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Mike Chew and Alex Monter talk about the same things as do many other newlyweds - buying a bigger house, raising a family.
Mike, a brawny guy with blue eyes and a ponytail, is the dreamer who wants "to have 10 kids, win the lottery and buy an island."
Alex, blond with brown eyes, is the cautious spouse who brings the conversation back to earth. Maybe two kids, she says.
Mike, 37, is a union electrician, glad to be working again after a prolonged period of unemployment. Alex, 36, works as an underwriter at The Hartford.
Their hopes and dreams are intact, despite what Alex calls "the two elephants in the room." By cruel coincidence, each lost siblings to homicide.
Alex's older half-sister, 46-year-old Paige Bennett, was shot and killed by her husband of three weeks on June 2, 2009, in Norwich. Alex and Mike had to break the news to Paige's three children.
Incredibly, the fates weren't finished with Mike and Alex.
"I thought the worst had already happened, then it happened again," Alex said.
Mike's younger brother, 25-year-old Matthew Chew, was fatally stabbed on Oct. 29, 2010, after being jumped by six teenagers as he walked home from his job at a New London restaurant.
Mike broke the news to his sister and then called his parents, who live in California.
This time of year is difficult, but they try to enjoy the holidays.
"They wouldn't want us to be miserable," Alex said. "We're still here. If it happened to me, I wouldn't want my loved ones to be miserable for the rest of their lives."
"It's easier said than done," Mike added.
By the time they exchanged marriage vows on East Matunuck State Beach in Rhode Island in the fall, in an "elegant and casual" ceremony that Alex had planned, they had more than a decade of mutual history that included Mike's deployment to Iraq in 2003. They met in 1998 when they worked together at Newport Creamery in Mystic. Their romance became official on Sept. 11, 2001, of all days.
Nothing prepared them for the sudden and senseless deaths of their siblings and the feelings they would experience in the aftermath.
Alex, having been through one homicide, served as "the rock" for the family after Matt Chew's murder. Staying busy helped. But she became increasingly anxious in the weeks and months that followed, to the point where she would panic if Mike were late coming home. They installed an application on their phones that lets her "stalk" Mike by tracking his movements.
Mike avoids talking about his brother's murder.
"The more I'm around it, the more it upsets me," he said.
A gregarious man who refuses a handshake in favor of a hug, he struggles to be the "carefree dude" that people think he is, he said, and his rage and grief are never far from the surface.
"My biggest struggle is how to contain and accept and deal with those emotions," he said. "Everything's broken, not like it's supposed to be."
The "elephants in the room" make for awkward encounters with acquaintances who don't know what to say. Alex says others stay away altogether as a result of what she calls "murder cooties."
Mike grew up in a Navy family that eventually settled in Ledyard. He loved nothing more than playing a game on PlayStation with his little brother Matt. Growing up in Preston, Alex planned on becoming a psychologist.
They moved in together in January 2002. They were sitting down to Valentine's Day dinner on Feb. 14, 2003, when Mike got the call that he would be deployed to Iraq with the Connecticut National Guard's Norwich-based 248th Engineer Co. Mike's brother, Matt, moved in with Alex while Mike was away.
"I'm glad we were able to have that time together," she said.
Mike returned from Iraq in May 2004 in time to see Alex get her master's degree in psychology from Southern Connecticut State University. Over the next few years, Mike's parents and sister, Mindy Fowler, moved to California. Mike bought a small house in Mansfield and watched out for his little brother, who had moved to New London, where he flourished as an artist, DJ and pizza cook.
"I remember being so nervous," Alex said of Matt living in the city. She said she was closer to Mike's little brother than she was to Paige, who had moved out when Alex was just 5 or 6. Still, they were always together during holidays and other family gatherings.
"She lived in a different world than I," Alex said. "I was very conservative. She was free-spirited."
The last time Alex saw Paige was in the spring in 2009, when Paige showed up late and with a bruise on her face to her daughter's baby shower. Paige said she had been hit by a futon. Alex didn't believe her.
The phone call
On a Tuesday morning in June that year, Alex got the phone call. Her mother, Sheila Monter, so distraught by the news of Paige's death that the police did not want to leave her alone, had given them Alex's phone number.
"They said, 'Your sister Paige was killed last night,'" Alex remembered. "My first thought was, 'Was it a motorcycle accident?' They said no. My next question was, 'Did her husband do it?'"
Mike, who was on his way to work, turned around and came home. They spent the day notifying family members.
Sixteen months later, on Oct. 29, 2010, Mike stopped by 2Wives Brick Oven Pizza to chit chat with his brother. While he was there, Mike called Alex and put Matt on the phone. Alex asked Matt to make them one of his signature pizzas, topped with Gorgonzola cheese and pears.
Later, at about midnight, Matt's girlfriend, Lindsay Krodel, called and told Mike that Matt had been jumped and was being airlifted to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Mike and Alex left for the hospital, with Mike "driving like a mad man." They called Mike's parents, Rick and Marilyn Chew, in California.
The Lifestar helicopter landed just as they arrived at Yale. Alex drove back to Canterbury to pick up Mike and Matt's sister, Mindy, who recently had moved back to Connecticut. Upon their return to the hospital, Mike told them that Matt "didn't make it."
They still wonder whether Matt's chances of survival would have been better if there were a trauma center closer to New London.
Life goes on
Mike proposed to Alex in July 2011. Marriage seemed like a foregone conclusion for the longtime couple, but he had been waiting until they had the right house and their lives were more stable.
"I threw my hands up and decided, I do love her, and it's never going to be perfect," he said.
He bought the engagement ring while vacationing in Hawaii with his parents and presented it to her along with a Kate Spade wallet and an assortment of trinkets during a reunion dinner at the Mill on the River in South Windsor. Thrilled with the trinkets, Alex almost missed the ring itself, which was nestled among a collection of sea glass and coral that Mike had brought home from the Pacific Rim.
"Go big or go home," he said, smiling at the memory.
Alex said she had been pushing for the wedding.
"I wanted both of our families to have something to look forward to," she said.
The event was as perfect as a wedding can be. It was a rainy day, but it cleared up in time for the ceremony. They wore white and looked as elegant as Alex had hoped. Mike personalized his look with tie-dyed socks and Grateful Dead cufflinks.
"He's very laid back," Alex said. "It's almost like we're opposites, but we balance each other so well."
"We're not opposites, we're complements," Mike said, "like the Yin and the Yang."
These days, the newlyweds follow the court cases of their siblings' accused killers from afar. Paige Bennett's husband, Chihan Eric Chyung, is awaiting trial for murder. Chyung does not deny that he shot Bennett but maintains it was an accident.
The lead aggressor in Matt Chew's death, 19-year-old Idris Elahi, is serving a 35-year prison sentence for murder. On Thursday, the last of the five other attackers to resolve his case accepted a plea offer from the prosecutor. The judge in the case has said she will schedule the sentencing hearings for all five on sequential days in February or March so that the Chew family may attend the proceedings.