Wonder Lake family copes with the aftermath of violent crime

Activists say system to help victims can be flawed

Bozena Czerchlanski's voice shakes when she tells the story of the day her brother was attacked and beaten half to death in his Wonder Lake home.

A neighbor called and told her he was dead.

Czerchlanski screamed. She cried. She pleaded. She raced to the hospital.

Mike Czerchlanski survived by a thread. He languished in a coma for five months. His attacker, a friend and roommate, 49-year-old Bernard Nicholl, was charged with attempted murder.

Nicholl's prosecution is over, there are no more court dates; the headlines have faded, it's no longer news – but for the Czerchlanski's, the effects of Nicholl's crime are long-lasting and catastrophic.

As a result of the beating, 53-year-old Mike Czerchlanski suffered a traumatic brain injury. His speech is often disjointed and nonsensical. He has a large indented scar on his hair line. He suffers from hearing and vision problems. He has a crooked gait from his limited mobility.

His daily needs are met by his 80-year-old Polish speaking mother, who prepares his meals, takes him for daily walks, and doles out his medicine.

For the past two years, his sister has tried to keep her brother's Wonder Lake home – where the crime occurred – from falling into foreclosure. His entire $950 monthly disability checks go to the mortgage.

Bozena Czerchlanski asked for help putting a handicapped accessible ramp on his home. She's asked for money for physical therapy or nursing care. At each turn, she says, she's repeatedly turned away. She's hit a wall or had the door shut in her face. She worries about what happens when her mother passes away.

"My brother, he needs some help," Bozena Czerchlanski said. "The state refuse[d] to do anything for him. They forgot about him."

"Look at him," she continued. "He will, for rest of his life, need 24 hours care. … How [do] you care [for him] if you don't have any help [from] anybody?"

The same pleas she cried on that frantic drive to the hospital haven't stopped more than five years after the crime.

"Please help me because I don't know what to do."

Victim's activists says the Czerchlanski's story is sadly typical. The farther removed from the crime, the harder it is to provide victim's with resources in what some have called a flawed system.

"A person remains a victim for the rest of their life," said activist and author Bill Jenkins. He runs IllinoisVictims.org. "If they are a victim of a violent crime, that has a lasting impact."

Resources, said Jenkins, whose teenage son was murdered 17 years ago, often are more accessible to those within the prison, than the victims of their crimes.

"Prisoners are taken care of, given educational opportunities, given vocational opportunities. They're kept reasonably safe from one another," he said. "The problem is the resources available to prisoners are much greater than resources available to victims."

Through the Illinois Constitution, victims of crimes are guaranteed several rights, including the right to be treated with respect, kept informed of and allowed to be present at court hearings and trials, the right to communicate with the prosecutors and more.

Through his organization, Jenkins is advocating for more teeth to Illinois' Constitutional right for victim's rights, and guaranteeing those rights are afforded to all victims, with penalties if they're not.

The state already has in place the Crime Victims Compensation Act. Through the Illinois Attorney General's Office, a compensation fund was established to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses related to the crime. The fund – capped at $27,000 – can pay for medical care, funeral expenses, counseling, lost wages and more.

It's a great effort for the immediate aftermath of a violent crime, Jenkins said, but it doesn't go far enough.

"What we're hoping is that victim's rights will be enforceable at all levels not just immediately after the crime," he said.

State's attorneys offices throughout the state are equipped with victim advocates, who, among other responsibilities, can assist victims with filing the application for compensation from the Attorney General's program.

In McHenry County, there are two advocates, whose primary function is to help victims navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system.

But because of limited resources, some advocacy programs – especially in larger, high crime areas – have been forced to triage.

"My dream is that every victim of a violent crime is met with the resources necessary to help them, based on their needs, form the moment of victimization, all the way through until they do not need assistance any longer."

His dream world could make the Czerchlanski's life easier. Bozena said her brother still desperately needs help.

Mike Czerchlanski came to the U.S. in 1983 and was later naturalized. He was a divorced dad with two children and had a contractor business when the crime occurred.

Despite Nicholl's lengthy criminal history – he has convictions for driving under the influence, drug possession and burglary – Czerchlanski provided him with a temporary home and gave the man work.

On May 9, 2009, Nicholl eventually was kicked out Mike Czerchlanski's Wonder Lake house, but instead, Bozena said, Nicholl waited for Mike to return home and beat him repeatedly with a clothing iron. Bozena said Mike was left to lie in a pool of blood.

Authorities upgraded Nicholl's charges to attempted murder, and eventually the man took a plea deal – nine years in prison, with the possibility for parole in January 2017.

"It makes you angry, upset," Bozena Czerchlanski said. "Where is the law? Who is the law? Do they keep my brother's side or the people who [did] horrible things [to] my brother?"

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