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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