Woman's ordeal in jail leaves parents in bewildered grief

August 27, 2006|By David Heinzmann | David Heinzmann,Chicago Tribune

Chicago -- Hour after hour, Christina Eilman threw herself at the bars of her cell at a South Side police lockup, shrieking threats one moment and begging for help the next, pleading that she was ill.

Even the women in adjoining cells, many of whom were used to the chaos of lockup, were alarmed at Eilman's unremitting distress. Many of them joined in, calling out to guards on Eilman's behalf.

"I heard that girl screaming for her life, `Take me to the hospital. Call my parents,'" Tamalika Harris, 26, said in a recent interview. "The way she was screaming and kicking on the bars, I knew something was wrong."

A woman in a nearby cell recalled the response of police officers: "Shut up."

In California, Eilman's mother, Kathy Paine, was calling Chicago police a dozen times through the night and following day. How could she rescue her 21-year-old daughter, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was stranded in an unfamiliar city and had been arrested after a disturbance at the airport?

Time after time, she says, police told her to call back later.

The last time Paine called May 8, police floored her with unexpected news: Eilman had been released, walking alone out the front door of the station into one of Chicago's highest-crime neighborhoods.

Three hours later, Eilman plummeted from a seventh-floor window of a nearby public housing high-rise, wearing only underwear -- a shock that has raised troubling questions within the Chicago Police Department about whether officers' actions led a vulnerable woman to disaster.

A man is awaiting trial on charges that he abducted and raped her, but whether Eilman fell, jumped or was pushed remains a mystery.

To the amazement of those who found her, Eilman survived. But she will never fully recover from the injuries to her body and brain, her doctor said.

Through interviews with three women who were locked up with Eilman, and with Eilman's parents, the Tribune has pieced together a more complete picture of the agonizing hours leading to Eilman's fall, and the ordeal that continues for her family.

It is the first time witnesses have spoken publicly about what went on during Eilman's time in police custody, and their stories are remarkably consistent: She continuously cried out for help, sometimes hysterically, and police repeatedly rebuffed her.

The Chicago Police Department is expected to soon conclude an internal investigation of officer conduct during the 29 hours Eilman was in custody. Meanwhile, city lawyers are quietly trying to settle the $100 million lawsuit Rick and Kathy Paine filed on their daughter's behalf.

But the suburban Sacramento couple's attention and energy are focused on their daughter, who lies on a bed in the brain-injury unit of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Eilman suffers daily pain and confusion. She is able to make only the most rudimentary responses and endures frustrating therapies she can hardly comprehend.

Police declined to comment on the specifics of the case while the investigation and lawsuit proceed.

The first sign of Eilman's bipolar disorder came in February 2005. Driving along the California coast south of Monterey, she lost control of her car and struck a utility pole, her mother said, though she was able to walk away from the wreck.

A friend called her parents the next day, saying Eilman was behaving erratically. When they arrived to take her home, they were shocked.

Eilman spent 37 days in a psychiatric hospital after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, an illness that causes unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to function. Upon her release, she was prescribed medication, but she said she didn't like the way the pills made her feel and stopped taking them after a few days, her mother said.

As time went on, and Eilman moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at UCLA, her parents grew more confident that their daughter was better.

But after one semester Eilman was faltering. She told her parents she was taking fewer classes so she could work more hours at her job in a health club, but in truth she had dropped out.

The Paines said they never found out who brought their daughter to Chicago, or how she ended up alone. About 11:30 p.m. May 6, a distraught Eilman called her parents from a rental car counter at Midway Airport and said she was stranded.

Rick Paine asked his daughter to put a rental-car clerk on the phone, and the man gave him enough information to guide his daughter toward a hotel shuttle. He arranged a room for her at the Holiday Inn Express in Bedford Park, near the airport.

Rick Paine bought her a ticket for a 5:15 p.m. Sunday flight from Chicago to Burbank, Calif.

In the morning, he talked to her on the phone several times.

About 4 p.m. Chicago time, a police officer in the Chicago Lawn District station, which covers Midway, left messages on both Paines' cell phones, asking them to call as soon as possible. Eilman had been arrested for creating a disturbance.

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