.
“He used to say, ‘Don’t worry mommy, I’ll always take care of you,’” she added.
Her only daughter, Cassidy, was a “little middle child” who Karels believed would protect her brothers. The youngest, Gideon, “was a sweet little momma’s boy” who was obsessed with dinosaurs and Mickey Mouse.
Lake County Board Member Dick Barr told The Daily Beast that the tragic deaths have stunned community members, who are now trying to do everything they can to help the Karels rebuild their lives.
“This community has always come together in tragedy,” Barr, who also started a GoFundMe, added.
But for Karels and Berg, knowing that Jason Karels is already in custody and charged with three counts of murder is giving them hope that “justice still be served.”
“We want justice,” Berg said. “He needs to deal with the outcome of his actions. He needs to pay for what he did.”