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.

Screaming for answers

  • Written by Bob Rakow

Brittany’s family and friends slam mayor and police
chief, as officials forced to stay quiet on teen’s death

Emotions boiled over at Tuesday’s Worth page-1-color-2-abd-a-half-col-top-right-photoWorth Mayor Mary Werner, speaking in bottom photo, and the village board listened for an hour as citizens. including Rebecca Tully, above, criticized them and the police in the handling of the cause of death of her daughter, Brittany Wawrzyniak, during Tuesday’s board meeting. Photos by Jeff Vorva.Page-1--Color-2-and-a-half-top-left-photoVillage Board meeting as friends and family of Brittany Wawrzyniak demanded answers from village officials about the five-month investigation into the 18-year-old girl’s death.
Worth Mayor Mary Werner took the brunt of the anger, accusations and name-calling from an angry crowd that grew more infuriated as the night wore on and the mayor repeatedly said she could not talk about the case.
“We need to know that you have confidence in your police department,” a supporter shouted. Others called Werner “a cold-hearted woman” “a heartless b----” and demanded that she and Police Chief Martin Knolmayer either quit or be fired.
More than 200 people packed the gym at the Christensen Terrace Centre, 115th Street and Beloit Avenue, which served as an alternate location for the meeting to accommodate the large crowd.
Supporters walked to the center from a nearby makeshift memorial dedicated to Wawrzyniak, located across the street from the center. When they entered the building, they were searched for weapons after a post on the RIP Brittney Facebook page threatened violence at the meeting.
Wawrzyniak’s mother, Rebecca Tully, and other supporters, said they understood that Worth police cannot not comment on details of the investigation. However, they do not believe the family has been treated during the investigation, she said. She also commented to the board that the members were rolling their eyes during Brittany’s supporters’ comments.
“We are upset about the way we have been treated,” said Pat Wawrzyniak, Brittany’s father.
Rebecca Lane, Wawrzyniak’s grandmother, also chastised the village board.
“To slam my granddaughter with the reputation as a drug user—shame on you. Shame on all of you,” Lane said. “Your reputation in Worth is worthless. That’s the reputation your police department has.”
Tully said she’s dissatisfied with the numerous unanswered questions surrounding her daughter’s death, which occurred Nov. 8 when she was ejected from a moving car near the Worth boat launch, 115th Street and Beloit Avenue.
“Was she pushed? If so, who pushed her? Was she pulled? If so, who pulled her? Did she jump out? If so, why?’’ Tully asked. “Why did the investigators wait four months to contact the people who called 911?
“Why have the investigators been treating us, her family, all along like we’ve done something wrong. Brittany is the victim not the criminal. We just want to know what happened,” Tully said. “There have yet to be any charges associated with the death of Brittany.”
Werner defended the police department, saying officers have spent hundreds of hours interviewing people and examining phone records and Facebook postings. Critics in the crowd shouted that it was hundreds of wasted hours.
“A thorough investigation does take a lot of time,” Werner said. “I cannot give you information. I cannot answer questions.”
Neither Police Chief Martin Knolmayer nor any of the village trustees commented during the portion of the meeting devoted to Wawrzyniak, which last about one hour.
Werner added that police have met on several occasions with Wawrzyniak’s mother and father to update them on the status of the investigation.
“I’m sure that everyone who has taken time to come here tonight would not want us to do anything that could possibly jeopardize either the criminal case of the criminal investigation,” Werner said.
She added that misinformation in the media and on Facebook has led to “a lot of the frustration for everybody that is involved in the situation.” She did not, however, attempt to clear up any perceived misinformation surrounding the case.
Werner said the case isn’t expected to be closed for eight to 10 months.
“It’s actually the state’s attorney’s office that brings charges. Our job is to investigate, to gather the evidence and the facts that will support any type of criminal charge,” Werner said.
Prosecutors say Wawrzyniak met Eric Steven Johnson at the boat launch, got into the back seat of his car and handed him $200 in exchange for 30 pills of Clonazepam.
They also said Wawrzyniak began counting the pills while still in the backseat 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.