A few of the nearly one dozen parents of “Forgotten Victims of Drug-Induced Homicide” who took to the street on July 18, call for awareness in front of the Palos Heights Police Department on College Drive.
Photo by Anthony Caciopo
By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
Parents stood in front of the Palos Heights Police Department on busy College Drive to put the faces and stories of their deceased adult children firmly in the public eye, children who died of drug overdoses.
And by setting up in front to the police department on busy College Drive, they had a message for law enforcement, too.
“We’re losing too many people and unfortunately law enforcement is not pursuing these drug dealers,” said Terry Almanza, herself a police officer in another jurisdiction.
Her daughter, Sydney, died after taking ecstasy in 2015, a substance Almanza said was unlawfully delivered to her.
Amid frequent horn beeping from motorists, some of whom slowed to look more closely at the protestors’ signs, Almanza took a bullhorn to deliver one of many messages.
“Why are drug dealers getting away with murder?” she said.
“Pursuing persons within the chain of delivery sends a clear and unmistakable message to drug dealers that anyone profiting from the misery and suffering of an unlawful sale of a controlled substance, that results in a death, will be held criminally liable.”
“The Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide” were displayed to hundreds of passers-by July 18, as well as to motorists who were pulling in and out of the police department parking lot.
One of those “victims” was Henry Michael “Hank” Van Witzenburg, who died March 19, 2017. His mother, Carla, carried his poster-sized photo aloft as she walked a short route back and forth on College Drive.
“He was a nature-lover and adventure-seeker,” she said. “He had just come back from a long trip. Hank was ‘clean’ but a local drug dealer who he had not had any ties with for a long time found Hank and distributed to him what Hank thought was heroin.
“In his autopsy, it said it was all fentanyl,” Carla said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as a pain medication. It is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and 50-100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
It is frequently laced with other drugs in an intensity unknown to the user, often resulting in death.
Ninety-one people die every day in the U.S. from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Illinois, of the 2,278 statewide drug overdose deaths in 2016, 80 percent were opioid-related fatalities, according to the Illinois Dept. of Human Services. That’s an increase over the previous year well into the double-digits.
And drug overdoses are now reportedly the number one cause of death in the U.S. for people under the age of 50.
“If Hank had the opportunity to know if it was fentanyl he wouldn’t have taken it,” said his mother. “The drug dealers, what they do is essentially take away the choice of life or death, and they leave it like roulette. Hank paid the ultimate price. He was poisoned to death right here in Palos Heights.”
Another family with a Palos Heights connection at the protest were the survivors of Jake Stakas, who died Oct. 17, 2017.
Jake had purchased Xanax off the street, they said, and unbeknownst to him it was laced with fentanyl.
Stakas died at the Palos Heights home of his grandmother, Linnea Kelly.
“It hurts your heart and it never goes away,” she said. “I have his picture, I say good morning every day. I miss talking to him.”
His sister, Maddie, tried to hold back tears as trucks rushed past on College Drive, almost drowning her out.
“He was my best friend,” she said. “Just his presence, just him coming over, we’d fake-box, play basketball. We were really close . Everything reminds me of him.”
Lauren Laskey, Jake’s mother, said “If we could stop one more family from losing a loved one, and encourage these police departments to really get on it and stop these drug dealers.”
Carla, Hank’s mother, says she’s got nothing against the Palos Heights Police who investigate (and continue to investigate, according to the department) her son’s death, but she’s frustrated.
“They were honestly sincere,” she said. “I understand, to a certain degree, it’s hard to do, to bring cases to the State’s Attorney, but there’s a statute that’s very black and white.
“It just doesn’t pertain to drug cartels or gangs in the city, it pertains to distributing illegal substances to individuals who ingest it, resulting in their death,” Carla said. “That’s what happened to Hank and the rest of my fellow moms out here.”
The statute referred to by Carla is an Illinois law on the books since 1989, called “drug induced homicide.” Condensed, it says that up to 30 years in prison could be the judicial fate of anyone found guilty of causing another person’s death by providing drugs.
Deputy Chief Bill Czajkowski of the Palos Heights Police Department said “If you read that, it specifies under what criteria is in order to charge someone with the offense. It’s a pretty broad statute and it (can be) difficult to charge.
“Misdemeanors are approved by us; felonies we have to go through a process where we present evidence and it’s actually up to the on-duty Assistant State’s Attorney if felony charges will be approved,” he said.
“It’s a Class X felony, a very serious charge. It definitely fits the crime. They’re difficult to get charged,” Czajkowski said, adding that the department feels for the families affected.
“They’re active investigations and they’re currently being investigated,” he said, noting that the police “have turned to our federal partners” in trying to bring a resolution.
“We treat them all alike,” he said of any death investigation in Palos Heights.
The July 18 protest and public awareness campaign in Palos Heights was one of many done by The Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide, who rally every month at a different location to call attention to the problem and pressure law enforcement to do more.
Some of the other parents who took part in the demonstration included Mary Fagan of Palos Heights who lost her daughter, Bridget; John and Laura Kearns, and daughter, of Chicago, whose son, Ryan was found dead, dumped in Hammond, Ind. from his car that the killers allegedly stole to bring him there; and Linda of Orland Park, whose son, Keith died in her house at 34 years of age.
All are seeking justice against the people they say are responsible for pushing the illegal drugs that caused the death of their loved ones.
“They’re not considered victims,” said Almanza, who had been using the bullhorn, speaking of the children she and the other parents have lost.
“They made a choice to use drugs but never a choice to die.”
More information can be obtained by searching Facebook using the keywords The Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide.