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Son's addiction reached point of murder, suicide

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  • Matthew Smyl, of Cary, allegedly murdered his mother and then committed suicide Jan.15, 2001, at his parents' residence in Cary.

      Matthew Smyl, of Cary, allegedly murdered his mother and then committed suicide Jan.15, 2001, at his parents' residence in Cary.

 
Sara Burnett
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Editor's note: This story originally ran on May 8, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

As he sat with Cary police late on the night his wife and son died, Jacek Smyl, a staid, Polish-born electrician not normally prone to expressions of emotion, sobbed openly.

"Basia," he cried over and over. "Basia, Basia."

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It was the name he called his wife Barbara, her Polish name.

"I can't believe he did it," he continued.

"Why?"

It was a question officers weren't able to answer that night - one they say they probably never will.

Earlier on the evening of Jan. 15, 2002, Jacek, known to most people as Jack, had returned home from work to find his wife dead in the basement of the family's Cary home, a knife protruding from her eye.

According to the coroner's report, Barbara had been stabbed 10 times in the neck and head. More than two dozen cuts and bruises covered her body.

Jack knew his wife and their only child, Maciej - whom most people called Matt - had argued earlier that morning about money Barbara believed Matt had stolen to buy heroin.

Matt had been sitting in the living room watching "The Simpsons" when Jack arrived home, police reports show.

Now, as he walked upstairs, Jack began screaming at the 20-year-old, demanding to know what had happened.

Matt said nothing as he rose slowly from the couch and began walking toward his father.

Then he turned, and Jack saw the hammer.

The two fought, and Jack, the older and stronger of the two, managed to get the hammer away from his son.

He ran to a neighbor's house and yelled for her to call 911, then ran back across the street. There, he told police, he found his 20-year-old son on the floor of an upstairs bathroom, his throat slit with his own knife.

Matt died later that night.

Toxicology tests later found the young man had used heroin in the hours leading up to his death. Interviews with his friends and co-workers revealed he may have snorted as many as 11 bags of the drug throughout the day.

Yet what happened inside the house on Ridgewood Drive that day and night still defies an explanation.

Certainly, police and others could blame the deaths on the drugs. But most people who use heroin never do what Matt did.

They could say Matt was disturbed, that he had some kind of emotional problem that led him to kill. But whether he would have turned so violent were it not for the drugs, no one will ever know.

What they do know is that for the most part, Matt Smyl was a quiet student at Cary-Grove High School who teachers said was talented at art.

They know that he and his parents lived in a nice house in a late 1980s Cary subdivision, that his father, an electrician at Gurtz Electric in Arlington Heights, was the family's main breadwinner, and that his mother stayed home to care for them, putting dinner on the table at the same time every night.

And though they're not certain why, they know that somewhere along the line, everything went terribly wrong.

A budding artist

Art was Matt's thing. He didn't play sports, wasn't on the student council, didn't sign up for the slew of activities some kids use to pad their college applications.

Instead he sketched and painted. And he was good at it, his former instructors recall, winning an award his senior year at the school's annual art show for a still-life he painted of a combat boot.

In class, Matt said little but got good grades, earning a regular spot on the school's honor roll. Outside class, he hung out with a small group of friends, his former teachers say.

After graduating from Cary-Grove in 1999, Matt went to Columbia College in Chicago to study art.

He apparently didn't stay long. School records show Matt was last enrolled at Columbia in the spring of 2000.

Matt rented an apartment in the city for a while, one of his friends told police. But he was kicked out of the building a short time later for being "destructive," the friend told investigators.

Back at home, Matt worked at various jobs. When he wasn't working, neighbors often saw him sitting by a retention pond in the subdivision, sketching and writing in a notebook.

The same neighbors described Matt to police as a "strange, loner-type kid" who they believed did a lot of drugs, though no one seemed to know just when or how the drug use started.

At some point, Matt also started dressing in a style known as "gothic" - all in black, with a chain wallet and combat boots.

The boots - similar to the ones in the award-winning drawing - were a point of contention in the Smyl house, Jack Syml told Cary detective Ed Synek after the deaths.

" (Jack) said they drove him nuts because they left marks on the hardwood floors," Synek recalled. "They argued about it."

Jack, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also told Synek that his son was bright and artistic but that he had a problem with drugs, could be "very lazy and angry" and that he "did not run with the best of friends," Synek told a coroner's jury during a February inquest for Barbara Smyl.

But if there was trouble inside the Smyl home, few people were let in on the secret.

Jack and Barbara Smyl, both born in Poland, moved to Chicago about 20 years ago. Matt was born in the city, but the family moved to Cary sometime in the late 1980s, neighbors and police said. There, they lived a very traditional lifestyle.

Deeply religious, the Smyls attended a Catholic church in Algonquin regularly.

Jack left the house for work most mornings by 6 a.m. Though Barbara worked for some time as a private nurse assistant and was going to school to be a Realtor at the time of her death, for most of their marriage she stayed home, cared for the house and cooked for her son and husband.

In the spring and summer, Barbara would plant elaborate landscaping outside the family's house, neighbors said. Sometimes she would have lunch or coffee with one or two other women in the neighborhood, but the Smyls were never overly social, and many neighbors said that even after more than a decade, they didn't really know the family.

"They were quiet," neighbor Jeff Kroger told the Daily Herald shortly after the deaths.

On more than one occasion, police said, neighbors heard arguing coming from the house. But officers were never called to the home, Synek said, probably because the Smyls believed disagreements were a "family affair."

"Even if they needed to call the police, they wouldn't," he added.

But that didn't stop area police from finding Matt.

Troubles with the law

In 1995, when he was 14, Matt was picked up for arson. Because he was a juvenile at the time, the details of the crime and any punishment are confidential, but Synek testified during the coroner's inquest that the incident involved the burning of a house.

Matt's next run-in came in March 1999, when police records show he was accused in Crystal Lake of criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct and a driving complaint.

In January 2000, Fox River Grove police say Matt and a friend used a tire iron to destroy a mailbox outside the home of a woman who had accused the teens of making harassing phone calls to her.

Matt was arrested, and court documents show his mother quickly posted a $5,300 cash bond to get him out of the McHenry County jail.

In a plea deal, Matt was placed on two years of probation, fined $2,032 and ordered to serve 100 hours of community service.

His most recent arrest came in October, when Fox River Grove police cited Matt for disorderly conduct after he spit food on a car outside a local business. He pleaded guilty and paid a $275 fine, court records show.

While nothing in Matt's criminal history suggests drug use, his friends, neighbors and father all told police it was a problem that escalated in the year before his death.

Last summer, Jack and Barbara kicked Matt out of the house for a time, Jack told police. A neighbor said Barbara told her that she and Matt had had a fight about money she believed Matt had stolen from her to buy drugs. During the argument, Matt hit Barbara in the face, the neighbor said.

That fall, Matt's girlfriend broke up with him. According to police reports, the girl's mother told officers her daughter, who no longer lives in the area, was concerned about Matt's "excessive drug use."

A neighbor about Matt's age told police she was aware Matt had gotten into heroin, and said he once carved the word "sensation" in his right forearm with a knife, apparently for no reason.

Matt's supervisor at the Hobby Lobby in Crystal Lake, where he was working at the time of the murder-suicide, told police Matt had come to work more and more often in the weeks before the killings with a glassy look in his bloodshot eyes.

The manager, Matthew Stevenson, said he would have fired Matt, but the young man had put in a notice to quit effective Jan. 17 because his family was planning to move to the Northwest suburbs.

Twice, Jack told police, he and Barbara sent Matt to a drug treatment program in Rockford to help him kick his heroin habit.

While they believed Matt did better afterward, the treatment didn't stick either time, Jack said.

If anything, Matt's drug use was becoming more frequent, his behavior more "odd," several of his friends and co-workers told police.

Matt began complaining more and more about his parents, they said, often expressing anger particularly for his mother, who probably was paying closer attention to his behavior than he would have liked.

One of his friends, a neighbor who also worked with Matt at the Hobby Lobby, described the young man as "having no conscience."

Shortly before the Jan. 15 deaths, Barbara and Jack apparently became fed up once more with Matt's behavior.

Jack told police he and his wife issued Matt an ultimatum: Go back to drug treatment or get out of the house.

Matt didn't do either.

A fateful day

No one knows for certain what happened inside the Smyl home or in Matt's mind on Jan. 15, but through their investigation, police collected a relatively thorough accounting of the most likely scenario.

Jack Smyl left for work that day around 6 a.m., police say. Barbara was still sleeping.

Around 7 a.m., Matt tried to "forcibly take" $30 or $40 from Barbara's purse. The two argued, and Matt took off, apparently going to the house of a neighbor who also worked at the Hobby Lobby.

Barbara came looking for Matt a short time later, the neighbors told police, but the young men already had left for work. Barbara told the neighbors she and Matt had had a fight. She was bleeding from scratches on her hands, according to police reports.

At 8:05 a.m., Matt and his friend both clocked in to work at the Hobby Lobby in Crystal Lake. Five minutes later, Matt told his supervisor he had to leave because his family was "too (messed) up" and that he was about to "snap," police reports show. He then clocked out and left work.

Investigators are unclear how or when Matt got home from work. They do know that around 9 a.m., Barbara called Jack at work to tell him about the argument. Jack asked if she wanted him to come home. Barbara said no.

At 11 a.m., Jack spoke to Barbara again, and she told him she was going to the store, according to police reports.

When Jack tried calling again around noon - and several more times throughout the day - he got no answer.

No one recalls seeing Barbara or Matt again until about 2 p.m., when neighbors said they saw Matt walking through the subdivision with scratches on his face.

About 3 p.m., Matt returned to work driving his mother's Nissan Maxima. He "bragged" to several people that he had gone to Chicago and bought 11 bags of heroin, one of his co-workers told police. Then he left, apparently to go back to Cary.

Police believe Matt killed Barbara sometime after the 11 a.m. phone call from Jack, then took her car to get the drugs. Several pieces of Barbara's jewelry were missing from the house, and detectives surmise that Matt took the items after killing Barbara, then sold them at pawn shops on Chicago's West Side to get money for the drugs.

Around 4:45 p.m., Matt showed up at the same friend's house he had visited that morning, just down the street from his family's home.

There, Matt tried to give his friend several of his compact discs and DVDs. Matt had an "insane look in his eyes," another friend who was at the house told police. Before he left he told them "the only thing that can stop me is jail or death." He didn't elaborate or explain the comment, the friend said.

A few minutes later, another friend called Matt on his cell phone. He had heard about Matt's strange behavior and wanted to see if he was OK.

Matt tried to give his CDs and DVDs to that friend too, telling him he was "going to burn in hell," the friend told detectives.

He then told the friend he had "a big bloody mess to clean up," that he had killed his mom and was waiting for his dad to come home so he could finish "part two" of the plan. He also said he had been planning the deaths for some time, but "just got around to doing it," according to police reports.

Why the friend didn't call police at that time, officers aren't sure. But it might not have mattered, because just minutes later, Jack arrived home from work.

It struck him the moment he walked in the house that something was wrong. Usually, he could smell his wife's cooking from the doorway. Tonight, he smelled nothing.

Walking into the living room, where his son sat watching "The Simpsons," Jack asked Matt where his mother was.

"She went for a walk," the young man replied.

When Jack asked why Barbara's shoes were still by the door, Matt said nothing.

Jack could hear the family's cat scratching from behind the door to the basement. That, too, was odd, Jack told police, because the cat never went downstairs.

When he let the animal out, it hissed, arched its back and ran from the room.

And then he saw her.

At the bottom of the steps, surrounded by boxes and a bucket, Barbara lay on the floor of the unfinished basement. Her long, dark hair covered her face. Blood pooled around her head. On a white refrigerator next to where she lay, someone had written the words "Sorry Mom," apparently with Barbara's blood.

Jack told police he ran downstairs and tried to pick his wife up. Realizing she was dead, he went back upstairs to confront his son.

Matt came at Jack in the kitchen, Jack told police. The two struggled for two to three minutes, breaking at least one chair, before Jack got the hammer away from his son.

He went to call police, but got no dial tone. Detectives believe Matt took the phone off the hook earlier in the day, probably because he was annoyed that it kept ringing.

Jack then ran across the street, where he pounded on the neighbor's door.

"Call 911," he yelled. "My son just killed my wife."

When officers arrived, Jack directed them upstairs, where they found Matt sitting on the floor, his back against the tub, his head rolled back. He had slit his throat and stabbed himself in the neck more than once, police said.

Paramedics tried to stop the bleeding as they transported Matt to Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, reports show.

Matt was pronounced dead in the hospital's emergency room later that night.

Back at the Smyl house, one of the first things Jack asked police was if they would call him a priest, Synek recalls. The priest who arrived a short time later spoke Polish, and as Jack wept, the man comforted him in his native language.

Follow-up investigation

For all the conversations, the investigations, the attempts at reconstructing what happened that day, Cary police are still at a loss for what really happened.

They believe this was something Matt planned to do, perhaps for some time. Whether killing himself was a part of the plan all along, no one knows.

A Cook County pathologist told detectives that with the amount of heroin Matt had in his system at the time of his death, he likely was experiencing such a strong adrenaline rush that he didn't feel the pain of his self-inflicted injuries.

"He probably thought at that point, he was going to get locked up, and he didn't want to go to jail," Synek said.

As the lead detective in the case, Synek has kept in contact with Jack since the January deaths.

"His wife was everything to him," Synek said. "Now that she's gone, and his son, it's been devastating."

The case has troubled the detective, too.

"It bothered me for a while," Synek said. "I've gone over it a thousand times in my head. ...Every time I end up in the same place.

"The kid was messed up. He killed his mom, and he killed himself. It's just an unfortunate situation."

On Jan. 26, a Mass was said for Barbara and Matt at a church in Baily, Poland, near Krakow. Afterward, they were buried in a nearby cemetery.

That same weekend, a death notice ran in a Chicago Polish newspaper, Dziennik Zwiazkowy.

It listed their names and ages: Barbara Maria Smyl, 52, and Maciej Piotr Smyl, 20.

Mother and son, the notice read in Polish, they died Jan. 15, 2002, in a tragic accident.

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