The glow of the streetlight shone dully in the frigid darkness, casting an amber pall on the alley that ran like a scar between two rows of clapboard and brick flophouses on the western border of North Lawndale. It was a little after 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 16, 2007, nine days before Christmas, and the trash-strewn, rutted path of concrete, walled off from the Eisenhower freeway by the squat homes along Lexington, lay robed in white from a snowstorm the night before.
Had it not been for that pale backdrop, the man might not have noticed the long, black object at the foot of the dumpster next to his garage: It was the body of a man, a young man—a teenager even—lying face-down and dressed in a black sweater, black pants, and a hooded sweatshirt. The corpse wore no shoes. From the looks of the limbs, the body had been there for at least a few hours. The legs stretched stiff and frozen. The arms locked slightly at the elbows. The hands were gnarled claws, perched on the hard snow. To the man, the body looked as if it were doing a pushup.
Someone called the police, and soon the alley crawled with officers. The man was struck by how long they took to investigate. He guessed it must have been two hours before they finally gave the go-ahead for the body to be hauled away. He couldn’t say he was surprised at the official diligence. He had known this was no ordinary case the second he saw the dead boy, or rather, the second he saw the color of the boy’s skin. Dead junkies were nothing unusual in this neighborhood, but young white ones were. The body in the alley had come from somewhere else. But where? the man wondered. Who was this kid, and how did he wind up face-down and frozen, doing a dead-man’s pushup in a back alley where even residents feared to tread?
Geographically, the town of St. Charles lies about 40 miles from the alley where the body was found. In every other respect—income, appearance, demographics, outlook—St. Charles, population 33,000, floats as distant as the planets. The Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale is 94 percent black and dirt-poor, a place that one of the residents in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools called “an industrial slum without the industry.” Its unemployment rate is nearly three times that of the rest of Chicago. Drug dealers, brazen as gutter rats, hawk their wares from corner hangouts and parked cars. Despite attempts at revitalization and pockets of hope, poverty and its attendant miseries—crime, drugs, violence—remain as intransigent as the unemployment that has left North Lawndale so bereft.
St. Charles, by contrast, is 94 percent white—the sort of affluent, Capraesque tourist haunt that lures both the bed-and-breakfast set and well-to-do city commuters willing to trade an hour’s train ride for a house amid sylvan loveliness and country club gentility. A river runs through it—the Fox River—and historic charm abounds, from the city’s centerpiece—Hotel Baker, a brown brick Spanish Romantic Revival building surrounded by gardens, terraces, and a putting green—to the 83-year-old Art Deco jewel Arcada Theatre, to the paddle-wheel steamboats that meander the Fox in Mark Twain splendor.
But idyllic as it is, St. Charles—along with the two neighboring towns that make up the Tri-Cities, Geneva and Batavia—shares a connection with North Lawndale, one not found in a glossy tourist brochure.
The link came to light in dramatic fashion last January, when authorities announced that they had solved the case of the body in the alley. The dead young man was Michael York, a 17-year-old high-school student who had grown up in St. Charles and had lived in Elburn—a village of 4,700 a few miles west—during the four months leading up to his death. Though he was found in the alley, the victim of a suspected heroin overdose, York had not died there, but in St. Charles, after using the drug at a party at a million-dollar-plus estate.
The sordid circumstances of York’s death and the ugly story of his disposal in a squalid West Side alley, along with the eventual arrests of three of his friends—Jordan Billek, 19; Nathan L. Green, 23; and Lindsey Parker, 23—struck as shocking news. A heroin party? Teenagers shooting up in a million-dollar mansion? In St. Charles?
But to one group of people, the sad tale held no surprise. In fact, it was confirmation of a dark reality they knew had been lurking for years beneath the façade of the beautiful little town: St. Charles is ground zero for a heroin problem that, by one counselor’s estimate, has killed more than 100 young people in the region, filled the Kane County jail, shattered the lives of friends and families, and, in recent years, spread to suburbs throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.
The story of Michael York began, not in an alley in 2007, these people say, but amid a plague born some 11 years ago in a place as unlikely as the epidemic itself.
That year, 1998, St. Charles High School (now St. Charles East) preened in the light of achievements both athletic and academic. Its girls’ soccer team, for example, added another state championship to the five it had already won that decade, setting a state record for most wins in a season in the process. Academically, the school had come close to graduating 100 percent of its senior class, and colleges had lined up to recruit its students. Like most schools, St. Charles had its brushes with drugs—mostly marijuana and alcohol.
Then came heroin. Its appearance was sudden and overwhelming. “It was like a rash,” recalls Lea Minalga, a drug counselor who lives in St. Charles and whose son, Justin, was among the first wave of heroin addicts. “It just happened overnight. There was no heroin, then all of a sudden there were like 40 kids addicted to it. Many went to St. Charles High School, all addicted. Many of those kids are dead now.”
“It exploded,” agrees Justin Pearlman, Lea’s 30-year-old son, a former St. Charles East student who has struggled with heroin addiction for more than ten years. “St. Charles High School became completely enmeshed.”
The rash quickly spread—first to the St. Charles community at large, then to the neighboring towns of Geneva and Batavia, and eventually, though to a lesser extent, to greater Kane County. The newly minted addicts, many from wealthy families, were almost all young—in their teens and early 20s. Pat Perez, the Kane County sheriff, ran the county’s gang and narcotics unit at the time, and he recalls being astonished at what he saw. “We had one case in 2000 where we arrested a guy in Geneva. He had a full-time job, and he would go into the city every week on Thursday and buy heroin after he got his paycheck, and then come back and sell it to these high-school kids.”
Within two years, the Tri-Cities were in the chokehold of an epidemic that has continued to this day—and “St. Charles was ground zero,” says James T. Doyle, the retired Kane County Circuit Court judge who presided over the county’s Drug Rehabilitation Court from its inception until 2005. “It began there, then the circle just got bigger and bigger.”
Law enforcement officials were caught off-guard. “Heroin was a thing that everybody thought had died out,” says Chuck Pierce, a detective in the St. Charles Police Department. “For some reason in the late ’90s, it became the in thing for people in their late teens and early 20s here. It became socially acceptable to do it, and it just took off.”
The first heroin death came in 1998, when a former St. Charles East student, Jesse Tecuanhuey, fatally overdosed in a Melrose Park hotel room six days before his 19th birthday. The death toll rose swiftly. Lea Minalga, who founded a counseling group called Hearts of Hope for parents of addicts, began hanging ornaments on a tabletop Christmas tree with pictures of teens from the area who had died heroin-related deaths. She quickly ran out of space. “I’ve been to more than 100 funerals, where young, good-looking kids are in a casket.” The number is no exaggeration. According to figures provided to Chicago by the Kane County Coroner’s Office, 58 people in the county have died heroin-related deaths in the last 11 years. During the same period, 82 died opiate-related deaths, many of which may have involved heroin. What’s more, those figures don’t take into account the people from Kane County who overdosed outside the county or deaths caused by diseases contracted by intravenous drug users. “I have a standing order at the local florist because so many kids are dying,” Minalga says.
The problem grew so bad that by 2002, the St. Charles Police Department had set up its own narcotics unit. The Kane County jail brimmed with addict inmates. James Doyle, fed up with jailing people who clearly needed treatment, founded the Drug Rehabilitation Court and was soon inundated with cases. “I’d see 300 people on a Wednesday,” he recalls. “We’d go until 10, 11, 12 at night.”
Despite the increasing and ever more alarming signs of a full-blown epidemic, many saw a curious reluctance among the community at large to acknowledge the problem. “There was no outcry,” says the mayor of St. Charles, Donald P. DeWitte, who was a city alderman when the problem arose, “and given the circumstances, there probably should have been. To be honest, I think there was a segment of our community that stuck their heads in the sand—that didn’t want to recognize that this problem existed in our community. [The feeling was] our kids were above that.”
To a degree, Lea Minalga says she understands. “The victims of this disease—addicts and families of addicts—tend to be too broken, worn out, and battle-scarred to step out and become crusaders and voices,” she says. Beyond that, “stigmas are vast and deep. There is this sense of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation that comes with finding out a precious child is involved in drugs and alcohol.”
Denying such problems exist, however, only makes things worse, she says. “We need to lose our pride and cry out for help before more young lives are stolen. We have an epidemic and people, real people, are dying.”
Nathan L. Green fidgets in the Kane County jail, awaiting trial, accused of obstruction of justice and delivery of heroin, charges that grew out of the death of Michael York. Green’s codefendants, Lindsey Parker and Jordan Billek, are free on bond pending their trial dates.
I spoke with Green in a small jail conference room in August and again in September. Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, his hands inked with tattoos—an anarchy symbol, some initials—he agreed to speak to me even though, as this story went to press, his case was still working its way through the courts.
Although Green dropped out of his St. Charles alternative middle school at age 14, he says he often bought and used heroin in St. Charles, and he knew students at the high school who were also users. He, too, marveled at the drug’s rapid rise. “It blew up so big that it was unbelievable. I was seeing people I would have never thought. I’m looking at the kids you’d consider the jocks, the preppies wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, living in the huge million-dollar homes.”
Lindsey Parker, the young woman who hosted the party at which Michael York died, also agreed to talk to Chicago, though not about the specifics of her case. (Jordan Billek, whom I met at a court hearing in September, declined through his attorney to talk about that night.) Pretty and pale, with long, straight brown hair, Parker alternately rested her forehead in her hand and welled up as we spoke, her blue eyes filling with tears several times.
Parker attended Lake Forest Academy but spent enough time at the Royal Fox mansion where her mother and stepfather were living to know the St. Charles drug scene. “It’s everywhere in the Valley—what they call the Fox River valley,” Parker told me, massaging her hands, her words coming in sporadic bursts. “Everyone I know is either doing it, trying to get off it, or dead.”
Parker is in a rehab program while out on bond, awaiting trial on obstruction of justice charges. She says she began using heroin at 19 to help her cope with a variety of emotional problems and traumas, including watching her boyfriend commit suicide. “Heroin was the ultimate numbing sensation,” she says. “It also destroyed everything I had.”
She was hooked immediately. “I’d done everything there was to do and had never found myself addicted to anything,” she says. “That shit brought me to my knees.” The kicker, she says, is that before the weekend of partying that culminated in York’s death, she hadn’t used the drug in eight months. “My worry had always been, though, that if it was around me I’d be scared, and I might not be able to say no,” she says. “It’s got that kind of hold over me.”
By all accounts, heroin was indeed around her that weekend in 2007. Word had spread that she was planning a Friday night party to celebrate her 22nd birthday. Parker no longer lived with her mother and stepfather in their gabled mansion, but, when she learned that they were going to be away that weekend, she saw an opportunity.
The big party—with scores of teens and young adults from the St. Charles area invited—was set for Friday, December 14th, Parker’s birthday. But she also threw a smaller, more intimate gathering the night before. The four people who came over that Thursday evening arrived together, driven by Jordan Billek, a round-faced 17-year-old who had struggled with problems of his own. Authorities say the group also included a 25-year-old man named Michael A. Mangano, who had lived in St. Charles for a time and now lived in the village of Maple Park, a small town a few miles west. The third person was Nathan Green—then a 21-year-old drifter and heroin junkie who had been using drugs since he was 13. He had grown up in and around St. Charles and now either slept there in cars or flopped with fellow users who lived in the less savory pockets of town.
At the time of the party, Green had been staying with Mangano, but Mangano’s parents were ready for him to move on. Fortunately for Green, Mangano had persuaded Parker to let Green crash with her for a few days, even though she had just met him.
The fourth guest was a 17-year-old named Michael York. York had been friends with Mangano, Parker, and Billek for a couple of years. He had also hung out with Green. The two had met a little less than a year earlier, while York was living with his mother in St. Charles, and they had used heroin together for about a month until Green went to jail on a theft charge.
Rangy, with a mop of long, straight brown hair that often fell across his blue eyes, York was “a very outgoing, loving kid” who liked skateboarding, drawing, building model hot-rod cars, and fishing, says his mother, Cathy Reinert. But he was also an emotionally troubled boy who had struggled with drug use since his early teens.
Reinert, a petite woman with a blonde, shoulder-length blunt-cut bob, has not previously spoken publicly about what happened to her son that weekend. She believes he turned to heroin to self-medicate for depression, anxiety, and school struggles that she says made him feel like an outcast. “He was never able to go back to a regular public school, because he struggled a lot” emotionally and academically, Reinert told me, sitting at her kitchen table, a framed photo collage of her with her son, her 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, and 3-year-old daughter, Calee, in view. “He was very smart in a lot of ways,” Reinert continues. “He was a very good chess player, a really talented artist.” But he also acted out, including fighting at school and while in rehab. “I fought tooth and nail trying to get him into [rehab facilities],” she says. “He’d stay in a place for two weeks and start fighting with someone, and they’d boot him. He struggled to fit in.”
Eventually, she says, he found acceptance, but with the wrong kids. One of them was Green. Reinert says she disliked him from the start. She says she discovered Green in her son’s room late one night. “It was obvious [he was] on drugs,” she recalls. “I told him to get out. Mike said, ‘Mom, I was trying to help him. He doesn’t have a roof over his head, I feel sorry for [him].’ I said, ‘Mike, I understand that you’re trying to help, but it’s only going to hurt you.’”
Green, she says, “never showed his face to me again . . . I told him, ‘If you come back around, I’m calling the police.’”
Unbeknownst to Reinert, her son and Green continued to hang out and use heroin together. After about a month, Green went to jail on a theft charge, and York took another stab at recovery. For 18 months, “he’d been doing really good,” Reinert says. “But when Nate got out of jail and called him up, Mike wasn’t strong enough to say no.”
On the night of Parker’s pre-birthday party, York left a note saying he would be staying at a friend’s house that weekend. Reinert felt uneasy but reminded herself that her son had been doing well: Despite all his struggles with school, he was going to graduate early—in one week, in fact, and he had been working at a local McDonald’s. She would have to trust that he was not putting himself in harm’s way, she says she told herself, and that wherever he was going would be safe.
In a neighborhood filled with opulent estates, the brick Colonial of Lindsey Parker’s mother and stepfather stands out in both size and splendor. Seen through a low plane of bonsai pines, the home features mullioned windows; a showy, curving driveway; and a small portico entrance, atop which sits a crescent porch ringed with white baluster railings.
Having grown up in St. Charles, Green had seen fancy homes before, but he grew nervous as Billek swung into the driveway. “I was like, ‘Can I go in dressed like this?’ You know, I got long hair, and a rock T-shirt, some baggy-type of jeans and some combat boots . . . They’re like, ‘Yeah, her parents aren’t here. It’s OK.’”
If the outside was intimidating, the inside was wondrous, Green recalls. There was a spa room “with a big flat-screen TV on the walls. Go through the door, there’s your pool. Go through the garage, holds like four cars, a motorcycle . . . with big Gone with the Wind [types of] posters that [Parker said] cost thousands of dollars.”
Though Parker and York had been clean from heroin for months, staying sober was apparently a low priority. In fact, says Green, the first thing Parker asked her arriving guests was, “You guys want some drinks?” And, according to my interview with Green and Parker’s handwritten statement to police—a copy of which was obtained by Chicago—they both used heroin that night.
“We hung out and Nate told me how he got out of jail and it came up that he used to do heroin and so had I,” Parker said in her statement. Later, Green took her aside and gave her some foils of the drug as thanks for letting him stay at the house, Parker told police. “After some drinking I went to my room and did the heroin,” she wrote. (Green claims Parker offered him heroin, and they used together.) A short time later, Parker said she passed out and that Green “took care of me the rest of the night.” The group then slept at the mansion that evening and hung around for the big bash on Friday.
Parker wrote in her statement that she spent the day prepping the house for the party, including picking up kegs that York and Billek had helped buy. The plan, according to Parker’s statement, was for York, Green, Billek, and Mangano to stay at the house and wait for guests while she went to some St. Charles bars for drinks before the party.
But when she returned, she wrote, Green and Billek weren’t there. Instead, Parker said in her statement, she was told that the two men had gone to the city to buy drugs. And, according to Green, they had indeed. “We woke up and were like, ‘What do you guys want to do today?’” Green told me. “Mike York says, ‘Shit, I got my paycheck, you want to go to the city?’” Green told York he could get heroin in St. Charles, but says York insisted. “I’m like, ‘All right, let’s go to the city,’” Green says. “We cashed the check, bought some needles from Walgreens, some cotton balls. . . . We go to the city to get some dope.”
Robert Fikar, a friend of both York and Green, says that he ran into the two men that day at a check-cashing business. “[Green] said there was a party that weekend at some rich girl’s house and asked if I wanted to come,” Fikar told me. “He took my number, but he never called.”
The party that Friday night was huge—Green estimates that perhaps 100 people showed up throughout the night. “It was like watching House Party or Animal House,” he says. “Loud music, [people] being charged five bucks to get in, keep your cup for your beer. . . . Two people at a time going to the bathroom, two people at a time going to their car. . . . People wrestling on the snow. . . . Kids giving Lindsey hugs and kisses and birthday money and presents. I was like, ‘Where did all these kids come from?’”
Parker confirmed this account in her statement. “Things got pretty crazy,” she wrote. “A ton of people showed up, a lot more people than I invited. . . . I was just trying to keep people out of there.” Eventually, Parker says, she kicked everyone out. In the house, now empty but trampled, Green says he passed out in a chair, high on heroin. “Mike York passed out in a chair next to me [from alcohol, not heroin, Green says]. He had his head on my shoulder, and I guess they took a picture.” At some point, he says, “they dumped me outside in the snow to wake me up.”
Saturday, the day after the party, was spent recovering, and, according to Green and Parker, making yet more trips to the West Side of Chicago to buy heroin.
For the teenagers and young people from St. Charles and other northwestern suburbs caught in the throes of heroin addiction—many of whom have died from the drug they could not stop using—the path to their hell leads east along Interstate 88, onto the Eisenhower Expressway, and to one of several exits, either Cicero or Central. Those off-ramps lead to the street corner perches where men shout “blows” and “blow”—street slang for the ten-dollar bags of heroin they sell—24 hours a day, every day of the year.
“You can be in your car right now, drive down Cicero or Central Avenue, take a left on Central coming from out here,” Green told me. “Harrison, Jackson, all through there, Kostner, Independence. . . . [As you drive] down, they’re yelling out, ‘Rocks, Blows,’ tell you, ‘Park here, how many do you need?’ They bring it to you or tell you, ‘Here’s my number.’”
Rough as the neighborhoods are, and as out of place as white teenagers in SUVs and luxury sedans would seem, there’s little cause for concern. “I’m walking up and down the streets, little white kid, long hair,” says Green. “A dealer told me one time: ‘We see you as money. Why are we going to let anybody hurt you?’”
Green says he, York, and Billek made several such trips on the Saturday after the big party, buying numerous packs of ten-dollar bags each trip, returning each time to the St. Charles mansion. In her statement, Parker confirms those drug runs. She did not go herself, she wrote, “but I did throw in and got shit, too.” Says Green, “We’re buying so much heroin that the guys are giving us extra bags.” At some point that night, the group—Parker, York, Green, Mangano, and Billek—settled into the mansion for the evening, according to a court document. “We’re still getting high,” says Green.
The heroin bought earlier that day was distributed among Parker, Mangano, and York, who, along with Green and Billek, began both snorting and injecting, according to statements given to St. Charles detectives by Parker and Billek, copies of which were obtained by Chicago. According to information contained in a search warrant filed later, Billek told police that he saw Green inject York “because York had not injected heroin in a while and was having trouble doing so.” (In her statement, Parker says Green and York injected the heroin in a downstairs bathroom, out of sight.)
Green shook his head when I asked him about this. “These kids [Billek and Parker] are saying, ‘Oh, we saw him shoot Mike up.’ I never once shot Mike up. . . . The only thing I did was tell him, ‘Make sure there’s no air bubble [in the syringe].’”
Whatever the case, Parker told police that later that night “someone came screaming for me, saying Mike fell out [lost consciousness and stopped breathing].” Parker said she slapped York several times, then asked Green how much heroin York had used. When Green told her a bag and a half, “I screamed at him,” Parker wrote. “I had told Mike York earlier that evening not to shoot more than a third of a bag since he hadn’t done it in a year and had been drinking.”
According to the police report, York revived briefly but then passed out again. This time, Green gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and, along with Billek, took steps to cool York’s body so he wouldn’t have a seizure as he woke up.
Green says he and the others were worried but adds that York seemed OK after he was revived the second time. “We told him to go to the hospital,” Green says. “He was like, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I’m fine, fine.’ . . . He didn’t want his mom to find out.” After a short period, “he was walking around, lucid,” Green says. “He asked for a cigarette. That’s the last thing he said to me: ‘Can I have a cigarette?’”
About an hour after York regained consciousness, Parker told police, he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed. Parker said she walked him up the stairs to a guest room, laid him in a bed on his side in case he vomited in his sleep, then went to bed herself. She checked on him an hour later and found that “he was sleeping, alive, breathing.”
The next morning, “I went to see if [York] was still here,” Parker said in her statement. “I went in and I could tell right away that he was dead.”
St. Charles is far from the only suburb to experience problems with teen heroin use. Areas as far-flung as Wilmette, Naperville, and Schaumburg have also found themselves under siege. One school with a serious infestation is in an affluent northwest suburb, says Dr. Abdel Fahmy, a Chicago-area addiction medicine specialist and the medical director of Soft Landing Recovery, a program that handles cases involving young people from the north suburbs. “That case is even scarier because they are mixing heroin with Xanax at a lethal strength we have not heard about in the medical field.”
But St. Charles and the surrounding towns in Kane County seem to have been the wellspring for many of the problems, Fahmy and others say. “It just seems that’s where it’s taken the stronghold, and it just hasn’t really dropped off,” says Sheriff Pat Perez, who ran Kane County’s gang and narcotics unit from 1997 to 2000. “It’s not that we don’t have heroin cases in Aurora and Elgin, but with those two areas our drug cases are almost all marijuana and cocaine. The predominant area for heroin is, and continues to be, the Tri-Cities.”
At the same time the heroin wave was slamming into St. Charles, suburban towns and cities across the country—often with similar demographic profiles—were experiencing a similar phenomenon. Initially, experts were baffled. Heroin was a ’70s drug, and its abuse plummeted in the latter years of that decade as the popularity of cocaine and crack exploded. Later research revealed, however, that in the mid to late ’90s, a number of factors converged to produce a resurgence.
Perhaps the biggest factor was the increased purity of the drug, which allowed it to be snorted rather than injected, thereby removing the stigmas associated with being a needle junkie. “They’re thinking, Well, I won’t inject it, I’ll just snort it, and I’ll be fine,” says Sheriff Perez. “What they don’t realize is that once it’s in their system, it’s like crack. No matter how you do it, you’ve got an addiction.”
Paradoxically, the St. Charles profile, which would seem to inoculate the town against such a plague, in some ways made it more susceptible, experts say. The teens there have the money to buy the drugs, access to cars to go buy them, and a 24-hour, open-air drug market just 40 minutes down the road in a city that happens to be one of the country’s heroin capitals. Then again, the same holds true for a lot of suburban Chicago towns.
So why St. Charles in particular? Dr. Fahmy says the explanation may be simple and random, and thus especially frightening. “Usually it just starts with one bad apple in the school or the community who has had exposure to the drug, and that person brings it into that previously clean little community. And from that, it begins to spread, and suddenly there is a very serious problem.”
As one of those among the initial wave, Pearlman sees himself as a case history for this analysis. “Me and a friend of mine were the first people to try it in our little group,” he says. “We had done other drugs before—marijuana—and one day he said, ‘I got some heroin.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to come over right now, and we’re going to try it.’
“He had gone down to the West Side—I even remember the street: It was 13th and Sawyer off of Independence—and got three bags,” Pearlman explains. “We split [one bag] with a credit card and snorted it. [My friend] was already one of the cool kids, and he began to introduce me to tons of people, the preppy kids, the jocks. They were curious about it.”
At first it seems cool and hip, says Fahmy. The problem is, “They have not seen the dark side of the addiction. All they have seen is happy dreamland where everything is good, where they’re not being judged; they’re not being controlled by their parents or society. They have not seen the negative consequences, the cravings, the withdrawals, the disease, the legal problems, the overdoses.” Lea Minalga puts it this way: Heroin “takes the afflicted person’s brain, soul, personality, and humanity hostage. They are driven, obsessed, and focused only on feeding the hunger to use, and the addict will do almost anything . . . even die. The thing that’s so difficult to understand is that these are not bad people, but people with a bad disease.”
“Unless you’ve done it, you don’t understand,” says Lindsey Parker. “There’s no way to explain. I don’t think there’s anything harder. You don’t want to look at yourself, you feel like such a horrible person. . . . You still have that side of your brain that tells you this is wrong, but it’s real quiet, and the drugs start to drown it out. You start to learn to drown it out.”
Despite a heavy winter storm the night before, which dumped over a foot of snow in some parts of Chicago, the morning of Sunday, December 16, 2007, dawned clear, cold, and sunny. Nathan Green, Jordan Billek, and Michael Mangano left the mansion and drove to a gas station to “steal gas” for another heroin run, according to the statements given to police.
Billek’s cell phone chirped. He talked for a moment and then handed the phone to Green. “I think Mike’s dead,” Green recalls Parker telling him. “What are we going to do? Call the cops?”
“Don’t you dare fucking call the cops,” Green responded, according to the statements. “We’re coming back.”
“I was totally freaked out and shocked,” Parker wrote. “I stayed on the phone with them until they came back.”
Green says he and Billek returned to the home. One glance at York, stretched out on a twin bed in an upstairs guest room, and they knew Parker was right. He was not breathing. He had vomit on his face. Green says he, Billek, and Parker considered and then discarded the idea of taking York to the hospital. “We didn’t know if that’s where we were supposed to take him,” Parker wrote.
Finally, according to the statements, Green told Billek and Parker that York’s body should be dropped off somewhere in Chicago. Green’s reasoning was that Chicago police would likely treat a found body as an overdose, while police in Kane or DuPage counties might deem one a homicide.
In her statement to police, Parker said that both she and Billek were uncomfortable with the plan but that Billek had been Green’s “little follower,” so he ultimately gave in. As for herself, Parker wrote that Green said he was a gang member and “if anyone ever told . . . about this he swore he would have us killed.”
Green denied to me that he made any threats. “[The police] are saying I supposedly forced Jordan into taking Mike [to Chicago],” Green told me. “I told the police, ‘Listen, if that would have happened, there would have had to be a gun to his head.’ You can’t force somebody to do something they don’t want to do.”
Mangano, according to Green and information in the search warrant, did not want any part of the plan. (He was not charged.)
In any event, they covered the body, Green says, took it downstairs, and loaded it into Billek’s full-size, extended-cab pickup truck—which Billek had backed up to the garage—laying York in the small compartment behind the seats. “It was like, ‘You grab this part, I’ll grab this part.’”
Parker, meanwhile, made up the bed where York had died, settled in to watch a movie, and later went to dinner with her father, waiting for Billek and York to return, according to her written statement.
Green drove the familiar route, easing onto I-88, swinging onto the Eisenhower, getting off at Cicero. “We pull in this neighborhood where we usually get the dope, and Jordan’s like, ‘There’s an alley,’” Green says. By now, it was mid- to late morning. “I pulled over, and Jordan jumped out.” The body was left next to a plastic garbage dumpster, then the two men drove back to the mansion.
There was little emotion in Green’s voice as he described the drive back. He said he and Billek did not discuss the horror of what they had just done. The trip was quiet. “Like that awkward quietness you see in the cartoons and movies,” Green explains.
Green and Billek returned to the mansion that night, according to Parker’s statement. “[They] said they left [York] by Chicago, and that’s all they said.”
Cathy Reinert knew something was wrong when she hadn’t heard from her son by Sunday night. “It wasn’t like him not to call me,” she says. On Monday, she filed a missing person report. On Tuesday, a little after noon, a commander with the Elburn Police Department came to her door. “I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I’m laying in the street not able to breathe,” Reinert says.
The assumption was that York had overdosed on heroin, but the Cook County coroner’s office could not determine a cause of death. For six months, Reinert tortured herself, wondering what had happened. “Somebody tells you your son’s in an alley in Chicago, and you don’t know how he died, why he died, when he died . . . I didn’t even know any of that. It was the hardest six months of my life.”
Reinert says she was provided little information by Chicago police, who were initially in charge of the investigation. “They never told me anything,” she says. “I called the police station all the time, but I couldn’t even get someone to return my phone call until I wrote [Chief] Jody Weis [saying], ‘Is this how you would want to be treated if it was your child that was found?’ Then they finally called back.”
But for a surprise call, Reinert thinks she might never have learned the truth. One day a friend of her son’s—Robert Fikar, the teenager who had seen York and Green at the check-cashing business the day of Parker’s party—called and said he knew what had happened. Fikar had run into Michael Mangano, and Mangano had told him the entire story, according to information in a search warrant.
“He was just talking about it,” says Fikar, who met with me and Reinert in late September at a Batavia coffee shop. “I kept thinking to myself . . . Something needed to be done.”
Reinert, who threw her arms around Fikar and murmured “thank you” at the coffee shop, says her first reaction to the news was relief. “I had gone six months without knowing. So of course I was [grateful] to find out what had happened,” she says. She immediately called the St. Charles police, who called Fikar. Because the party had occurred in St. Charles, the city’s police department took control of the investigation.
In the weeks that followed, as St. Charles police put together the case, Reinert’s relief turned to rage. “They throw him in an alley, in the snow, face-down, by somebody’s garbage can. How sick is that?”
She agonized over the thought that her son might have been saved had someone at the party called 911 or taken him to a hospital. “He passed away twice, and twice they revived him. [They] were supposed to be his friends. Why didn’t [they] get him help?”
In late January 2009, a little more than a year after York was found, the Kane County state’s attorney charged Billek, Parker, and Green with obstruction of justice. Green was also charged with two counts of supplying heroin—to York and Parker. More serious charges, such as drug-induced homicide, might have been filed, but without an official cause of death, the state’s attorney decided not to try. As this story went to press, Billek and Parker were free on bond. Green remained in jail. Trials are pending in all three cases. If convicted, Green faces up to seven years in jail; Parker and Billek each face up to three years.
When I ask Green whether he feels remorse, he responds in the same matter-of-fact, almost deadpan way he used in describing the events that had put him behind bars. “I would think about it,” he says. “Why would it have to be him and not us, considering we all had the same dope?”
What would he say to York’s mother? “I wish I could tell his mother I’m sorry for what happened. I didn’t do anything purposely,” he says. “I’d tell her, ‘deepest sympathies.’” But then Green quickly spins off into complaints about why he is still being held while his two codefendants are out on much lower bond. “They’re making it sound like I’m some Hannibal Lecter, or some John Gacy or Charles Manson–type person.”
Billek, meanwhile, has struggled. In March, he was arrested after police found a syringe and a cotton ball containing opium in a compartment in his car door. In May, his bond was tripled after he twice tested positive for alcohol in violation of his release conditions. His lawyer, Jeffrey Fawell, told a judge that those incidents were brief relapses and that Billek is “committed to not going down the road he has gone before.”
For her part, Parker tells me she had spent the past few months in rehab, is currently clean, and plans to stay that way, one day at a time. She says she thinks about the events of that December weekend “every day. It’s something you can’t forget—wishing I could have done more. Wishing it didn’t happen. I feel responsible. I feel like I could have done something more. I was just too scared, too freaked out.”
She says she’s aware that there’s little sympathy for her, that some people call her a monster, a spoiled rich girl, and wonder how someone with so much could have become involved in something so reprehensible. To a degree, she says, she understands. On the other hand, she adds, “Money doesn’t mean people don’t have problems. Money doesn’t make you better, it doesn’t make you a good person, it doesn’t make you immune [to addiction].” As for what happened, “no one knows what he or she would do in that situation. Don’t act like you would, because you don’t.”
Forty-eight miles from the alley where Michael York was found almost two years ago, in the lengthening shadows of a late August afternoon, Cathy Reinert—her three-year-old daughter, Calee, in tow—stands hugging herself against the cool breeze that sweeps the gently sloping grounds of Blackberry Township Cemetery. Other than a slight rustle through the pines and red cedars and spruce trees that shade the bright carpet of grass—and the giggles of Calee—the spot is silent, peaceful.
Reinert bends to pluck a dried flower from an arrangement of red petunias and white bacopa next to a sky-blue plaque embossed with a picture of her son; nearby are a small stone angel and a Matchbox replica of a car belonging to one of York’s friends.
“I went to the alley,” Reinert says, turning her head, gazing for a moment across the scattered blocks of granite markers and polished headstones. “He didn’t take his last breath there, but it was still important to me. I wanted to know where he was.”
In the nearly two years since her son was found face-down in that alley, she has thought a lot about the people who were with him on his last night. She has attended every one of their hearings and has seen the pain etched on the faces of the parents of those charged. “I’ve seen Jordan’s parents be there for him, and I see the hurt in their eyes—the same hurt I used to see in my own eyes with Mike, and it breaks my heart.”
As the cases wind through court, she says, she has searched her heart for forgiveness. “Don’t get me wrong, I went through a period when I hated them. But that’s not going to bring my son back. I see them as lost souls. God took my son. I don’t know why. I believe there’s a bigger picture that will reveal itself. But they’re still here. They’re still struggling. My wish for them is that they turn their lives around.”
Still, she says, her compassion does not quite extend to forgiveness. “I’m this close,” she says, bringing a thumb and finger together. “When I do forgive them, it will be for me, not them.” In the meantime, she has found another way to help her cope, at a place that is at once both unlikely and absolutely apt: helping grieving families at the funeral home that handled her son’s arrangements.
On this day, she waits while Calee says goodbye to the brother she will never know, in the way she always does—by blowing kisses. Meanwhile, Reinart says her own goodbye as she looks at the grave, so far from the Chicago alley. “He’s at peace now,” she says, in the dying light of the afternoon. “He might have been left there, but he’s here now. He’s at rest.”
9 months ago