The father recites the last months of his son's life in a numb voice. The school principal announces the death over the public address system. The juvenile officer sends condolences to the family of the deceased.
Everybody says it shouldn't have happened, that Chester Wiczulis, 17 years old, shouldn't be dead today, only nobody knows how it could have been stopped.
Some of the kids knew him as Chester the Cheetah. They said he could jump off a roof and land on his feet. He was quick, and he knew karate, and a lot of the kids said you didn't want to mess with Chester right up until the glue sniffing and the paint sniffing started getting the best of him.
"I found a paint can here in the basement," the father, Edmund Wiczulis, says yesterday morning. He has papers spread on a kitchen table, six months of his son's criminal troubles put into bloodless legal shorthand. There are names and phone numbers on the papers, people from the criminal justice system who had Chester in their grip and never quite held on.
"Paint," the father says again. "He couldn't keep his clothes clean. Sometimes I'd find paint in the house, and sometimes he'd come home with paint on his clothes. Honest, I begged the boy to quit. He just wouldn't listen. I took him out of town to the country for a week, figuring it'd get him away from these other kids who were doing this stuff. It didn't help."
The father called the principal at Patterson High School, Dr. Frank Thomas, who has seen this before. Ed Wiczulis said he wanted help for his son. Thomas said there was a problem: Chester had no criminal record. He'd have to be arrested before juvenile authorities would step in.
It didn't take long. First there was a theft charge, and then a joy ride in a stolen car, and then the cops caught Chester sniffing glue.
"I started calling everybody for help," Ed Wiczulis says. "I talked to the police, and I talked to the juvenile master. I talked to the people at the Hickey school, where they held him for 30 days. 'Please get my boy some help,' I said."
Chester the Cheetah could land on his feet, but he was falling through the cracks in the juvenile justice system. The father says he called juvenile authorities, who never managed to call him back. He wanted his son picked up and locked away, anything to protect him from himself.
"One day," Ed Wiczulis says, "I finally get this fellow from juvenile services to come out. I said Chester's in his room upstairs." No, he wasn't. He climbed out the window and jumped down and ran off.
There were convictions here and there, but nothing stuck. Probation and probation. The system has too many serious offenders to look at the kids like Chester. The father continued to look for help, and the son continued to kill his brain cells with the paint fumes, and then last week everything stopped.
Chester jumped from a second-story landing, but he did it with something tied around his neck at one end and a banister at the other end. He didn't land on his feet, because he never reached the floor.
The father wants to know why it happened. He looks at his two older boys, both of whom graduated from Patterson High and lead productive lives today. Why couldn't Chester have turned out like them?
He thinks of the phone calls hemade and the juvenile system that shrugged its shoulders. He holds up a card from a juvenile case manager, Lou Kohlman.
"Remember," the note says, "it wasn't your fault. Call me if you want to talk."
"Let me say this," Kohlman says yesterday morning. "We're going crazy here."
He is talking about the city's Department of Juvenile Services. Chester Wiczulis is a mirror image of a lot of kids, he says. The system can't cope with them. They're not bad enough to warrant immediate attention, but they're dangerous to themselves.
"I don't even know why we're going to court anymore," Kohlman says. "There are no places to put these kids. Hickey is full; the forestry camps are full. There's no money for residential placements. We have no money to do the job even if we had places to put these kids.
"I got Chester's case back in December, and I never even saw the boy. The court issued a writ, my supervisor was ordered to bring him into court, but Chester went out the back window. The writ's still outstanding."
xTC Kohlman says he has half a dozen kids just like Chester on his caseload, kids sniffing glue or paint. One of them went AWOL from Mountain Manor, a drug treatment center on Frederick Avenue. He was with Chester 24 hours before Chester died.
When the kid heard the news about Chester, Kohlman says, he turned himself back in.
Maybe there's a message in that: Let people know where the substance abuse took a kid who thought he could beat it. That's why Ed Wiczulis went to Dr. Frank Thomas last week and asked him to announce Chester's death over the school public address system.
It was a simple announcement that went into classrooms all over the building, a warning to the other kids.
"That's all I wanted," Ed Wiczulis said. "I just wanted to let the children know it could happen to anybody."