Oak Lawn senior needs votes for special van

  • Written by Bob Rakow


page-9-2-colRiley Spreadbury is hoping for enough votes to win a specially equipped van to drive. Submitted photo.Riley Spreadbury needs a car.
  But the Oak Lawn Community High School senior can’t drive just any car. Instead, she needs a vehicle equipped with a wheelchair lift and hand controls. Her math teacher, Ellen Kruger, is doing all she can to make that a reality.
  “She made a joke about how her brother, who is a sophomore, can drive and she can’t,” Kruger said.
  The veteran educator didn’t forget Spreadbury’s remark and began to wonder what she could do to resolve her student’s dilemma.
  Spreadbury’s family owns only one van and the cost of another vehicle equipped with a lift and hand controls is cost prohibitive, Kruger said.
  She wrote a letter to Ellen DeGeneres’ television show in the hopes that that they’d tell Spreadbury’s story and give her a van. The show, however, did not respond. Kruger then turned to the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.
  She nominated Spreadbury for a contest the association is sponsors. The winners receive specially equipped vans.
  “I thought that something like this sounded more realistic,” Kruger said.
  More than 900 people were nominated. The top 10 vote getters are selected and the three finalists win a van. Riley has gathered nearly 8,000 votes, primarily the result of a promotional campaign at the high school and via Facebook, Kruger said.
  She’d like to get the entire community involved. Votes can be cast for Spreadbury at One vote can be cast each day.
  Spreadbury was born with a condition called Goldenhar Syndrome.
  Despite this condition, she led a typical childhood, participating in dance, ballet, swimming, rollerblading and hiking. But at age 10, she developed scoliosis. She had numerous surgeries on her back and because of complications; she sustained a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed.
  She spent over 100 days in the hospital and was able to regain control of her arms but she remains paralyzed from the chest down.
  Spreadbury has never let her condition hold her back, Kruger said.
  “It’s almost like you have to tell her she’s in a wheelchair,” she said.
  Spreadbury, a Hometown resident, has been significantly involved during her four years in high school.
  She was a writer for the school newspaper and was involved in the leadership of several student organizations.
  She takes piano lessons and played on a youth sled hockey team for two years. She also is active in the Shriner’s Hospital community as a spokesperson and poster child and served as a camp counselor for their Spinal Injury Sports Camp. Finally, she is taking a peer training class where she helps developmentally disabled children with physical education activities.
  Spreadbury wants to become a recreational therapist and work with children whose mobility was affected as a result of an accident or surgery. She plans to attend community college for two years before transferring to Illinois State University to complete her degree.
  She’s so optimistic,” Kruger said. “She has embraced her situation in life and lives it to its fullest. “This girl needs a car.”


Jeff Vorva's Editor's Notebook: It might be next winter before we hear cops' side of Brittany story

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

They came from near and far – some from Michigan and Florida – to yell at the Worth cops and call Mayor Mary Werner a “b----.’’

Team Brittany was furious on Tuesday night.

Team Brittany was looking for answers, justice and respect Tuesday night.

Team Brittany let four month of raw emotions out at Tuesday night’s village board meeting. There were roughly 200 people who showed up and some screamed out insults at the mayor, police chief and board members. Some asked for the mayor and police chief to step down.

What do the mayor and police chief have to say?


They can’t.

They say there are two sides to every story.

For us folks in the newspaper racket, we try to provide both sides to every story we can. We try to be fair and just.

If a reporter does a controversial story and both sides agree he or she was fair, that’s a solid story.

If a reporter does a controversial story and both sides are mad at him or her, that’s usually a sign that story was good, too.

Then there are stories like the tragic death of Worth teenager Brittany Wawrzyniak, where one side of the story is told and the other is not. That makes for an imbalance that unfortunately cannot be avoided.

Three people know for sure what happened in the back seat of a car on Nov. 8. One is dead. Two are alive.

Prosecutors came out firing, claiming that Brittany met a dude by the name of Eric Steven Johnson near the boat launch in Worth to buy some pills. She was counting the pills while Johnson was driving away and she opened the door of the moving vehicle and was ejected and struck the pavement.

Family members dispute that story and in the last couple of month have been trying to get to what they believe is the truth and doing their own investigating. They believe she was pushed out and there were no drugs involved. They have been critical of the Worth cops for what they consider is a lack of information, and some family members have likened them as Barney Fifes, referring to the incompetent deputy on the “Andy Griffith Show.” They also believe that a witness in the car was let free because of a relationship with a member of the Worth police force.

That’s their side of the story.

The Worth cops have said nothing to the media. Werner said Tuesday that talking publicly about it could jeopardize the case.

That’s not surprising. Police officials rarely share information on investigations with the media unless they are using us as bait to try to nab someone or have news that they nabbed someone. This is as true in Worth as it is in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City.

Some cops anonymously leak information to the press to get their side of the story out. Sometimes it is with a wink and a nod from their superiors. That can be risky, though. In Joliet, someone leaked information to a Patch reporter about a sensitive case and he ran with it and no one could figure out where the leak came from.

The reporter, Joe Hosey, was grilled in a courtroom by a judge and has been threatened with some jail time if he doesn’t cough up his source. That’s serious stuff. If that leaker is ever caught, he is in some monster-sized trouble.

Who knows what evidence the cops have to confirm or deny the family’s arguments? A lot of this could involve wrinkles such as DNA and forensic  testing and other parts which could take months to figure out. This isn’t TV where it’s all wrapped up in a tidy package by the end of the one-hour show.

Werner said it could take another 8 to 10 months.

So the cops need to be given some benefit of the doubt even if they are being closed-mouth about it. That’s unavoidable.   

This family is passionate about getting to the bottom of this story and you can’t blame them for that. As they continue to find out more information, the family is going to be more than willing to share it and we will be more than willing to listen and more than willing to call the cops and other village officials for comments and more than prepared for more “no comments.’’

The cops aren’t there to appease the family.

The cops aren’t there to appease the media (darn it).

The cops’ job is to find out what actually happened in the back seat of the car that day.

And it will take some time before we all find out.

Stay patient.

It could be cold and snowy again before the truth comes out.


HEADLINE – Get out the popcorn

In the next couple of months, we will have some new people writing stories and features for us as we plan to bring in some fresh blood with college interns.

Starting a little early for us is Tony Pinto who will be doing a variety of things for us but is cutting his teeth doing movie reviews for our O and A section. We are calling the feature Pinto’s Popcorn Picks.

He’s a Palos Hills resident attending Governor’s State University and makes his debut this week with a review of the new Muppets movie.

We hope to run his work as consistently as we can throughout the spring and summer until he goes back to school. Enjoy his reviews.










Sisters celebrate life at Camelot’s ribbon-cutting ceremony

  • Written by Kelly White

This was more than just a ribbon-cutting event.PAGE-4-3-col-ribbonFriends, family members and officials gather for the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday at Camelot Banquets in Hickory Hills. Photos by Kelly White.
It was a celebration of life.
Camelot Banquets in Hickory Hills was the site of a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday morning and owners and sisters Joanne Zegarski and Chris Janiski took time out to reflect how lucky they are to still be alive.
Hickory Hills’ police officer Ryan Bajt was a guest of honor and Zegarski proclaimed: “We wouldn’t be alive right now without him.’’
After last Mother’s Day’s near-tragic kitchen fire, Camelot opened for business again. The sisters performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand re-opening of the facility, located at 8624 W. 95th St., surrounded by family members, friends, city officials and guests.
Page-4-1-col-scissorsMitchell Bajt, 4, holds the scissors used at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Camelot Banquets in Hickory Hills.Bajt, and his four-year-old son, Mitchell, were at the event. Bajt was credited for the rescue of the two sisters during the fire, knowing that the facility’s two owners frequently slept at the hall. When he arrived on the scene last May, he immediately began banging on the door to the office and was able to wake the owners and get them out.
On May 12, Hickory Hills firefighters responded to the burning banquet hall and several south suburban fire departments were called to the scene in Hickory Hills to battle the blaze, which began in the kitchen.
Hickory Hills’ City Alderman Thomas McAvoy referred to the Mother’s Day banquet fire to as “catastrophic”.
Seven events, including Mother’s Day gatherings and communions, had to be moved. The hall’s owners managed to accommodate all of the parties planned for that day. All of the events were moved to the Hickory Hills Country Club. During the time of relocating the events, the owners posted via Faceboook: “We are an honest and hardworking family who has lost everything in this fire that we have worked all our lives for. There are people who do not understand this. However, we will keep helping people in their time of need, because that’s who we are.”
Since then, Zegarski and Jasinski have been keeping in contact with faithful customers through online communication during the complete banquet hall remodel. With two elaborate freshly painted dining rooms with large chandeliers, it is difficult to believe a fire had broken out there.
“You have to see this place,” Hickory Hills’ Building Commissioner, John Moirano, said at Thursday’s City Council Meeting, “I believe it is the nicest banquet hall around now.”
“A lot of hard work went into the reopening,” Jasinski said, who was working until 1 a.m. preparing. “But, it was very much worth it.”

Zegarski and Jasinski also held a six-hour open house viewing of their new facility Sunday.
“It’s been very busy,” Jasinski said. “We’ve been continuing with construction pretty much up until [Friday]. But, now we’re finally ready to open our doors to the public.”
The banquet hall will still continue to serve groups as small as 30 guests to as large as 700 guests. This family-owned and operated business offers a unique specialty in European-style dinners. They offer package dinner pricing as well as catering packages.

Emotions also run high as Saturday’s rally draws 150

  • Written by Bob Rakow

An emotional Rebecca Tully Saturday discussed the anger and frustration she’s faced in the five months since her daughter’s death during a rally designed to bring attention to the tragic incident.
“All of the questions continue to go unanswered,” Tully told approximately 150 people gathered at the Christensen Terrace Centre, on Saturday afternoon. “We want to know how this happened. We need your help.”
Specifically, Tully and her family asked supporters to write and email Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez as well as Worth officials demanding that the investigation be stepped up.
The center, 115th Street and Beloit Avenue, is located near the Worth boat launch where Brittany Wawrzyniak’s body was found on the night on Nov. 8.
On Tuesday night, many of the same supporters walked from the boat launch to the center, the site of the village board meeting. At that meeting, Wawrzyniak’s family asked village leaders to intensify their focus on the case.
Worth police have refused to comment, saying the case it is an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Cook County prosecutors have told family members they can’t pursue further charges against Eric Steven Johnson unless they’re given more information from police.
Johnson has been charged with possession of a controlled substance.
Prosecutors maintain Wawrzyniak met Johnson at the boat launch, got into the back seat of his car and handed him $200 in exchange for 30 pills of Clonazepam. She began counting the pills while still in the back seat as Johnson drove away. She opened the door of the moving car, was ejected and struck the pavement. She was pronounced dead at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn less than one hour later.
The family rejects that argument, saying instead that the 18-year-old Wawrzyniak arranged a bogus drug buy as way of setting up a fight between a friend and another girl that was with Johnson.
The Worth police have confirmed that there were no drugs in Wawrzyniak’s system the night she died, the family has said.
The 90-minute rally also featured Tully and other family members field questions from supporters who packed the Christensen Terrace Centre gym.
“I’m a little nervous, so bear with me,” Tully said.
Tully read from a prepared statement and showed a brief PowerPoint presentation that recapped the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death. She reminded the crowd that the tragedy that beset her family could have happened to anyone.
“We as a community don’t want to let this go,” she said.

Brittany supporters vow that more heat will come

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

After about an hour of having her board,Page-1-color-2-col-patdownPeople who attended Tuesday’s board meeting were patted down and frisked for weapons after there was a threat posted on Facebook about potential violence at the meeting. Photo by Jeff Vorva. police force and herself verbally attacked by the friends and family of Brittany Wawrzyniak, Worth Mayor Mary Werner called for a recess.
Most of the board members followed her into a side room at the Christensen Terrace Centre to take a break and to gather their thoughts for the rest of items on the agenda.
An estimated crowd of 200 gathered to question officials and police about Wawrzyniak’s death in November and how they are handling the investigation and treating the family. The crowd was heated and at times hurled personal insults at the board.
And there may be more heat to come.
During the board’s break, Patrick Wawrzniak, Brittany’s father, thanked the supporters for coming out and informed them to show up again at the village’s next board meeting April 15.
“Let’s block 111th Street!” shouted one supporter from the crowd. “Let’s shut it down!”
Generally, board meetings are held the first and third Tuesdays of the month at the Village Hall, 7112 W. 111th St. But because of the anticipated crowd on Tuesday night, the meeting was moved to the gym area of the Christensen Terrace Centre – not far from where Brittany Wawrzniak’s death occurred.
The village has not announced if the next meeting will also be moved.
Despite the fact that some of the comments aimed at Werner and the board were profane, Mike Tully, Brittany’s step father, said this was “an important step” in pursuing what happened to Brittany.
“We needed this to happen to get it out,” he said.
One supporter said he planned on coming to every board meeting to protest until the family and community received answers. Werner told the audience it might take eight-to-10 months before the police or village will be able to comment publicly on the case.