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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Above and below: Photos from Jeanette Sliwinski’s modeling portfolio

The first calls to Skokie 911 came in about 12:15 p.m. on July 14, 2005. Sometime before that, Jeanette Sliwinski’s red Mustang was rocketing down Dempster Street. She was heading east, away from her home in Morton Grove, over the Edens Expressway. She was weaving from lane to lane chaotically enough to make other drivers notice and move out of her way.

Sliwinski declined to be interviewed for this story. But her parents, in their first formal media interview since the crash, say their daughter grieves for the victims and their families as she serves her sentence in the Dwight Correctional Center, a maximum security women’s prison about 80 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Her mother says that, to this day, Jeanette can’t explain what was going through her mind in the minutes before the crash. “She does not remember anything specific,” says Ursula Sliwinski, who speaks with her daughter several times a week. The family members say they now live in fear of a potential civil suit and that the media still hound them, intrigued not only by a tragic story line but also by Jeanette’s stints as a model and stripper. Recently, a cable network had been calling to interview them for Snapped, a series on female killers. They declined.

Sliwinski’s parents, Ursula and Tadeuscz (Ted), were born and raised in Poland. They married in 1978 and came to Chicago because Ursula’s mother had herself been born in Chicago and encouraged her daughter to immigrate here. Jeanette was born in 1982. Soon after, the Sliwinskis moved from Norwood Park to Morton Grove. Their second child, Robbie, now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was born in 1986. “We are immigrant people who come to this country with practically nothing,” says Ursula, who works as a cleaning service supervisor in a building downtown. Her husband is an electrician. “We do everything for our kids.”

Jeanette Sliwinski’s parents and brother are sitting in the back corner of a Bakers Square restaurant in Niles. With them is a friend and family spokesperson named Toni Randle. Ursula Sliwinski describes the daughter she once knew: the girl who adored animals and swimming; who took ballet classes; who worked as a lifeguard at Oakton Pool and who got a worker’s permit at age 15 so she could work at Vitello’s Bakery in Skokie. The mother talks about a teen who earned mostly Bs at Niles West High School, joined the swim team, played volleyball, and was active in the Polish club. Ursula Sliwinski tells how her daughter went to Oakton Community College but ultimately graduated from Columbia College. She bought a suburban condo and was looking into graduate school for teaching. “She loved kids,” her mother says.

But there are also parts of Jeanette Sliwinski’s life that her parents can’t explain. Possibly as early as high school, Sliwinski was working at Heavenly Bodies Gentleman’s Club, a topless bar in Elk Grove Village. (Family members say they didn’t learn this until after the crash, when it came up in the Chicago Sun-Times. “We didn’t know,” says her brother, Robbie.)

In an interview, her attorneys, Tom Breen and Todd Pugh, fresh from defending the owner of the E2 nightclub after the deadly stampede, confirmed that Sliwinski worked as a stripper—but they put the date later, in 2003, when she was around 21. “Her recollection was that she worked there for a couple of weeks,” says Pugh. “She started running with a racy club crowd and it was quick easy money.” Sliwinski, a five-foot nine-inch bleach blonde with hazel eyes, also picked up the occasional modeling job; her family says her career consisted mostly of a few trade shows, but, after the crash, risqué photos, allegedly from her portfolio, surfaced on the Internet.

In court, prosecutors described Sliwinski as a party girl who stayed out with friends until 4 a.m. and used cocaine, Ecstasy, and other drugs. They suggested that she had been partying in the days before the crash, a sign that she was not insane, as her defense team claimed. In response, Sliwinski’s attorneys said her party-girl persona was overblown, created to prejudice the court and public opinion. “If she were a homely shut-in, she would not have been charged with first-degree murder,” says Breen.

Voice cracking, Mrs. Sliwinski tells how, three months before the crash, her daughter began to show signs of mental illness. Ursula describes the helplessness she felt as Jeanette looked for medical care and visited three different therapists between April and July 2005. She talks about the pills the therapists prescribed, and how her daughter mixed them with herbal cures she found on the Internet. Nothing seemed to work. “I always believed in the doctors,” the mother says, in her heavily accented English. “Jeanette says to me she doesn’t feel good, she feel ‘like a zombie,’ and I say, ‘Just listen to what doctor says’ because, 100 percent, I believe in doctor.”

Ursula Sliwinski uses that same word—"zombie"—to describe her daughter on the morning of the crash. As a distraction, Mrs. Sliwinski suggested that they cut the grass outside their Morton Grove home. She was just biding time until they would leave for a 3 p.m. appointment to see a psychiatrist. “I was trying to keep eyes on her,” the mother says. Outside, Jeanette stood still, hardly moving and not talking, so her mother suggested another distraction—iced coffee at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. There, forgetting to pick up her drink, Jeanette walked out. Next, they went to an eyeglass store where Jeanette refused to approach the counter and retreated to the car. On the way home, her mother remembers passing a two-car accident near their home and seeing her daughter cry. “We were just waiting for the appointment to come,” Ursula says. “My daughter would never, ever, ever, want to hurt nobody or kill herself, I can swear to my God.”

Sometime before noon, Ursula Sliwinski says, she got a call from a friend. With her mother occupied, Jeanette Sliwinski slipped out the door, got into her red Ford Mustang, and drove down the street—past her father, who was coming home for lunch. When her husband walked in the door and said he had seen their daughter leaving, Ursula grabbed her car keys and took off after her. “I thought she left to see the doctor,” she says.

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