An anguish that won’t end
Originally published March 1, 2011
By TIM NOVAK, CHRIS FUSCO AND CAROL MARIN
After her son was punched in the face and knocked to the ground outside a Rush Street bar, Nanci Koschman says she heard from the Chicago Police Department just once.
It was on the night of April 25, 2004, hours after the punch that left 21-year-old David Koschman with a brain injury that would take his life 11 days later. The call came as Koschman sat at her son’s bedside at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“It was a lady detective,” Nanci Koschman recalls. “She just said: ‘Your son was involved in an altercation. We’ll be in touch.’ ”
But no one ever called. Days passed. Her son underwent heart surgery and then another operation, this one to remove portions of his swelling brain. She says her one short conversation with the detective quickly became a “distant memory.”
On May 6, 2004 — a Thursday, Koschman remembers — her son’s doctors told her his brain had swelled to the point it was beginning to push out his eyeballs. David had been through enough.
“We went down on Thursday, and we made the decision to turn off life support and let him go,” says Koschman, who cried through much of a two-hour interview. “And I sat and held him till his heart stopped.”
The Mount Prospect woman had lost her husband to a blood clot in his heart nine years earlier. But this was her only child. It was shortly before noon. And her ordeal was just beginning.
Koschman buried her son on May 11, 2004, in the same Arlington Heights cemetery where she’d buried her husband, Robert.
More than two weeks had passed since David Koschman was mortally injured. She hadn’t heard back from the police and knew little about what happened that night.
What she did know was this: David had gone bar-hopping with four friends he knew from growing up together in Mount Prospect. They were planning to stay overnight in Bucktown at the apartment of one of the friends, then catch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field the next day.
His friends told her David had brushed up against somebody on the sidewalk as they left a bar at 9 W. Division and traded obscenities with the man and others who were with him.
She could see from the cut on his lip when she got to the hospital that he’d been hit in the face. David’s friends also had told her the man who’d hit him looked at least a half-foot taller than her 5-foot-5, 140-pound son and that he’d run off afterward.
She didn’t know anything about the group her son and his friends ran into until she caught the news on TV the night of May 20, 2004. The TV report said a nephew of Mayor Daley — Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko — was part of the group David had bumped into. Vanecko had been in legal trouble before — he’d pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge stemming from a 1992 brawl at an underage-drinking party thrown by Daley’s son, Patrick Daley, in Grand Beach, Mich. Other news outlets quickly picked up the story. Suddenly, David Koschman’s little-known death was thrust into the spotlight.
Nanci Koschman left her house for the weekend, getting away from the reporters camped outside her home.
“When all the articles hit, I didn’t understand it was a police investigation, I guess,” Koschman says of how she viewed things then. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this before. All my friends are trying to help me just get through each day.”
Newspaper stories over the following week quoted authorities saying her son had been “pushed or punched” during an altercation with three other men but that no charges would be filed.
Frustrated, Koschman asked a lawyer — the sister of a friend — to set up a meeting with the police.
“After all of the news broke . . . I feel like I’m being bombarded,” she recalls. “I wanted to sit down with them and figure out what happened.”
Her brother-in-law and the lawyer accompanied her to Area 3 detective headquarters at Belmont and Western. A detective whose name she can’t recall met them in a conference room and “sat back in a chair with his legs crossed, leaning back.
“There was no case as far as this detective was concerned. It was all my son’s fault. He came in with an attitude when he walked in the room, like he was doing me a big favor.
“He turned the whole thing to my son started it, provoked it and — I don’t want to say this — deserved what he got.”
She remembers the detective telling her, “Your son was drunk.”
The detective didn’t identify any of the people her son had run into that night, she says, but did tell her, “You’d be really impressed by the names of the people involved in this.”
“I said, ‘My son is dead. I don’t care who is involved in it.’ ”
The meeting lasted no more than half an hour. Koschman, who’s 62 and works as a secretary in a medical office, says it ended with the detective telling her that the people her son and his friends had run into that night had hired lawyers.
“All of their attorneys have been here,” she recalls him saying, “but your son’s [friends] came down with their mothers.”
This January, the police began re-investigating Koschman’s death, the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC5 reported Monday. Detectives began re-interviewing Koschman’s four friends — Scott Allen, James Copeland, David Francis and Shaun Hageline — who were with him the night he was punched. The series of new interviews happened days after a Sun-Times reporter filed a request with the Chicago Police Department on Jan. 4 seeking police reports about the matter.
The four friends, now speaking publicly for the first time, all told the Sun-Times that the police and prosecutors were wrong about the slightly built Koschman being the aggressor that night and concluding that whoever hit him had acted in self-defense.
Vanecko’s group that night included Craig Denham, a former LaSalle Bank official who later married a sister of Mayor Daley’s son-in-law, and Kevin D. McCarthy and his wife, Bridget Higgins McCarthy. She’s a daughter of developer Jack Higgins, a close friend of the mayor.
Kevin McCarthy was 31 and his wife 26 on the night their lives intersected with those of Koschman and his friends, who all had recently turned 21.
The McCarthys remained on the scene after Koschman was struck and fell. Denham and Vanecko, both 29 at the time, ran away, the Sun-Times reported Monday.
The McCarthys and Denham declined to comment. Vanecko did not return calls seeking comment.
Nanci Koschman says the police haven’t gotten in touch with her about the new investigation, which she learned about from a reporter.
“You are telling me they are saying it’s an open case?” she says. “Wouldn’t that be nice if somebody tells me it’s an open case? As far as I’m concerned, it’s closed, dead.”
As a 12-year-old, David Koschman watched his father die.
“His dad sat down on a sofa one Sunday night,” Nanci Koschman says. “He was a smoker, and he had a clot that went from his leg to his heart, and it killed him. It was a hard thing for any young kid.”
David Koschman became the man of the house, cutting the grass and shoveling the snow and taking on more responsibilities.
“I think he was more responsible because of his father’s death,” his mother says. “He faced life a little bit differently.”
He also grew closer with his mother, occasionally passing on spending a night out with his friends during high school to spend time with her. Now, she finds every day without David is a struggle.
“My family reunions are walking between two headstones,” says Koschman. “You know, I go from my son, and then I go see my husband. . . . It’s a tough life now.”
She knows the people who bumped into David that night didn’t intend for her son to die and concedes that David “made a bad decision” by not walking away.
“I wanted him to be a man,” Koschman says. “I wanted him to stand up for himself. But I certainly didn’t want him to die at 21.”
She can’t believe that her son — who she says never had so much as a speeding ticket — physically attacked anybody the night he got punched.
To pay for his funeral, she took out a mortgage on her modest ranch house. She says she never tried to get answers by filing a civil wrongful-death lawsuit because she is “not out looking for money” and also doesn’t want to see her son’s name dragged through the mud.
Nearly seven years after David Koschman died, his mother says she’ll never forget her last words to him.
“I stood up, and I yelled, ‘Dave, I’m leaving, have a good time, call me tomorrow.’ And I had my hand on the doorknob, and to this day I don’t understand why, but I put my purse down and walked back into the room, his room, and he looked at me, and I said, ‘Give me a hug and a kiss goodbye.’ And I hugged and I kissed him, and he hugged me real tight. And I said, ‘Have a great time, and be careful.’ And you know how people always say, ‘What was the last thing you said?’ I said I loved him.”