A 20-year-old man has been living alone in Crystal Lake the past 18 months trying to piece together his life since his mother, a former high-ranking Lithuanian judge, has been in federal custody, where she faces extradition.
In 2013, when Karolis Venckus was only 13, he and his mother, Neringa Venckiene, fled to the U.S. for fear of political persecution after Venckiene outed an alleged pedophilia ring.
Venckiene’s efforts to save a child and her revolt against the Lithuanian government began in 2008, when her then-4-year-old niece said she was being sexually molested, Venckus said.
Venckus recalled leaving their home in Lithuania under a dark sky, driving to Germany, boarding a plane and flying to Chicago.
Today, he lives alone in the home they shared with their dog, Bella; eats junk food; works part time for a food-delivery business; and attends classes at McHenry County College.
But he also takes the train to Chicago a couple of times a month to spend about five hours visiting with his mother at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
While together, they talk about books, movies, school and the basic details of their lives.
Venckus also spends much of his time sharing her story and working with attorneys fighting for her freedom.
Among many efforts, he has created a website to share his mother’s story, freeneringa.com.
He described a recent visit with his mom as “good.”
“It was nice to see her,” he said. “But the worst part of it is that she doesn’t know if they are just going to take her away.”
He never knows whether one of those visits will be the last time he sees her.
When his mother learned U.S. marshals had come to their home to arrest her, she turned herself in.
The last time they embraced outside of the federal prison was just before she walked in.
“She didn’t believe she would be [in custody] this long,” Venckus said.
If his mother is extradited, he said, he is not sure of his future.
“Honestly, I don’t really know yet,” he said, adding that he might go to Europe, finish school and become a lawyer, like both of his parents.
But first and foremost, he is focused on his mom’s fate.
“Many people connected to this case have died in mysterious circumstances, and there was even an attempt on my mom’s life,” he said. “If she goes back, I’m extremely worried for her safety.”
How it began
When they arrived in the states in 2013 seeking asylum for fear of political persecution, each obtained temporary resident status.
Venckiene worked as a nursing home aide and florist, while Venckus attended school. At Prairie Ridge High School, he was a competitive swimmer.
They led a law-abiding, seemingly quiet suburban life in their home on a tree-lined street.
The saga began in 2008 in Lithuania, when Venckiene’s brother’s child told her grandparents she was being molested by three men who were friends of her mother’s. They later were identified as Lithuanian public officials, according to court documents.
During this time, the girl’s parents no longer were together, and her father had custody. The girl would have visits with her mother, according to family and court documents.
Venckiene said these claims never were properly investigated.
On Oct. 5, 2009, one of the suspects and a family member of the child were found shot to death in a vehicle.
The girl’s father was suspected to have been responsible. He never was charged, and he was found dead April 20, 2010, under suspicious circumstances, according to court documents and Venckiene’s family members.
On June 13, 2010, another man also named as a suspect in the molestations, who was the only person charged criminally, was found dead under suspicious circumstances, according to the family members and court documents.
In all, that’s four deaths within two years of the accusations. However, family members said there are other suspicious deaths likely linked.
As the alleged molestation case was pending in a Lithuanian court, Venckiene was granted custody of the child.
Until May 17, 2012, under a Lithuanian court order, the girl was forcibly taken from Venckiene and returned to her mother. She has not been seen or heard from since, according to court documents and the family.
Venckiene went on to use pedophilia crimes as a political platform, and she was elected to Parliament. She wrote two books about abuse against children and political corruption, and remained outspoken against the Lithuanian government.
Venckiene, her family members and supporters back in Lithuania have been charged criminally for several crimes, including speaking out against the Lithuanian government.
Venckiene fears that if she is returned to Lithuania, she will not receive a fair trial, face a lengthy prison term, or even could be tortured or killed, her family and attorneys have said.
A battle at every turn
Venckiene’s asylum hearing was rescheduled from July 22 until 2022, and her family and attorney said it is unclear why.
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a 2018 ruling denying Venckiene a stay in extradition.
In the motion, her lawyers wrote that if she is returned, she could be subject to “particularly atrocious procedures or punishments.”
The Chicago-based appeals court wrote that it was its duty to comply with the extradition treaty. It is not its role “ ‘to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to justify a conviction.’ … That is the job of the requesting country.”
Mike Monico, one of Venckiene’s attorneys, said she could be returned to Lithuania at any time.
“This is just a shame,” Monico said. “She’s sad – terribly sad that this is happening.”
Attorneys are filing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it is unclear whether the high court will accept it.
Among the 35 charges pending in the Lithuanian court – 14 of which are in the extradition request – are two felonies obligating the U.S. Supreme Court to honor the extradition treaty, said her attorneys and cousin, Vilija Ball.
The felonies – resistance against a civil servant or a person performing the functions of a public administration (involving bruising a police officer) and hindering the activities of a bailiff – stem from an incident May 17, 2012. On that day, police and an attorney for the girl’s mother ripped the screaming child from Venckiene’s grip as a crowd of hundreds surrounded her home. The girl was 8 years old at the time.
The Lithuanian government also charged Venckiene with leading a group “and organized unlawful harassment of individuals related in her judgment to the so-called ‘pedophilia
ring,’ ” according to a document titled a pretrial investigation order/decision by the Kaunas District Court in Lithuania.
The order further accuses Venckiene and her supporters of libel, conspiracy, defamation, slander, stalking and surveillance of the individuals they believe were part of the alleged pedophilia ring.
It is a crime in Lithuania to speak out against the government, Ball said.
Ball believes more charges will be filed against Venckiene when she is returned, including murder charges.
“Lithuanian media is already speculating that she is probably going to be a suspect in all the murders that took place in association with the pedophilia case,” Ball said. “This is really tragic because they did not investigate those murders when Neringa was demanding they be investigated, and now they might use her as an ultimate scapegoat to cover up their crime and at the same time punish her.”
The case that may never be heard
Had she been allowed her asylum hearing in July, attorneys would have presented reports of interviews between the girl and multiple psychologists, who determined that her tales of molestation by at least three men were true.
Venckiene also would have presented videos of the May 17, 2012, event when at least 200 armed Lithuanian police officers stormed her property – some wearing face shields – and the girl was forcibly pried from Venckiene’s arms.
All the while, chaos was erupting outside Venckiene’s home. On the video, shouting is heard from a crowd of her supporters trying to protect Venckiene and the child inside.
Inside the home, video captures the little girl crying and holding onto Venckiene, calling her mother by name and yelling for her to leave, saying she does not want to go with her.
Venckiene’s supporters are seen forming a chain with their hands inside the home looking outside onto the riotous scene and praying.
Ultimately, police rushed inside, and the girl continued to scream and fight against those who were trying to take her away.
A blanket, some believe doused in a chemical to subdue her, was tossed over the child’s head, and she ultimately was swept away in a van.
Venckiene went on to exploit the crimes of pedophilia as her political platform. She was elected to Parliament in 2012, but she became too frightened for her and her son’s safety, and they fled.
Mark Davidson, a Chicago-based immigration attorney, filed motions to speed up Venckiene’s asylum hearing. Instead, the hearing was postponed from this past July until 2022.
The denial came in a brief response from the Office of the Legal Adviser and Law Enforcement Intelligence, an office of the State Department.
The reasons could range from the judge being on vacation to another case having priority. But simply, Davidson said, it comes down to “bureaucracy.”
Ultimately, the decision to extradite comes down to the State Department “refusing to stop the extradition,” Davidson said.
“As far as I’m concerned, the State Department had the authority to stop it and not honor the extradition request,” he said.
Davidson said his client fears being sent back, as well as the likelihood of long imprisonment and harsh conditions “for what appears to be … political reasons.”
“She is afraid that she may be killed,” Davidson said.
He asked that those who support her write to their representatives and senators.
He noted a private House bill in support of Venckiene’s asylum written last year by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who represents New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District.
Smith questioned the hastiness to return Venckiene to Lithuania.
“The bill would ensure that Judge Venckiene gets her day in U.S. court – due process to ensure that we are not sending her back for further persecution by the government officials she called out for corruption,” Smith said in a recent email. “She has been waiting six years for her hearing in the U.S. … What is the harm of letting her present evidence in U.S. court that the charges against her are politically motivated?”
In 2018, former U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Illinois’ 14th Congressional District also filed a bill calling for Venckiene to “have her day in court.”
However, Davidson said, such private humanitarian bills rarely go through.
“It ultimately comes down to the State Department and whether they will reverse their decision,” he said. “At least give her her day in immigration court. … So far, they haven’t.”
For now, Venckus will focus on the time he can spend with his mother and spreading the word about her case.
“One thing that the Lithuanian government fears is publicity,” he said. “If enough people know about my mom’s case, the Lithuanian government might change their course of action.”
He still remembers clearly the day the little girl was taken by police – the angry crowds, the chaos. He was only 10 years old.
“I was in another room watching it all unfold on our security cameras,” he said. “It is 10 years later, and it is still hard to believe that all happened.”