The Chicago Tribune of January 16, 1995, ran a story of a mother, Carol Spizzirri, lamenting the death in an auto accident of her 18-year-old daughter, Christina, in 1992. “This is my girl,” whispered Spizzirri at her daughter’s grave, said the newspaper. “I can still feel her hand. And I see her everywhere. Her hair at the grocery store. Her smile.”
In 1993, Spizzirri had gone on to found the Save-A-Life Foundation, for teaching first aid to students. She was greatly responsible for a 1995 law requiring Illinois police officers and firefighters to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. By this time, Spizzirri was a darling of politicians and bureaucrats, although it was a matter of record that she had been convicted twice for shoplifting. Save-A-Life began raking in money from government grants.
But few, if any, seemed to have noticed that less than a month after that 1995 Tribune story appeared, the newspaper had retracted key points. In the first story, the writer had said, “The first police officers on the scene balked at administering aid. By the time the paramedics arrived, Christina had bled to death on the highway.”
On February 7, 1995, the Tribune stated that Christina had “died in a hospital more than an hour after the accident,” not on the highway. The story had suggested that Christina died from bleeding from a severed arm. But the Tribune had to admit she had died of multiple traumatic injuries, including a depressed skull. The police officers who came to the scene had not “balked” at administering first aid, but they were not trained in the practice. “It is unlikely that basic first aid would have saved her,” said the embarrassed Tribune.
But it wasn’t until November of 2006 that ABC 7 News in Chicago, in the first of several broadcasts, exposed more of Spizzirri’s untruthful statements. She had told the station that she was a registered nurse. But the station reported that the institution from which she had claimed to receive her nursing degree had never given her one. A hospital in which she had claimed to be a transplant nurse said she had been a patient care assistant, which is akin to a candy striper. After the announcer challenged her on the assertion that the accident was a hit-and-run, she walked out of the interview. Her abrupt departure was shown on TV.
By this time, her foundation had raised about $8 million from such groups as the Illinois Department of Public Health and the United States Centers for Disease Control, and she had been paid more than $100,000 in some years. She had gathered support from such politicians as Democrat Dick Durbin, now a Senate kingpin, and Norm Coleman, then a Republican senator. Ronald McDonald had joined the fan club. Mike Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, embraced the movement and was shown in a picture with Spizzirri. (After Katrina hit, President George W. Bush uttered the famous remark, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” When it was apparent he wasn’t, he resigned.)
Arne Duncan, then the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, now United States Secretary of Education, had lauded what the foundation was doing for the schools and effused, “Carol [Spizzirri] is one of my heroes.” That praise had come two months before the series of ABC 7 shows began.
Soon, the support began falling off, and Spizzirri went in another direction: campaigning against cyberstalking. On June 29, 2009, the Save-A-Life Foundation closed down.
And Carol Spizzirri came to San Marcos. I have confirmed that she and a former treasurer of Save-A-Life are living at Palomar Estates West, a mobile home community in San Marcos. Four phone numbers said to be theirs led nowhere. I wrote emails to her last surviving daughter and her closest friend, asking that Spizzirri call me but have heard nothing. So Ernie Barrera, a Reader contributor, went there to ask her questions and take photos of the mobile home. Prior to going, he watched the Chicago TV tape so he knew what she looked and sounded like. He met a woman in front of the Spizzirri home. “I asked if she was Carol Spizzirri. She said no and refused to identify herself. I was sure it was she. The looks were the same, the voice the same as on the TV tape,” says Barrera.
In June of this year, the Illinois attorney general wrote to Spizzirri, noting that in its most recent yearly report, Save-A-Life had $152,112 in net assets. “Please provide information on who received the remaining assets of the foundation,” wrote the attorney general’s office, which also inquired about the use of sale proceeds of a foundation-owned building. I asked the attorney general’s office both by phone and email for a response and have received none.
I have gone through records of Lake County, Illinois, where Spizzirri lived. On May 18, 1992 — four months before the fatal accident — Christina filed for an order of protection against her mother. A neighbor who lives four houses away was willing to be Christina’s primary caretaker. The complaint stated that Spizzirri had struck Christina “on several occasions and threatened her on many occasions.” The order of protection, granted the same month, barred Spizzirri from seeing her daughter at several locations such as school and work. Christina “fears her mother will attempt to harass her or retaliate,” said the complaint. Spizzirri asserted, among other things, that she could use “reasonable force to discipline a child” who needed medical attention. In July, Spizzirri got Christina back — two months before she was killed.
Christina’s filing for protection may have been triggered by an incident on May 4, 1992, when, Lake County Circuit Court records show, Spizzirri complained that her daughter damaged a curio cabinet in the household and did physical damage to a second daughter. Christina was placed on $20,000 bail and charged with a misdemeanor.
Christina’s father, Gordon Pratt of Milwaukee, who divorced Spizzirri in 1981, says that Spizzirri had been out drinking that May evening with the other daughter and came home at 2:00 a.m. Christina, who was underage, had also been drinking and came home later. “There was a dispute and it escalated into a physical confrontation,” he says, relating a phone call he received from Christina. Soon, both Spizzirri and the other daughter were hitting Christina, who fought back, says Pratt. She shoved the curio cabinet in trying to get out the door.
In both the police report and the coroner’s inquest into Christina’s death, officers said that she had been partying and drinking before the accident. The hospital reported that her blood alcohol level was .176 percent. The legal limit is .100 percent in Illinois, so she was legally intoxicated — something Spizzirri didn’t talk about when touting her foundation. The police reports, the coroner’s inquest, and the inquest jury all emphasized that there was no hit-and-run — her death was the result of “a single-vehicle roll-over,” said the jury.
Spizzirri has taken to the courts — suing, for example, some who said her foundation had not taught as many people as she claimed. She dropped the suits. Shortly after her daughter’s death, she sued Lake County safety officials for mishandling the accident. Spizzirri “has been and will be in the future deprived of the society, companionship, love, affection and support of her daughter,” said her complaint, asking for $15,000. She dropped that too.
In mid-1995, she wrote a letter to the Lake County coroner’s office, claiming it had defamed her foundation by giving out false information about the accident when the Tribune had made inquiries to make its correction. She demanded a public apology. The coroner said there would be none, adding, “I do not support innuendo, lies, and threats.”
At the coroner’s inquest, Pratt stated that Christina was “a child who went through hell so that she could get to heaven.”