Before she died in 2004, Kathleen Savio, the third wife of former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson, repeatedly warned authorities she would be killed. Now her death has been reclassified a homicide. Why wasn't there a stronger response to her pleas for help?
One October afternoon in 2001, Kathy Savio Peterson walked out to the mailbox in front of her house on the west side of Bolingbrook and found an envelope containing a single sheet of paper, an anonymous letter. The writer claimed that Kathy's husband, Drew Peterson, a Bolingbrook police sergeant, was having an affair with a 17-year-old village employee. "Village officials (Mayor, trustee's,) [sic] and everyone at the police department have complete knowledge of this situation," the letter said. "It has been an ongoing joke within the department." The letter went on to warn her: "Protect yourself and your family."
By then, Kathy had been married to Drew Peterson for almost ten years, and their marriage—it was his third, her first—had always been volatile. But this affair was more than Kathy could handle.
Soon after she got the letter, Kathy and Drew separated, and Drew filed for divorce. As the proceedings moved slowly toward settlement, their relationship continued to be rocky, and the Bolingbrook Police Department was repeatedly called on to intervene. All the while, according to Kathy's sister Sue Doman, Kathy predicted: "He's gonna kill me and it's gonna look like an accident."
With increasing desperation, Kathy sought the protection she thought she needed, including, her lawyer says, reaching out to the Bolingbrook police and the Will County state's attorney's office. Little was done on her behalf.
On March 1, 2004, she was found face-down in her master bathtub. The tub was dry, but her hair was wet, and there was a gash on her head and blood in the bottom of the tub.
"Did he kill her?" Sue remembers asking when another sister, Anna Doman, called at 1:30 a.m. with the news.
"I don't know," said Anna.
Two months later, a Will County coroner's jury ruled the death an accident.
As the world has learned by now, authorities reopened the case late last year after Drew Peterson's fourth wife—Stacy, the young village worker with whom he had had the affair—disappeared, setting off a frenzy of media coverage. This past February, a new autopsy led to a different finding: that Kathy had been murdered—the victim of a "homicide staged to look like an accident," according to state's attorney Jim Glasgow. No one has been charged, and Drew Peterson has denied any involvement in the death.
As the state's attorney's office and a grand jury continue to investigate the case, one question that keeps coming up is why no official responded aggressively to Kathy's alarms. Her family says she came to believe her husband's connections in the tight network of officials in Bolingbrook and Will County predisposed the authorities not to take her pleas seriously.
Several local officials deny that they ignored her. Bolingbrook mayor Roger C. Claar, for one, says that he knew Kathy but that she never contacted him with her concerns. Bolingbrook's former police chief, Mike Calcagno, says he gave her his cell phone number.
Still, her widely shared and repeated predictions that she would be killed came true. The story of her futile efforts to get help bears further examination.
* * *
Kathleen Savio was the youngest of four children of a heating and air conditioning installer named Henry Savio and his wife, Mary, who brought their kids up near Leavitt and Taylor streets in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood. They divorced when Kitty, as she was known within the family, was two. Later, the mother remarried and moved the family to Melrose Park. Kitty dropped out of high school, moved into her own apartment at 17, got a GED and later an associate's degree in marketing at Triton College. The stepfather didn't work regularly and Henry Savio didn't pay child support, Anna remembers, so under the "tough" circumstances, the kids moved out early.
"It was very important for her to accomplish things," Sue says, listing Kitty's ambitions in order: She wanted a career, she wanted a home, and she wanted kids. Anna agrees: "She wanted everything right. She wanted to fall in love, that Ozzie and Harriet family. That's why she didn't get married until she was almost 30."
Kathy worked in an accounting job. Shortly after ending a five-year relationship with an accountant from Bridgeview because, according to Sue, he didn't want to get married, she agreed to a blind date with a police officer from Bolingbrook. She would soon find out that Drew Peterson was in a crumbling marriage to a second wife, but any qualms she had were overwhelmed by other feelings. "She was crazy about him," says Anna. He also owned a house, and Sue remembers Kathy almost boasting one day about having found so prosperous a prospective partner: "He wants me to come over to help him buy a washer!"
Within six months of their first date, he divorced his wife and proposed to Kathy. She was somewhat troubled by the fact that after their dates he would regularly call and demand that she tell him she loved him. But she later admitted to a friend that she was attracted to Drew's "bad boy" narcotics cop persona. She accepted, and they were married in 1992. She was 29.
In some ways, Kathy Peterson had everything Kitty Savio had wanted: Two boys were born, Tommy and Kris; she and Drew owned a tavern, called Suds Pub, in Montgomery, Illinois, and Kathy kept the books. They lived in a thriving Chicago suburb, and they thrived themselves, taking occasional vacations—including one trip to Hawaii—that exceeded the surly bonds of her working-class upbringing.
But the marriage was fiery. During one altercation with Drew in 1993, she hit her head on the dining-room table, according to a Bolingbrook Medical Center report. Her sisters think Drew physically abused her, though they say Kathy didn't want to talk about it. "But we saw the bruises," says Anna. (Through his attorney, Joel Brodsky, Drew denies there was any physical abuse in the relationship.)
People who knew her outside the context of her marriage described her as charming and likable, but the divorce battle with Drew—they argued over custody of the children, proceeds from the sale of the bar, and other issues—apparently ignited her emotions. One friend described Kathy during that period as alternately panic-stricken, tense, and lonely, "like a trapped animal." Harry Smith, the Wheaton-based divorce attorney who saw her through her split with Drew, said Kathy was "excitable and anxious" about matters involving Drew, but he added that exaggerated emotionality is not uncommon among parties in divorce cases.
* * *
Bolingbrook didn't exist when Kathy Savio was born in 1963. The oldest subdivision in the town dates to 1964, and in 1970, only about 7,000 people lived in the just-incorporated village due south of Naperville. Now Bolingbrook's population pushes 80,000 and, until the recent housing slowdown, it was one of the fastest-growing suburbs in Will County, which is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States.
But inside Bolingbrook's Town Center—a brick complex that houses all village government functions and an amphitheatre—things haven't changed all that much. In many ways, the culture of the place recalls the days when Bolingbrook was a small town, when most of this land was still planted in corn, when Drew Peterson was a young star on the little suburban police force, and a feisty school administrator named Roger Claar was working his way from village trustee to become the town's hard-charging Republican mayor. (See "Reporter," Chicago, October 2007.)
So in 2001, when Mayor Claar got wind that Peterson, the police sergeant he had known for two decades, was involved with a young staffer named Stacy Cales in the village clerk's office, Claar saw it as something to deal with directly. In a recent interview, Drew Peterson told Chicago that Claar called him over to his house and angrily demanded, "Where the fuck is your head?" Claar warned him he'd never make lieutenant if he kept it up with Stacy. Nonetheless, Drew said, Claar seemed amused by the sergeant's romantic escapade and told him, "Hey, all right, Drew!"
Through his spokesman, Bolingbrook village attorney Jim Boan, Claar acknowledged having had a conversation with Drew and asking him, what was he thinking when he chose to pursue a relationship with a woman that much younger than himself? But Claar said he didn't remember the meeting taking place at his house and insisted he never condoned Drew's relationship with Stacy Cales. Claar also said that he knew Kathy, but that she never contacted him "to express any concerns or complaints about the police department."
Kathy had repeated contacts with the Bolingbrook police, however. In response to inquiries from reporters, the department released a list of 19 calls for service, over about two years, starting in February of 2002; most involved minor disputes over visits with the children—they had what Smith, the lawyer, calls "traditional joint custody," giving Drew the kids every other weekend and some weekdays—but several confrontations turned physical. Twice Kathy had been reported for domestic battery, but charges were eventually dropped and the record was expunged. At the very least, the complaints show two people willing to go to great lengths to torment one another.
On March 11, 2002, Kathy filed for an emergency order of protection, which was granted by Will County Circuit Court judge Jeffrey Allen. Kathy wrote on the petition that Drew had threatened her over the phone and later had run after her. "[Drew] wants me dead," she wrote on the petition, "and if he has to he will burn the house down just to shut me up." But on March 19th Drew's attorney filed a motion to reopen the order, and on March 22nd it was dismissed. Anna says Kathy reluctantly let the order drop because she was concerned the legal action would impinge on Drew's livelihood, on which she and her children still depended.
Several months later, on July 5th, an incident between Kathy and Drew came to the attention of the state's attorney's office. By then, Drew had moved to another house in the same subdivision. Their versions of what took place differ, as recorded in a Bolingbrook police report. By Kathy's account, she came down the stairs one day carrying a basket of laundry and Drew surprised her: "He pushed her backwards, causing her to sit on the stairway," the report says. "He told her not to move and when she tried to get up he pushed her back down. . . . He asked her if she was afraid and she told him she was. She finally told him to go or do what he came for, kill her. He said, OK, where do you want it. She told him in the head. He took out his knife but then said he could not hurt her."
As recounted in the same report, Drew maintained that Kathy had invited him over to talk, and he denied he had carried any weapons. He said they met on the stairway and sat on the stairs, talking. "They discussed the divorce, the children, what had gone wrong, etc. for approximately three hours. They cried, hugged, and Kathleen tried to kiss him, but he did not kiss her. She exposed her breasts and pubic area to him and asked if he missed this at all. . . ."
The Bolingbrook police submitted the report to the office of the Will County state's attorney, who at the time was Jeff Tomczak, a Republican political ally of Roger Claar (and a passing acquaintance of Drew). Kathy told her sister Anna that the state's attorney's office did nothing to help. Bolingbrook's current police chief, Ray McGury, thinks the state's attorney's office decided not to pursue the July 5th incident because Kathy had waited almost two weeks after it happened before reporting it to the police.
In November that year, Kathy frantically wrote Elizabeth Fragale, an assistant state's attorney under Tomczak: "On three different occasions I have tried to reach you over the phone," Kathy wrote. She went on to describe a number of physical and verbal altercations involving her, Drew, and Stacy, and she said of Drew, "He knows how to manipulate the system, and his next step is to take my children away. Or kill me instead. . . . I haven't received help from the Police here in Bolingbrook, and [am] asking for your help now. Before it's to late [sic]. . . . Please return my call, or write with answers to my questions."
Fragale, now a prosecutor for Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, and Tomczak, who now runs his own law firm in Joliet, won't discuss their response to Kathy's pleas. A spokesman for the current state's attorney, Jim Glasgow, says the office has been unable to find any documents indicating how the letter and the police report were addressed. Anna, who helped Kathy write the letter, says Kathy got no response from the state's attorney. Smith, who advised Kathy throughout her separation and divorce proceedings, said the state's attorney's office invited them to come in once for what he characterized as a cursory interview that was never followed up on.
(Kathy sent a copy of the November letter to Walter Jacobson, then a Fox News Chicago anchor. A separate cover letter argued that her story was not "your typical domestic" dispute, but a story about "corruption in Bolingbrook, and Will County." Jacobson says he can't recall getting the letter.)
At one point, Kathy appealed directly to the Bolingbrook chief of police for help. She had come to know Mike Calcagno during her marriage to Drew, and considered him a friend. "If anything happens to me," she told Calcagno, according to her sister Sue, "it's because Drew's killed me." Though there was an internal Bolingbrook PD investigation in conjunction with the July 5th incident, Calcagno did not officially discipline Peterson for that incident nor for any other matters relating to Kathy, and it's not known whether or how he took things up with Drew unofficially.
Now retired, Calcagno told Chicago that it would be "inappropriate" for him to say anything about the case with an investigation ongoing. He said that he took Kathy's warnings seriously enough to give her his cell phone number. He added, with his voice full of emotion, that she was "a beautiful person."
Why didn't Mayor Claar dress down the sergeant personally for the ruckus he and his wife were causing in their Bolingbrook subdivision, the way he had confronted Drew about his affair with Stacy? Boan, the village attorney, says that the mayor "had no knowledge at the time about the number of  calls that were placed to dispatch by these individuals."
Drew Peterson offered Chicago another theory: The mayor sympathized with him because "Kathy was known as a hellcat." Drew recounted a public event in the 1990s where a drunken Kathy leaped onto Boan's lap and kissed the mayor. Boan and Claar say they don't recall this incident. At any rate, the mayor concurs with Drew's assertion that, when it came to his noisy, lengthy dispute with his third wife, "Not a word was said" to him by the mayor.
Drew's attorney, Joel Brodsky, has his own theory as to why no official intervened in response to Kathy's many cries for help: In his experience, Brodsky says, it is not unheard of for women going through divorces to claim their husbands are trying to kill them. Brodsky adds an old divorce attorney's saw: "In criminal cases, you have very bad people acting very good—'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir.' In divorce cases you have very good people acting horribly."
Veteran Chicago divorce attorney Tracy Rizzo agrees that often people going through a divorce are hysterical, but as to whether they accuse a spouse of trying to kill them, she says, "Absolutely not."
By the fall of 2003 Kathy had a boyfriend, a new career path, and a plan: Once her divorce was finalized, she would sell the house and move her boys to nearby Mokena, where, upon graduating from the nursing program she was attending at Joliet Junior College, she would work at St. James Hospital. Her attorney, Harry Smith, says a temporary support hearing early in 2004 indicated that in the divorce settlement Kathy was likely to be awarded the house, child support, maintenance, a percentage of Drew's pension, and cash proceeds from the sale of Suds Pub.
"We were going to have a big party," Sue remembers. "The balloons were going to say, 'You made it!'"
Kathy remained fatalistic, however. Anna and Kathy's nursing-school colleague Mary S. Parks offered to let Kathy and her boys move into their homes for protection. Parks recalls that by late 2003, Kathy "felt [Drew] was going to get her" no matter where she went. "She felt like he was omnipotent."
Jan Russell, who runs a program against domestic violence for the Chicago Police Department, says that attitude is typical. Russell will not comment directly on the Peterson case, but she says that abusive officers often convince their wives they have connections throughout the law enforcement and political system, whether they actually have the connections or not.
Kathy's body was discovered March 1, 2004. "Local officer finds estranged wife in bathtub," read the article March 3rd in Joliet's Herald News; "no signs of foul play."
* * *
In the days immediately following her death, records show that state police, who had been brought in to investigate because the matter involved a Bolingbrook policeman, presented the case to then State's Attorney Tomczak as a potential homicide. The Chicago Tribune has reported that a state police investigator in this case also appeared before a grand jury at that time. A spokesman for the state's attorney will not comment on the grand jury, but adds that when the current state's attorney took office half a year later, in the fall of 2004, his administration received no indication that the case was ongoing.
A coroner's jury also looked into the circumstances of Kathy's death. The coroner's jury system, now widely considered anachronistic, involves a hearing at which the coroner questions investigators and other witnesses in front of a six-person jury. The jury rules on the manner of death, and its ruling is often factored into the state's attorney's decision as to whether to pursue the case. (In January 2007, Illinois law was changed to make the use of an inquest optional.)
In the hearing on Kathy's death, Will County coroner Pat O'Neil questioned Sue Doman. According to the transcript, Sue said it was "very hard for me to accept" that her sister's death was an accident, given the impending conclusion of the divorce case and in light of her history with Drew. "She was just terrified of him."
Next, state police officer Herbert Hardy represented the state police's opinion that the death was an accident. He wasn't the lead investigator in the case and had not visited the crime scene. But he said Drew Peterson had an alibi, corroborated by his wife, Stacy. "His current wife was interviewed, his job was interviewed, all those neighbors around in his area were—were talked to," Hardy testified. "We have no reason to believe at this time that . . . he was not where he said he was."
After just two witnesses and O'Neil's presentation of the pathology and toxicology reports, the jury took less than an hour (as one juror told Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren) to determine that Kathy's death was accidental.
O'Neil told Chicago he thought all along that the proper ruling would have been that the manner of death was "undetermined." In the aftermath of the inquest, he recalls feeling "kind of empty." (O'Neil, a Democrat, is up for reelection in November. Recently, his Republican opponent, Charles Lyons, has made the handling of the inquest an issue in the campaign.)
Sue remembers feeling shocked and defeated. "We left with our heads down," she says. The family believed there was nothing else to be done. Their overwhelming feeling was, "We lost."
* * *
Drew Peterson married Stacy Cales in October 2003, and when she disappeared mysteriously last October 28th, investigators took a new interest in Kathy's death. Her body was exhumed and Larry Blum, an independent forensic pathologist, conducted a new autopsy. In February, nearly four years to the day after Kathy's death, Blum concluded that her death had been a homicide by drowning. Now a special grand jury is investigating the case. Drew Peterson expressed surprise and skepticism at the new finding.
Kathy's sister Sue says she regrets not having made more noise after the coroner's inquest. Both she and Anna have suffered from depression since their sister's death. Anna wishes she had "got [Kathy's] butt out of Bolingbrook," she says, adding, "maybe we should have brought her to a safe house."
Others sharply second-guess the actions—or lack of same—of officials alerted to Kathy's fears. Bolingbrook's new police chief, Ray McGury, says that given the same set of circumstances as his predecessor, Mike Calcagno, he would have reprimanded Peterson officially after reviewing evidence. "Two or three internal investigations should have been done," he says. "I'd have had him in with his union representation. I'd have said, 'Your personal life is affecting your professional life.'" (Drew Peterson retired from the force in November.)
DuPage County state's attorney Joe Birkett, who is president of the Illinois State's Attorneys' Association, says that if he got a police report like the one forwarded by the Bolingbrook PD or got a letter like the one Kathy sent, he would at the very least "bring the victim in for an interview" and determine the strength of the case she had. If indeed her concerns were ignored, Birkett says, "that is awful."
* * *
While they wait to see what happens in the murder case, Kathy's sisters have filed a lawsuit seeking to reopen Kathy's estate in preparation for a wrongful death suit against Drew Peterson. They say they are also considering suing the institutions that failed to respond to her calls for help.
They believe Kathy herself would want them to do it. "She is persistent—she's reaching out from the grave," says Anna. "Maybe she is a hellcat."