The stories that stick with us: Remembering a story that never was written
Sometimes the best stories are the ones we never write.
It was December 1992, Bill Clinton had just been elected president and I was a reporter about to be covering one of the hottest news stories of the year.
It was only days before Christmas. Kane County Sheriff's deputies were investigating a case of two girls who were left alone for nine days in their Tudor-style Campton Hills home while their parents vacationed in Acapulco, Mexico.
The girls, Nicole and Diana Schoo (their names were widely publicized at the time), were 9 and 4. They were left cereal and frozen dinners, told not to eat too much and to avoid going outside.
On Dec. 21, an overflowing bathtub triggered a smoke alarm, prompting the girls to run to neighbors for help. The neighbor's frantic 911 call to police triggered a media circus unrivaled in Kane County history.
Because a sequel to the popular holiday movie "Home Alone" was playing in theaters, the children were promptly labeled the "Home Alone" girls, and the parents the "Home Alone" couple, among less flattering names. This was before the proliferation of cellphones, and the parents, David and Sharon Schoo, were blissfully enjoying their tropical beach vacation, unaware of the tsunami building at home.
As they stepped off the plane at O'Hare International Airport on Dec. 28, they were blindsided by detectives, cameras and reporters. The media frenzy was off the charts.
In the ensuing months, it was learned the parents had mentally and physically abused their girls in other ways. A 64-count indictment alleged the parents left their children alone on 10 separate occasions, repeatedly abused their daughters by kicking, scratching and whipping them with a belt, by pulling their hair and confining them to tight spaces (a bedroom and crawl space) for long periods of time. Four-year-old Diana could barely talk.
As the case wound through court, much was written about the parents and girls, the details of their lives, the explanations for their decisions. In the initial weeks, every major twist was a mob scene of reporters and interested spectators. Cameras were everywhere. CNN was broadcasting live.
Later in 1993, the parents separated and each pleaded guilty to misdemeanor crimes. The laws at the time were vague, and prosecutors were worried the felony charges would not stick. The parents were sentenced to home detention, community service and two years probation.
Later, they agreed to relinquish custody of their children to foster parents. "Those children will be lucky if they come out of this with normal lives," said one attorney connected to the case.
The story was notable for many reasons, not the least of which was the over-the-top media coverage it received and its holiday connection. The case, however, changed laws in Illinois and around the country regarding child abandonment, and made parents everywhere circumspect about how often and how long to leave kids home alone.
But that's not why it was memorable to me.
Eventually the news cycle moved on and the parachuting journalists left town, perhaps to cover the firing of Mike Ditka as Chicago Bears head coach or the next story breaking around the country and world.
The case of the "Home Alone" girls largely faded into obscurity after the summer of 1993. But what about the plight of the girls?
When the media coverage exploded, the dozens of reporters descending on rural St. Charles and the downtown Geneva courthouse each wanted the exclusive about the girls and their placement in foster care. Where were they living, what did they remember, how were they abused, did they want to see their parents?
It would have been a ratings and circulation bonanza to the reporter who got the scoop, and I recall many were trying.
But can you image the scene those children would have faced had they been exposed? A horde of reporters shouting questions, the street outside their foster home looking like a homeless city with tents and cameras everywhere?
A career in journalism allows you to cover many stories, and there are many I remember. But so few touched me like this one. At the heart of it were two young, frightened and lonely girls who were no doubt wondering what they did wrong and asking why they couldn't see their parents or go home.
Through no fault of their own and the all-to-common stupidity of adults, they were thrust into a media spotlight they did not ask for and could not comprehend, unfairly labeled on account of the timing of a comedic Christmas movie. But their case was no joke.
It was not long after the case ended that I did learn the fate of the girls. A trusted source told me the identity of the foster parents, revealing the girls' address and where the girls went to school.
I was given this sensitive information because I was an experienced, known local reporter, not one who rides in and out on the wave of publicity. I was there long after the circus had left town.
Over the years, I knew of other reporters, local and metro, who also learned the identity of the girls. And while there was no deliberate collusion between news organizations, no nod and a wink over drinks, no one wrote that story.
I think that's what stands out to me the most about this case -- the basic humanity and genuine restraint displayed by a handful of local reporters.
Years later, I had coffee with that foster mother, not on the record and not for publication. I wanted to know how the story ended. She told me about the girls, who were then living under their foster family names.
They had friends, school activities, a normal life. What more could you ask for as an outcome to such a tragic chapter?
Nearly 30 years later, only a few anniversary stories have been written about the "Home Alone" case, and none has outed the children or their foster parents. As for the girls, they, too, have never spoken publicly about their 15 minutes of fame.
• Daily Herald Media Group President Scott Stone joined the company in 1997.