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Family Gathered for Grandson’s Birthday, Then Tragedy

The 5-year-old boy decided to spend the night with his grandparents. Police say his uncle shot everyone to death that night.

Investigators look for bodies in the charred ruins of a home on 51st Avenue, after a man allegedly shot three family members and set the house on fire before taking his own life.
Investigators look for bodies in the charred ruins of a home on 51st Avenue, after a man allegedly shot three family members and set the house on fire before taking his own life.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said three Oak Lawn family members whose bodies were found in a charred ranch home early Wednesday morning died of gunshot wounds.

John Conta Sr. suffered multiple gunshot wounds when Oak Lawn firefighters pulled his body from the hallway of his burning ranch home in the 9800 block of South 51st Avenue. The medical examiner’s office did not provide his exact age, but said he was in his 60s.

Conta Sr.’s wife, Janice, 68, and the couple’s grandson, Matthew Meier, 5, were both shot in the head. Their bodies were not discovered until late afternoon Wednesday after investigators spent hours combing through the destroyed home's fire debris and found them in the basement.

Family members gathered in the home Tuesday evening to celebrate Matthew’s fifth birthday. His mother left later in the evening and Matthew stayed behind to spend the night at his grandparents’, Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Michael Kaufmann said.

John Conta Jr. is believed to have gunned down his family sometime after the boy's mother left and then set the house ablaze with gasoline.

Before Wednesday morning, police never had cause to visit the Conta home on 51st Avenue, described by neighbors as meticulously maintained by the elder Conta.

Conta Jr. taught overseas and spent time in Russia as a potato farmer, and was reportedly living at his parents' house.

“The family said he had changed a bit when he returned from overseas,” Kaufmann said, “but not enough to bring us to a conclusion as to his mindset.”

He took his own life in the home’s garage in front of an off-duty, Oak Lawn deputy fire chief who arrived on the scene to offer his assistance.

Police said when the deputy fire chief went to open a car door parked in the garage, the younger Conta shot himself in the face with a shotgun. The medical examiner ruled Conta Jr.’s death a suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The house fire burned fiercely for several hours before firefighters were able to knock down the blaze. Both the home’s roof and first floor collapsed into the basement by the time the fire was extinguished.

“The state fire marshal said the fire was started in the basement,” Kaufmann said. “A gas can was recovered in the area of the house where the floor did not collapse.”

Kaufmann said a gun locker with various weapons inside was recovered by a demolition crew Thursday morning.

“We believe the father was a hunter and had weapons in a safe,” he said. “[Conta Jr.] may have taken a shotgun and used it on the people inside the house.”


READ PATCH'S COVERAGE OF THE 51ST AVENUE TRAGEDY:


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