Just beyond Circle Avenue’s loose parabola of cross-cutting traffic and Randolph Street’s rush-hour flood, the 7400 block of West Dixon slips easily into stillness. The road is paved with aging, rounded bricks. Strips of yard unroll to the sidewalks, and trees shoulder up side by side. Presiding over two-story homes and boxy apartment buildings, St. Paul Lutheran Church’s white stucco spire backs up to the classrooms of Grant-White Elementary. Christmas decorations linger long past New Year’s.
This is where 35-year-old Amy Mai-Huong Wagreich has lived for nearly eight years, where she guided her daughters into adolescence and plunged herself into a new career. Here, day by day, she has sewn her shredded life back together.
But on Jan. 20, this was the spot where Wagreich was arrested after officials at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office discovered her apartment stood just 43 feet from the school behind it. A registered sex offender, Wagreich cannot, according to state law, set up house within 500 feet of a school, daycare center, or park. And so for the second time in a decade, she finds herself charged with a felony.
This time, though, she plans to fight.
“It’s not fair,” she said.
Back in 1997, Wagreich took a plea bargain on a statutory rape charge, agreeing to serve 36 months’ probation rather than stand trial. Every year since then, she has registered as a sex offender, offering up to authorities her address and phone number and the details of her daily life.
And yet in spite of all this, Wagreich insists her conviction is a lie. A rape did take place that day, she says, but she was the one who was raped. Afterward, hobbled by fright and bewilderment and a lifelong difficulty with language, she claims she fell victim to a justice system that punished her instead of protecting her.
“Obviously, this is a situation where there is a shade of gray,” said Donna Rotunno, Wagreich’s attorney. “This is a woman who was victimized by the system once, and now it’s happening again. … I find it heartbreaking that she has to go through all of this over and over and over again.”
According to Wagreich, the whole incomprehensible nightmare turns on this: a few horrific moments inside a rented room in Springfield, Ore., 2,200 miles and a universe away from Forest Park. While her children played outside, a grown man”Wagreich’s landlord and her sister-in-law’s boyfriend”burst into her room with a 16-year-old friend of his. Grabbing her, Wagreich said, the two held her down and raped her.
“I was just screaming and nobody was coming,” Wagreich recalled two weeks ago, staring clear-eyed into her fidgeting hands. Her voice wavered to a whisper. She paused. Sitting beside her, Wagreich’s mother, Barbara Holmes, struggled for composure.
“See, I didn’t know all these details,” Holmes said. “I didn’t …”
“And I was fighting, because I’m pretty strong,” Wagreich continued. “But, of course, eventually I just got so tired. I was so tired, and I just let everything happen the way it was going because I was just exhausted. I didn’t know what else to do.”
In truth, Wagreich’s ordeal had begun much earlier. As a black Vietnamese woman, she moved with her white husband in 1990 to an all-white lumber town 60 miles inland from the Oregon coast. People didn’t like her in Springfield, Wagreich said. They were rude to her face. Somebody planted a bomb in her mailbox. A little boy on his backyard jungle gym hissed “the N-word” at her as she walked past.
“I was really shocked,” she said. “I was just shocked.”
Wagreich managed to strike up a friendship of sorts with her neighbors, but after their daughter got in a fight with Wagreich’s three-year-old toddler, the other girl’s uncle showed up furious at Wagreich’s door.
“I didn’t know what he wanted, and I opened the door and he punched me,” Wagreich said. “He punched me and started beating me up. … I just saw this fist in my face.”
Summoned by the angry uncle, who wanted Wagreich arrested, Springfield’s chief of police came out and took photographs of her bruised face, Wagreich said. But pressing charges would have meant leaving her daughters, ages 3 and 1, at home alone while she trundled down to the police station. Wagreich let it go.
“I had my kids,” she said.
The hostility astonished Wagreich. Adopted out of Vietnam at five years old and raised in Oak Park, she’d never seen anything like it.
“I liked Oak Park,” said Wagreich. “I never had any problem with racists. I always fit in.”
Holmes nodded solemnly.
“There were about six other families on the block with interracial adoptions,” she said. Now married to St. Paul Lutheran Church pastor and Forest Park Review columnist Rev. Tom Holmes, Barbara Holmes adopted Wagreich with her then-husband in 1970. “Amy was adopted as a black Vietnamese child, and nobody blinked an eye. It was like, what’s the big deal?”
Holmes’ friend and former neighbor Phyllis Parker lived across the street in those days, where she was raising a biracial adopted daughter of her own. The two girls often played together.
“It was not your typical white western suburb,” Parker said. “Diversity was important to us. … I watched Amy grow up, and she was a normal, happy girl.”
“Unfortunately, that didn’t prepare her for what she met out in Oregon,” Holmes said.
Springfield officials didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, but the city’s website offers a cheerful picture of life between the McKenzie and Willamette rivers. Home to some 50,000 people, Springfield supports railroad and history museums, public sculptures and murals, a live theater and a handful of art galleries”not to mention “the first indoor wave pool in the West.” Anglers flock to the wilderness at the city’s edge, as do whitewater rafters.
But Wagreich’s clearest memories are of run-down apartments and scowling locals. Things got worse, she said, when her marriage headed south. After high school, Wagreich had met and married a sailor in boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. After a couple years stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., the couple moved to Oregon. Then the relationship began to falter. By the time Wagreich’s oldest daughter was four, “he was out of the picture,” she said.
“He started drinking more heavily, and, I mean, he would never hit me, but he would hit walls,” Wagreich said. “There would be holes in the walls. Yeah, and broken wrists. The hospital and stuff like that.”
There was a DUI conviction, and then another. Wagreich’s husband was in and out of jail. Meanwhile, Wagreich and the kids were forced to flee their crumbling rental home just ahead of the wrecking ball. They found refuge with her sister-in-law’s boyfriend, who gave Wagreich a janitorial job and rented her a room in his townhouse. It was an arrangement Holmes said she never felt good about. Then one night, she got a tearful phone call from her daughter.
“Amy was saying this man was trying to pressure her into having sex with him, and was threatening her with eviction and loss of work if she didn’t,” Holmes said. “That’s when me and my other children got into gear.”
Holmes’ son Ian Wagreich, an attorney, unearthed a free legal clinic that would help his sister divorce her husband and settle the children’s custody.
“We had gotten Amy and the girls tickets to come back from Oregon to live with us,” Holmes recalled, squeezing Wagreich’s arm. “So you had the Amtrak tickets, you had the written agreement for your having full custody, she was in contact with a lawyer, and she had access to an emergency women’s shelter [in Springfield]. And she was literally packing boxes …”
“I was almost done,” Wagreich interrupted. “I was almost gone.”
And then, the ambush. The rape. Afterward, Wagreich said her landlord bullied her into silence.
“He said if I say anything, then he would call the police and actually tell the boy’s mother,” Wagreich said. “And that’s how, a couple days later, I found out how old the boy was.”
Within a day or two, though, somebody had called the police. By that time, Wagreich said she was terrified and confused beyond articulation. As child, she’d been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities and a severe language disorder stemming from acute malnourishment in utero, so communication had always been a particular struggle. Under the stress of police interrogation, it became impossible.
“Saying that you had sex with somebody has a very different connotation than saying somebody raped you,” Holmes said. “And what happened to Amy was rape. But when the detective said, ‘Did you have sex with …?’ she, not realizing the difference, said, ‘Yes.'”
“The detective told me, ‘Just say yes or no,'” Wagreich added. Looking back, she doesn’t think she ever managed to explain that she was raped.
Certainly the Lane County, Ore., district attorney didn’t think so, and Wagreich was charged with statutory rape. Last week however, the district attorney’s office refused to return repeated calls asking for comment and public documents relating to Wagreich’s case. A Springfield police department spokesman could find no record of Wagreich in her files.
In the end, facing a two-year trial and a minimum of 20 years in jail if she were convicted by a jury, Wagreich pled guilty to rape in the third degree, accepted the probation, and beat a path back to Forest Park, where she and her daughters moved into an apartment on the 7400 block of West Dixon, next door to her mother and stepfather and their church. Her probation officer signed off on it. That was in 1997, three years before a new law went into effect in Illinois preventing registered sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools, parks and day cares. The law grandfathers property owners who lived there before the law went into effect, but it doesn’t grandfather renters like Amy.
“She had to present her specs for living, her whole arrangement, how she was going to look for work”that all had to be approved,” Rotunno said. “So they approved her living arrangement, and now, seven years later, they’re saying, ‘You’re living within 500 feet of a school'”a school, by the way, which her children attended.”
“They come by the house,” Wagreich said. “The probation people come by the house every year to verify.”
Returning home, Wagreich bundled her children off to class at Grant-White and enrolled herself at Triton College to study a little nursing.
These days, Wagreich puts food on the table working as a certified nurse’s assistant. Starting early in the morning, and often long into the evening, she cares for disabled clients in their homes, helping them dress and eat and wash, keeping them company and telling them stories.
Twenty-two-year-old Ben Adelman and his parents have relied on Wagreich for more than five years.
“She’s wonderful, wonderful,” said Adelman, who has cerebral palsy. “Every day she’s happy to see me. I was lucky to meet her.”
Adelman’s father agreed.
“She really looks after Ben, and does it in a way that builds his self-esteem and doesn’t make him feel like he’s handicapped,” Marc Adelman said. “She knocks on the door; she doesn’t just barge in. She talks to Ben like a person. She respects him.”
Since Wagreich’s recent arrest, a legion of well-wishers have stepped forward to defend her. The rent is always on time, insisted her Forest Park landlord, Sefika Cubic, adding that Wagreich is a “wonderful tenant, kind of quiet and shy,” who’s made plenty of friends in the neighborhood. Grant-White Principal Wendy Trotter and her secretary, Theresa Giglio”who remembers Wagreich from her own grade-school days”begged the Forest Park police not to arrest Wagreich.
“She was a very supportive parent, a very dedicated parent,” Trotter said. “Certainly she did not seem to pose a threat to anyone in this building, or anywhere. Her children are outstanding.”
Adelman’s parents, too, insist their confidence is undiminished.
“I trust her,” Marc Adelman said.
“She’s a wonderful mother and a wonderful person,” said Kathy Finke, Ben Adelman’s mother. “If I thought Amy was any threat to our family or our neighbors or our neighbors’ children, we wouldn’t have her in our lives. So far, nobody’s talked to me about [Wagreich’s arrest], but if they do, I’m ready to take them on.”
In the meantime, the nightmare resurfaces. Wagreich is facing a fresh felony charge, with the possibility of up to three years in jail. But Rotunno said she’s hoping to coax a little kindness out of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office the next time Wagreich appears in court, on April 1.
So many injustices
“I think if somebody took 10 minutes to listen to this scenario of events, they would realize that this can be resolved,” she said.
Last month, Wagreich and her daughters, now 14 and 12, started packing their things to move out of the apartment on Dixon. Why not drop the charges and allow her to move away quietly? Rotunno asks.
“We’re not trying to put together a crusade that says, ‘Let Amy stay here and live'”and I would love to do that, don’t get me wrong,” Rotunno said. “But we have to look at the intent of the statute. And the intent of the statute is not to protect the kids from somebody like her. … I think it is the state’s attorney’s job to look at the cards that are dealt and say, ‘Do I have a good hand? Is this something that is really a prosecutorial thing I should be doing? Am I really prosecuting a crime?’
“I mean, something’s got to be done here. The fact that she has to register, the fact that this is public knowledge, that her children go to school with people who know their mother registers, the fact that she can’t work in a health care facility”I mean, there are so many injustices going on. I will not allow this to be another felony on this woman’s record.”