Collision Course

In 2005, a young woman bent on self-destruction intentionally drove her car into the back of another. She lived. Three musicians on their lunch break died. This year, as her prison sentence comes to its end, the case remains a tragedy without closure or explanation.

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Ultimately, the State of Illinois v. Jeanette Sliwinski came down to the question of why she floored the accelerator of her car and what she said in the moments after the crash. If, as the prosecution contended, she was a narcissist in a suicidal rage who fully understood her actions, she could be convicted of murder and face the death penalty. But if she was insane and delusional because of powerful narcotics, as her defense team argued, her crime and punishment would be less severe. On the first day of the trial, Sliwinski’s attorneys asked that a judge decide her fate instead of a jury—a move intended to spare the young woman from what they imagined would be the emotional reaction of jurors.

Brent Fowler’s account became a foundation of the prosecution’s case before Cook County Circuit Court judge Garritt E. Howard. In the two-week trial, prosecutors claimed Sliwinski simply wanted to die and understood the consequences of her actions. They also submitted a conversation that Sliwinski had with a paramedic, Dan Collins: “It didn’t work. I want to die. No, you don’t understand—I want to be dead.” And, while in the ambulance, she told another paramedic, Stan Goulish, “You don’t know what I did. You don’t know what I caused. Let me die.” Sliwinski herself did not testify.

Hovering over the trial was the fact that, since the crash, the public portrait of Sliwinski had grown more complex as reporters uncovered the revealing modeling photos and strip club stint. National and international news outlets picked up the story in sensational and peculiar ways: “The trial of the former 23-year-old lingerie model has captivated America,” reported the Daily Mail of London. “She became known as the ’suicide blonde’ in reference to the INXS song of the same title.” Michele Gemskie, the lead prosecutor, said the crime resonated also because it was a reminder of the unthinkable ways we come so close to death. “I think a lot of people could relate to the victims in this case, just being so purely innocent, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “That could have been anybody sitting there.”

Dozens of the victims’ friends and relatives packed six full rows of courtroom 206 nearly every day. After each session, they peppered the prosecutors with questions about what came next, and how the case was going. Jim MacGregor, the Shure employee who had nearly joined the musicians for lunch, took notes during hearings and posted them on a private Web site so that others could follow the trial, too. Only a handful of details are missing from his record: MacGregor stopped after the Cook County Medical Examiner’s testimony on how each man died. “I heard it once,” he says. “I couldn’t go through my notes and experience it again.”

During the trial, prosecutors argued that, while Sliwinski was undoubtedly troubled, she made her personal problems worse by abusing drugs and alcohol while she took prescription pills. “Many of the problems that she was experiencing were not related to her mental illness, but, in fact, to her drug abuse,” Gemskie said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Sliwinski’s attorney Tom Breen argued that, in the three months prior to the crash, Sliwinski had been in a downward spiral of psychosis. Her manic state was exacerbated by the combination of drugs she was taking—antidepressants, psycho-stimulants, and mood stabilizers—as well as by her own attempts to self-medicate with herbal remedies, alcohol, and cocaine.

Breen’s partner, Pugh, emphasized that, at the height of her problems, Sliwinski was discharged from a mental hospital because she lacked insurance. In the ensuing weeks, Sliwinski should have been under 24-hour care, but instead she bounced among therapists at Turning Point. Two weeks before the crash, the psychiatrist she had most recently been seeing went to Poland on vacation. Breen and Pugh also attempted to poke holes in the testimony of Detective Fowler and the Skokie paramedics, as well as the statements Sliwinski allegedly gave them. “I’m going to be very blunt and say that those statements did not occur,” Breen said in an interview.

Should she be held fully responsible for her actions? Or had she gone temporarily insane, a victim of a flawed health system that failed her? “The basic difference between reckless homicide and first-degree murder is the mental state that accompanies the conduct resulting in the deaths of the victims,” explained Judge Howard on October 26, 2007, before he ruled. “I believe the defendant was being truthful when she said shortly after the crash that she only intended to hurt herself and not anyone else. During the weeks leading up to the crash, the defendant was in a downward spiral and, at the time of the crash, was in a very fragile mental state.”

The victims’ families and friends held hands as the judge announced his verdict: He found Sliwinski guilty of reckless homicide, on account of her mental illness. One month later, he sentenced her to eight years in prison. But once sentencing laws and Sliwinski’s time served were factored in, her term would be dramatically reduced. “You walked out of there feeling like you got kicked in the face,” says Scott Meis.

* * *

Five months after the trial, Rebecca Crawford is sitting at a corner bar with two of her husband’s old bandmates, Art Kubin and Jonathan Ben-Isvy. The music in the bar blares as she tells them about running into Jeanette Sliwinski’s brother at the record store. She recounts how she realized at that moment that she could run into Jeanette herself in Chicago someday. “I can’t walk around the street corner and see her,” she says. The men nod. “But I don’t want to let this woman dictate my life any more than she already has.”

Crawford mentions that she has been reading the paper more closely and how she pays special attention to any report of a tragedy. It reminds her that horrible things can sometimes just happen—without notice, reason, or explanation. “It makes me feel more normal,” she said.

The conversation stays on Sliwinski for a while; they talk about how old she’ll be—26—when she’s out of prison and what she might be able to do with her life. But then the thoughts trail off. No one wants to think about Jeanette Sliwinski, inmate no. R82264, who, around Thanksgiving this year, will be asked to gather her things and prepare for her release from Dwight Correctional Center. The announcement will probably come on the day before her sentence officially ends: Jail officials say they time it that way so nothing holds up the inmate’s last obligation—a meeting with a prison counselor. In this meeting, Sliwinski will receive a check from her “trust fund,” the bank account that holds the prison wages she has earned since her first day in jail. The counselor will then describe the conditions of Sliwinski’s parole, likely mentioning whom she’ll report to and how she will be expected to conduct herself. Before she’s set free, Sliwinski will likely learn that, in two years’ time, she can petition for the return of her driver’s license.  

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comments
6 years ago
Posted by anon82

Thank you for this piece. People should never forget the amazing souls that were Doug, John, and Mike. I'm glad you were able to capture a piece of how much they meant to us all.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Why does your fragile mental state entitle you to another chance to do this again? Clearly, if she just wasn't in control of herself due to psychiatric problems and prescription drugs, then there is no reason why she wouldn't just hop in another car and kill more people in the future. Either she can control herself or she can't.

I knew John in high school. Everything written here about his character is true - he was always laughing, always making other people laugh, creative, talented, vibrant, magnetic, dynamic, in love, absolutely head over heels in love with music...

But some judge bent over backwards to make excuses for her. He should remember that when she gets her license back, it could be his family sitting there at the red light.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I saw this on "Snapped" last night (not so pretty without the hair dye and all that make-up, is she? Empty eyes, no soul behind them whatsover.)

Why was she allowed to get away with three murders?

Why were those three men's lives held so cheaply?

And she's going to be allowed to drive again? That's outrageous.

That judge should be removed from the bench immediately.


Terry Callen
Gloucester City, NJ

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I cannot believe this woman is being set free. They say she is mentally ill, so she apparently needs mental help. She is sick, and the thought of death didn't stop her from this crime, so why should jail? I say revoke her license and get her the help she needs.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

What is wrong with the justice system in this country????? Very very sad. My prayers are with the families of the victims.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

A sad event yes, but all too often we say 'justice was not served' and blame the system when we confuse justice with vengeance. What would Rebecca call adequate closure in this situation? Who would decide weather that punishment was just?

6 years ago
Posted by chongo shaun

There are only a couple of methods of justice I can think of in this case. Life imprisonment (which I would gladly put my tax money into) or banishment. I do not always believe in eye for an eye so I can't wish her death, but this is a travesty of justice.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I went to school with Jeanette for 15 years, she is a great person who has gone through a lot the last few years. Everyone in our towns feel for the 3 guys that were killed, but we also feel for Jeanette who is seriously ill and needs help. She wanted to kill herself, not someone else. Its just sad that it all happened differently. Whats done is done. Everyone should pray for her return to health, and for the health of the victims families.

6 years ago
Posted by bodeie

I live in Columbus, Ohio where just a few days ago a guy was sentenced to 34 years in prison for killing three asian students in a 'similar fashion'. His SUV hit another car and went airborne causing a 9 car accident. His excuse was he got mad at a driver on a cell phone and the fast food restaurant didn't prepare his sandwiches right. Difference here is he killed 2 people in another accident that he got jail time for (believe 10 years) www.wbns10tv.com (for the story). Jason Skaggs was his name. I remember a woman on trial for killing a mother and her 2 (maybe 3) daughter's. Was aired on CourtTV (live) a few years back. Alcohol 'involved'. She got 60 years. Was her 4th OMVI and not sure if other accidents involved deaths. This doesn't surprise me at all. Electing a new president won't change anything. We need a 'clean sweep' of our people in D.C. People killed by drunk drivers is nothing more than an accepted form of 'population control' or our laws would be more severe. Every night people drink in millions of bars in this country and drive home. You never read about the guy who was killed by the driver smoking pot. Forgive me for bringing this up but the penalties are harsher for marijuanna related offenses. Speaking from experience you can only get so 'high' yet we can drink until we blackout and not remember anything the next day (speaking from experience there too). Rapists get more jail time than murderers. How does that make sense. Andrew Luster got more than 100 years and he didn't kill anybody. Why should murderers get less time and often if they are young enough (like Sliwinski) still have a lot of their life ahead of them. The people running our government is is the problem otherwise we would be finding alternative fuels but then the oil companies would lose money and the government doesn't want that. Think about the guy paying .63 cents a gallon in Utah for propane in his Honda GX.

6 years ago
Posted by bodeie

Left one thing out. The woman who got 60 years dog was in her car at the time of the accident and her first concer (she asked the officer at the scene) how her dog was instead of inquiring into the 'carnage' she was responsible for.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Not sure that I agree with comment about the rapist getting too much time. He could have killed people, maybe not physically, but ending their lives completely in other ways.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I went to grade school with Jeanette and we even carpooled together. She is not someone who was out to kill other people. She was always popular in school. Someone who was outgoing, pretty, nice and smart. Everyone deserves a second chance and I am glad she is getting hers. Before you judge someone else, put yourself in her shoes and imagine at 23...killing 3 people, making your family go through hell and having a record. I wish Jeanette the best and my prayers are with her family.

BMV

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Whether Jeanette was popular, outgoing, nice, pretty or smart is besides the point, isn't it? The fact of the matter is that three people are dead from her actions. There are consequences for one's actions. Let's not be led to believe that this was an accident... she intentionally wrecklessly drove her car and killed three people. She need to be held accountable for her actions. I too am sorry for her family, but more importantly for the families of the persons that she KILLED - yes -- she KILLED them. She didn't just slap them but KILLED them. Does everyone deserve a second chance? The definition of deserve is to merit or be worthy of. Why don't the 3 dead people get a second chance? They are worthy of it having done nothing to this person.

I would be happy to petition, etc. if somone could point me in that direction.

6 years ago
Posted by kitkat

I think it is ridiculous that the judge accepted her statement that she wasn't trying to hurt anyone else, just herself. If you deliberately drive your car into someone else's car at 90mph, what do you think will happen? If she didn't expect the people in the car she hit to die, then she wasn't mentally ill... she's mentally disabled. Even a child could figure out the consequences of such an action.

I'm sorry for her family and I'm sorry she was so obviously out of her mind that she decided to act the way she did. In doing so, she affected so many people in such a terrible way. Perhaps it was the drugs or a defect in her brain. Either way, she should be serving a life sentence in a mental institution until "cured" at which time she could serve the rest of it at the state facility.

And I think a petition to get her drivers license reinstated is perhaps the final, disgusting straw of the whole situation. Do they allow convicted murders who gun down their victims to have a gun license after they get paroled? She used her car as a weapon, and as such, she should never be allowed access to that kind of weapon again.

6 years ago
Posted by TRex

What's done is done. Let her be. God bless all involved and may the families of all find peace.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

God bless all involved.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Thank you to the writer and Chicago Magazine for publishing an honest story that embraces the complexity of the situation. I only wish that this story never had to be written.

Having known John and spent time with him and Becky and their wonderful family of friends, I can only say that the world was a better place with him here. I imagine Doug and Michael's friends and family feel the same. My heart goes out to them.

Sharing our stories, I believe, is the only way we can grow and make sense out of this tragedy. I remember seeing an exhibit for this organization years ago (see link below) and thought I'd share it with all of you. Maybe it will help.

http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/DebbieMcLeland

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

THis is unbelieveable...I worked with this girl...shared a hotel room with her, slept in the bed next to her...what if she "lost her mind " that night and decided to stab me to death...how scary...and they let this animal out in the world. Jeanette...I worked with you on some of the swimsuit shots in Chicago, and yo thought you were hot shit. You weren't then and you FOR SURE aren't now. I hope you ask for forgiveness when you go to bed everynight for the horrible thing you have done to those 3 men and their families...I hope you never sleep another peaceful night.
YO B

5 years ago
Posted by ssmith2526

Bodeie - you are incorrect on the amount of time Skaggs got for his first 2 murders, he served 5, yes FIVE, months for killing two innocent people in 1994. He got out early because he wrote to the judge and told him that he wanted to get married and that jail was making that impossible for him. BOO HOO. He killed them the same way he killed the next 3, using his car. He has MURDERED 5 people in total. Jesus, this just makes me sick. And he doesn't care at all. His only comments to the media were that while he's sorry they died but that there wasn't anything he could do about it now and that he was just a regular guy trying to live a regular life. Yeah, lots of regular guys murder 5 people. Happens all the time...

5 years ago
Posted by ssmith2526

To the people who think that everyone should just "move on" and let people, like Jeannette, live their lives, you are all dillusional. Will you be willing to do the time for her the next time she kills someone with her car?

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