— Sandy Fonzo’s voice was filled with anguish as she confronted the judge whom she believed had in effect given her son a death sentence after a juvenile arrest on a comparatively minor drug paraphernalia charge.
“Do you remember me?” she cried. “Do you remember my son? He’s gone! He shot himself in the heart.”
The dramatic showdown took place on the steps of the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa., moments after former Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted by a federal jury on 12 of 39 counts, including racketeering, for taking nearly $1 million to funnel thousands of kids into a privately run detention facility. And it made Fonzo and her son, who committed suicide nine months ago, the public face of what federal prosecutors have called one of the worst cases of courtroom fraud in U.S. history.
But it still has not given Fonzo the peace she’s been seeking, she told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday.
“I think it was good for me to be there at that moment and actually speak right to him and tell him right to his face that pain that he’s created, and what he’s done to my son,” Fonzo said. “I just want to see some justice — I want to see some justice for these kids, and I want to know my son’s ... death was not in vain.”
Never the same
Fonzo’s son, Edward Kenzakoski, was an energetic high school wrestler who had never been in trouble with the law before he was arrested on minor charges and hauled into Ciavarella’s court in Luzerne County, Pa., at age 17. Though jail time for such offenses is rare, Ciavarella, along with his colleague Michael Conahan, had a reputation for giving draconian sentences for comparatively minor offenses, and authorities later determined that between them they collected nearly $3 million in kickbacks to send some 4,000 young offenders to a private juvenile facility run by associates of theirs.
Kenzakoski was one of those youths, and received a six-month sentence. Ciavarella, Fonzo told Curry, “ripped him out of our home, out of our life. He never looked into the whole picture of the kids; he lined them up, one by one, and he sent them away, shackled them, sent them to places that ... God knows what went on.
“My son just never recovered from that,” Fonzo added. After he completed his sentence and returned home, “no matter what we did, it just never let him go, it just kept snowballing.
“He wasn’t the same kid, he didn’t have all that energy, he was depressed, he was sad,” Fonzo said, her voice cracking slightly. “He just lost hope ... and he started drinking.”
Even after information from a mob informant led federal investigators to open an investigation that led to the indictments against Ciavarella and Conahan, Kenzakoski’s downward spiral continued, Fonzo related. She said her son told her: “Mom, it will never happen. He’ll never go to jail, he’ll never pay.”
And then, nine months ago, Kenzakoski, took his own life at age 23.
Free on bail
Fonzo believes that his death was the direct result of Ciavarella’s actions. As her attorney, Marsha Levick, who appeared with her on TODAY, put it: “Sandy’s son’s story typifies what happened to so many of the children in Luzerne County, thousands of children who were pulled before Ciavarella for very trivial misconduct — joyriding, possession of drug paraphernalia, minor harassment ... shoplifting. They appeared without lawyers ... they had hearings that lasted two or three minutes and were handcuffed and shackled and led off.
“The story of Sandy’s son is tragic in ways that none of us can even imagine,” added Levick, who has filed suit to expunge the records of all those juveniles who appeared before the two judges. “But the kind of trauma that all of the kids and families experienced up there as a consequence of the corruption and criminality that was ongoing, this widespread violation of children’s constitutional rights, was really extraordinary.”
For the moment, both Ciavarella and Conahan remain free on bail awaiting sentencing. Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, but Ciavarella continues to maintain his innocence. And that enrages Fonzo.
“My son is gone,” she said. “I’ll never have him back. But for [Ciavarella] to just finally admit his guilt and stand up there and just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry to all these people, I was wrong,’ and give these kids a little bit of healing, and a little bit of faith in our system,” is all that she’s asking, she said.
Fonzo said her son died believing that “there was no justice, that he was the bad one,” when in reality, she said, it was the judge who was the real criminal. “I want these kids to all know that they were not the bad ones. He’s the bad guy.”