Phil Luciano: Baby sitter Cleary like a 'second mom'

Phil Luciano

To little Rylan Morman, MeLisa Cleary wasn't just a baby sitter.

"She was Rylan's second mom," says a tearful Brooke Morman, mother of the 16-month-old lass. "We called MeLisa her second mom."

Brooke Morman spent Tuesday alternating between grief and fear. She recalled the slain Cleary in glowing terms, as much a lighthearted friend as her child's caretaker.

But through her wistful recollections dashed bolts of terror. Morman struggled with the unsettling notion that her daughter had just days earlier been in the care of a woman who suddenly vanished, possibly the victim of murder.

"It was just a sickening feeling," Morman says. "My baby was there."

Morman, 25, and her husband -- both natives of central Illinois -- recently moved from Florida to Mackinaw to relocate for his job. Soon after arriving in Mackinaw, Brooke Morman began to ask around to find a baby sitter for her sole child.

From other moms, she heard words of praise about Cleary, 30, who was raising three children -- ages 3, 5 and 12 -- with husband Dan Cleary. During the week, MeLisa Cleary would baby-sit upwards of three children, including Morman's daughter.

"She had the biggest heart," Morman says. "Kids were her world."

Morman said she checked references of Cleary's and found nothing but gushing recommendations. So, three times a week, Mormon would leave her daughter with Cleary before heading to work.

"We instantly connected," Morman says. " ... That was the first time I'd left my child (with a sitter). I knew she'd be in great hands. (Cleary) would call over the littlest things, be it whether to take her outside or whether to give her something to eat."

And Rylan looked forward to spending time with Clearly.

"She loved her," Morman says. "She never cried."

Morman also liked spending time with Cleary. On many off-days from work, Morman would come by with Rylan, and the two moms would have play dates with their children.

Often, Cleary would show Morman her latest project from scrapbooking and photography, her two hobbies. For Mother's Day, she gave Morman a scrapbook of photos of Rylan playing at the Cleary home.

"She was wonderful," Morman says with a sigh. "She was a great friend."

On Monday, her battered body was found in rural Lincoln. Tuesday, police located her husband and three children at a motel in Peoria. The children were placed in protective custody, and investigators questioned Dan Cleary.

Morman says Dan Cleary was usually at work while her daughter was with MeLisa Cleary, and he never baby-sat Rylan. But on those rare times he'd be home before leaving for his job, he always was nice to the girl, Morman says.

Morman says she hardly knew Dan Cleary, and she declined to say whether MeLisa Cleary talked about her relationship with her husband. However, Morman never felt her daughter was endangered in the home or with MeLisa Cleary.

"If she were still alive, I would still take Rylan to her," Morman says.

Morman says that when she first heard of MeLisa's death, she was stunned to the core: "I would never have thought something like that would happen."

Moments later, she began to feel horror, thinking that her child had been so close -- physically and emotionally -- to someone who had died suddenly and mysteriously.

"Petrifying," Morman says, holding back a sob. "Absolutely petrifying."

At 16 months, Rylan won't recall her days with MeLisa Cleary. But photos and stories will keep alive the girl's second mom.

Morman starts to cry, then says with a gasp, "I'll make sure that she always knows her."

Phil Luciano can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com or (309)  686-3155.