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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.

(page 5 of 6)

Somewhere near the Skokie Swift commuter station, Sliwinski ran three red lights and accelerated. Her speed was nearly 90 miles per hour when, before the intersection of Dempster and Niles Center Road, she veered into the left lane, directly behind Dahlquist’s black Honda. Dahlquist was driving; Meis was beside him, and Glick was in the back seat. In those moments, Sliwinski never touched her brakes. Days later, detectives cited her car’s concave gas pedal as evidence that she had floored the accelerator at the time of impact. “I’d never seen anything like that in my 31 years of police work,” said Brent Fowler, a former commander of the Skokie Police Department. “It was, literally, bent around her foot.”

At full speed, Sliwinski’s car blasted through the back of the Honda so forcefully that its trunk crumpled and folded into the back seat. The Honda shot into the car ahead—a green Ford Crown Victoria, which slid 100 feet into the intersection. The force drove both Sliwinski’s Mustang and Dahlquist’s Honda ten feet into the air.

Broken glass and car parts flew like shrapnel and blew out the window of a truck in the right-hand lane. The Honda rolled 47 feet from the initial impact and landed on its roof. Glick was thrown from the back seat, through the front windshield, and into the intersection. All three men were killed instantly.

Sliwinski’s Mustang rolled in the air, landed on its roof, and slid 20 feet down the street. Witnesses could hear her screaming inside. Drivers jumped from their cars and customers ran out of the nearby stores to see if they could help. One man, who worked at the mattress store on the corner, brought a pillow. Witnesses reported a warlike scene, telling police that when they saw the men, they knew immediately that there was nothing they could do. They hovered around the Mustang to comfort Sliwinski, telling her that help was on the way. “Oh, my God,” Sliwinski yelled, over and over. “Get me out of here!”

One witness, Jeanne Gourguechon, saw John Glick go through the windshield of the Honda. He landed in front of her car, his face staring toward the blue sky. In the minutes before the ambulances arrived, Gourguechon knelt beside him and held Glick’s hand. She noticed his torn red polo shirt, the fact that he didn’t have a pulse. He looked to be about the age of Gourguechon’s own son. “I just thought I ought to be there,” Gourguechon recalls. “These were his last moments and, if it was my son, I would have wanted somebody to be there, too.” Gourguechon stayed with Glick until paramedics took his body away.

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Ursula and Ted Sliwinski arrive at their daughter Jeanette’s trail in October 2007.

Several minutes after the crash, Brent Fowler received a call from the department’s watch commander. As the head of the detective section, Fowler had to assess the situation, identify witnesses, and make sure the officers on the scene gathered details. Fowler rushed to the scene, where the men’s bodies were being loaded into ambulances and where emergency crews were working to extract Sliwinski from her car. “At that time, all I saw was an accident,” Fowler says. It wasn’t until he reached St. Francis Hospital, in Evanston, where Sliwinski was being treated for a broken ankle, that his view of the crash began to change dramatically.

Fowler’s conversation with Sliwinski would become a crucial part of the case against the young woman. He recognized her from his job as a part-time security guard at Niles West High School (he is now retired from the force and works there as director of security). First, he reminded Sliwinski of where she used to sit in the school cafeteria. He purposely got it wrong to see if Sliwinski was lucid enough to correct him. He says she did.

When Fowler asked the young woman why she had been driving so fast, Sliwinski told him that she had argued with her family. He recalls that she said she wanted to get away, find some railroad tracks, and kill herself. “Ms. Sliwinski went on to say that she was looking for the tracks, but she couldn’t find them,” Fowler wrote in his July 19, 2005, police report. “I asked Ms. Sliwinski at this point how was she feeling, [to] which she responded by saying that she was angry and frustrated and all she wanted to do today was to end it. Ms. Sliwinski went on to say that she saw the cars stopped in front of her and she decided to kill herself so she put her ‘foot to the floor’ and ran into the back end of a car that was stopped at the stoplight. Ms. Sliwinski further stated that she ‘didn’t want to hurt anybody else, just hurt myself.’”

In their interview with Chicago magazine, the Sliwinski family said that they decided to break their long silence because they wanted to publicly challenge what their daughter allegedly said to Fowler and other authorities. They also wanted to share their belief that Jeanette’s actions were the result of a drug-induced fog caused by the prescription pills her doctors told her to take, and they challenge the idea that she was suicidal. “Jeanette is very sorry, obviously, for what happened,” says Randle, the family spokesperson. “She has taken responsibility for her actions; her family is sorry—all of us are sorry. We don’t have any reason to lie to you because this case is over.”

Throughout the 80-minute interview at Bakers Square, their daughter’s conversation with Detective Fowler came up often. The family members say that after the crash, they waited outside Jeanette’s hospital room for several hours but were told they would not be allowed to see her; all they knew was that Jeanette had been in an accident. That night, the family returned home and turned on the TV looking for some sort of late evening news.  What they heard, of course, was roughly the same as what Fowler wrote in his police report: that their daughter had fought with her parents and wanted to kill herself. Ursula Sliwinski says she fainted. “We have no fight,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “This is honestly truth.”

Ted Sliwinski believes that his daughter spoke to Fowler when she was in a haze brought on by her multiple prescriptions, the trauma of the accident, and the fact that she had been given morphine for her pain. Most of all, her parents ask, why would a woman who had been trying for months to get help suddenly decide to stop trying and end her life? Instead, they believe she had left home intending to keep a 3 p.m. appointment with a therapist at Turning Point, an outpatient mental health center about three miles from their home. “All of this sensationalism came from that little time frame” in the hospital, says her brother, Robbie Sliwinski. “That’s why it was framed as a suicide.”

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