Vickroy: Search for the truth in Worth teen’s death goes on
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy April 11, 2014 9:10PM
The Worth Village Board on April 1 heard criticism from residents about the police department's handling of the death of teenager Brittany Wawrzyniak. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 14, 2014 6:45AM
Nov. 8 dawned ominously for Rebecca Tully.
“I just woke up with this horrible feeling,” she said. “Even my Facebook post was ‘It’s one of those days. I really don’t want to leave my kids.’ ”
Her premonition was spot-on. The most horrible thing that could happen to a mother happened: Her daughter died.
And as if losing her child wasn’t horrific enough, the subsequent investigation into Brittany Wawrzyniak’s death has been an emotional roller coaster, for Rebecca and her family. And it’s caused divisions in Worth that sparked a contentious village board meeting last week.
While recounting the night Brittany’s life ended in a Worth park, Rebecca descends into a deep sadness.
“I can’t explain it. It just takes over your whole body,” she said, sitting in the dining room of her mother’s Hickory Hills home last week. It has been five months of pain, sorrow and, increasingly, anger directed at authorities handling the case.
Although the investigation is ongoing and officials are reluctant to comment, so far police have said that Brittany Wawrzyniak was killed after falling out of a car driven by Eric Johnson, 20, of Midlothian, during a drug deal.
Prosecutors contend Brittany paid Johnson $200 to buy 30 pills of clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication that goes by the street name Klonopin, or K-pins, a controlled substance.
Police said Brittany was found holding a bag of pills.
“I want justice for her. I want her name cleared. I want people to know she wasn’t a drug addict, she wasn’t a vicious person. People who knew her already know this,” Rebecca said. “But people who didn’t, who are learning about her from the media, think, ‘Oh, it’s just another kid gone bad.’ And that’s not the case.”
Rebecca and Brittany’s father, Patrick Wawrzyniak, dispute the police account that their daughter was involved with drugs. She was on track to a bright future, they say.
“It was hard to believe,” Rebecca said. “But when a police chief tells you your daughter was buying drugs, you believe him.”
Though Brittany’s parents now question the details of their daughter’s death that police have released to the public. They’re not alone.
More than 150 people attended a recent Worth village board meeting, many of them approaching the board, hurling accusations and demanding answers to questions about the case.
Worth Mayor Mary Werner, however, backs her police department and its handling of the case. She says that when the investigation is complete and the official report made public the department will be proven right.
“I am very confident in our police department. It is a horrible thing — your daughter goes out for the evening and doesn’t come home; I cannot imagine anything worse,” Werner said. “But then to take things out of context. Well, things have spiraled out of control.”
A parent’s nightmare
On that fateful Friday evening, Patrick dropped Brittany at the Worth home of her friend, Amanda Griffin, around 6 p.m.
“She was happy. They were going to camp and have a bonfire,” Patrick recalled.
When he said he’d be back to pick her up on Saturday, she asked if she could stay an extra day because they would be celebrating Amanda’s birthday. He agreed and said he’d be by to get her before that Sunday’s Bears game.
Just two hours later, Rebecca was at work when she received a call from her husband, Mike Tully. He told her she needed to get to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn as soon as possible because Brittany had been in an accident and had been ejected from a vehicle.
Rebecca, a bartender, made it from 22nd and Martin Luther King Drive to 95th and Kostner Avenue in 17 minutes. She was met by her husband, and a short while later, Patrick, as well as her parents and her brother.
Inside the hospital, she overheard an emergency department worker say something about the chaplain.
“That’s when I knew,” Rebecca said.
A doctor told her Brittany had bruises up and down her back and had arrived bleeding from her eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The news was crushing. Rebecca felt the blood rush from her head to her toes as she fell to her knees.
It wasn’t until a detective started asking questions later that night that Rebecca realized something criminal was afoot.
“I said, ‘You mean someone hurt her?’” she said.
The days that followed are now a blur, a flurry of funeral arrangements, media interviews and fruitless attempts to get more information from the police.
When Rebecca finally sat down with Worth Police Chief Martin Knolmayer, she says he told her that Brittany was at the park to buy drugs and that she was found with a bag of pills in her hand.
Rebecca said the revelation “stopped my grieving process.”
She buried her daughter in a fit of anger.
“I was mad at her,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Brittany, what were you thinking? We talked about this, about drugs. You knew better.’”
Brittany had lost four friends in tragic deaths between eighth grade and senior year of high school. Rebecca said they’d had many conversations about the dangers of drugs.
Brittany had a lot going for her. The teen who’d gone on mission trips, who loved children and music, was enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago as a music production major. She had a job working at the Hyatt with her mom. And she was so impassioned about her studies and discovering new bands that Rebecca believes there was no room in her daughter’s life for drugs.
Rebecca admits at times the mother-daughter relationship was contentious. They had argued, as all teens and parents do. She also said Brittany had been bullied over her weight while she attended Shepard High School.
“But she’d grown out of that,” Rebecca said. “She was moving on. She had lots to look forward to.”
Agnes Smyk and Adam Witczek, who live in Burbank, frequently walk their dogs near the boat launch at 115th and Beloit.
On Nov. 8, they barely had finished parking when a teenage boy, who was at the park with six teen girls, rushed toward them, insisting they help “a friend” who’d been ejected from a car, Agnes said.
Agnes, a medical technician who is studying to be a nurse, and Adam ran to Brittany, who was lying about 40 feet away in the middle of the parking lot.
“She was not moving and not breathing,” Agnes said. “I checked her pulse and there was none. She was very cold, as if she’d been there for a while.”
Both Agnes and Adam called 911. Then, Agnes said, she knelt down and held Brittany’s left hand; Adam took hold of the girl’s right hand. Agnes said there was a lot of blood. She also said she did not see any sign of drugs on or around Brittany.
Agnes said that other than giving Worth police her contact information, officials never talked to her that night.
But Werner said police took multiple statements on the scene that night, and that police did interview Agnes and Adam at the boat launch. She said Agnes admitted such at the recent board meeting when she told the board Worth police asked her what she was doing at the park that night.
In addition, Werner said, Agnes was not the only person to call 911 that night. “There were multiple calls that came in before Agnes’ call.”
Agnes, she said, cannot know what happened at the scene before she and Adam arrived.
Did Brittany have drugs in her hand when she fell to her death? Did someone take the pills from Brittany’s hand before Agnes arrived? Did someone hurt Brittany before she was ejected from the vehicle?
Those questions and more will be answered when the investigation is complete, Werner said.
So far, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office has reported that Brittany’s death was accidental, caused by multiple injuries sustained during a fall from an SUV.
A call for calm
As Patrick and Rebecca try to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the official investigation continues, Werner said.
“If everyone would just let us do our job, I don’t think the family would be going through this much anguish,” she said. “These people are in pain, and that’s because of all this misinformation.”
She said the Worth police have done an excellent job.
“It has been an exhaustive investigation, with numerous search warrants and subpoenas issued,” she said.
She pointed out that Knolmayer was a longtime member of the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force and “knows what he’s doing.”
Last week, Lily Arboleda, the friend Brittany allegedly went to the park with that night, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit battery.
Police said Brittany and Lily “planned and agreed” to arrange a fight, but did not indicate whether the fight took place or whether it was tied to the alleged drug transaction.
Rebecca says she believes Brittany and Lily may have set up a drug-buying ruse to confront another girl that night. She says there is evidence culled from Facebook that Brittany and Lily had made an arrangement with this other girl, a friend of Johnson’s, to meet at the park to “buy drugs,” but that the real reason was that Lily wanted revenge for her car windows being smashed a short time before that.
Werner said police have reams of conversations and messages culled from Facebook and phone records.
She said when the police work is complete, Brittany’s parents will be welcome to see the reports.
Meanwhile, Rebecca and Patrick, as well as Brittany’s extended family, struggle to cope with the loss.
“I miss her,” Rebecca says. “She was so funny, the way she used to laugh into (the crook of) her elbow. I just miss her personality. She had a great personality. I miss everything.”