Renée Rondeau’s body was discovered on the bathroom floor of her Chicago apartment Nov. 1, 1994. The former Evans High School homecoming queen had been strangled with a leather belt and her home had been ransacked.
There were no witnesses and no suspects. Friends told police that Rondeau had no enemies; everyone who knew her liked and admired her.
For the detectives working to solve her case, it was just another awful crime among more than 900 homicides in Chicago that year. The leads dried up, and other homicides soon consumed their time.
The story might have ended there, said Rondeau’s father, Gordon.
“The police had a finite set of resources,” he said. “We had to do a lot of work to get it back on the front burner.”
At the time, Gordon and his wife, Elaine, were determined to bring attention to their daughter’s slaying and bring her killers to justice. They didn’t know their quest would set them on an 18-year journey working to help families of other homicide victims.
The story of Renée Rondeau’s slaying and the efforts to solve the case will be retold Saturday on Motives & Murders: Cracking the Case, a true-crime series on the Investigation Discovery cable network.
Elaine Rondeau said they were approached in February about doing the show and accepted, hoping their daughter’s story would shed light on the problems of violence in the U.S. and of those who suffer in the aftermath.
“At first we had some reservations but finally consented based on our view that the story of crime in America must be told and the public has to know what we and so many thousands of others have endured as a consequence of the nation’s unwillingness to come to grips with this scourge,” she said. “The memories it has evoked, though excruciating, will be worth it if the final product comes close to our intended goals.”
The Rondeaus live in Marietta, Ga., but from 1979 to 1985 they made their home in Columbia County’s Calloway Woods subdivision. Their daughters, Lisa and Renée, went to Evans High.
Elaine Rondeau said Renée had set her sights on a life of accomplishment and service before it was brutally cut short when she was 29.
After graduating in 1987, Renee moved to France to study fashion design at the Paris American Academy. She also attended the Sorbonne, where she studied French. She next pursued a degree at the University of Southern California, taught English for two years in Niigata, Japan, and – upon her return to the U.S. – got a job with an Illinois-based organization that trained corporation employees and their families in intercultural communications as they prepared to live abroad, her parents said.
Renée was last seen by friends the night of Halloween 1994, going into a neighborhood gym in Chicago. Police say she was stalked and killed in her apartment by a pair of criminals looking for money to support their drug habit.
Gordon Rondeau said the case had gone cold in November 1994 and Chicago police had stopped taking their calls, when he reached out to his local Congressman, U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich. The Republican Party had just posted a massive victory, gaining 54 seats and taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954.
Gingrich, the House minority whip, was on his way to becoming the next Speaker of the House when Rondeau contacted him about his daughter’s case.
“I was trying to appeal to people on the highest places I knew,” Gordon Rondeau said. “Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but he took care of people and was attentive to constituent services like nobody else.”
Rondeau said Gingrich “jumped in with both feet,” personally calling Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about the case, which had an immediate effect.
“That was like a hurricane going through the heart of Chicago,” he said. “We went from two people investigating the case to about 12 overnight.”
Within weeks the detectives had more leads and a description of a suspect, which led to the arrest and eventual conviction of a man and woman – both with extensive criminal records, he said.
The Rondeaus’ efforts led to the formation of the Renée Olubunmi Rondeau Peace Foundation and the Renée Olubunmi Rondeau Memorial Education Fund at Augusta State University. They have been involved for the past 18 years lecturing nationally on the issues of victims’ rights and crime prevention, and have initiated hundreds of related anti-crime campaigns in the metro Atlanta area, they said.
Gordon Rondeau said they are particularly interested in solutions for the root causes of crime and in youth intervention programs.
They hope those who see Renée’s story on television will be moved to work in their communities to end violent crime and help those who are victimized.
“I want people to know what we’ve been through and what havoc crime wreaks on all of us,” he said.