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Edward “Ed” Kenzakoski was a strong guy. He was an all-star wrestler going into his senior year at James M. Coughlin High School in Wilkes-Barre, PA and was actively scouted since 9th grade. He was expecting to take the state title and hopefully the scholarships would follow. He had a fair amount of friends, and was a thoughtful young man who had a bit of a tough guy reputation because he was quiet and muscular in stature. Although he rarely let people in, he was very affected by the world and other people’s feelings. Though he had some close friends from childhood, he cherished hiking with his dog and often told his mother he wanted to have his own island. His favorite outdoor sport was ice fishing, and when it was cold enough, that’s where one would most likely find him.
Sandy Fonzo*, Ed’s mother, was very protective of Ed. “He knew nothing but love,” she reflects. “He was taught to believe in our community heroes, as most kids are taught, and believed that society wanted the best for him.” Neither he nor Sandy expected they’d question those truths years later.
As Ed entered adolescence, he experimented with alcohol and marijuana. He had never gotten in trouble before and kept up his grades so he could continue to take part in his beloved wrestling matches. His father worried he might slip in with a bad crowd if he wasn’t careful with his youthful indiscretions. One night, he called a few of his childhood friends who were cops to shake him up, give him a slap on the wrist and send him home when he stayed out late to party.
Ed didn’t end up coming home. Instead, he spent 30 days in a youth jail and then four months in a “rehabilitative boot camp” in 2003. His offense? Ed was busted with a marijuana pipe. He found himself before Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciaverella, a man whose reputation was “too tough on non-crimes,” according to Kenzakoski’s mother. Kids as young as five who got into arguments with their parents were sent to residential juvenile detention facilities. While in court, all those who appeared before Ciaverella were shackled. Most of them had no legal representation** and nary appeared even five minutes before the judge on average. In fact, most of them barely made it past 2 minutes.
Fonzo said of the process:
“The kids were all lined up, one after another and he [Ciavarella] would give sentences appropriate for hardened criminals to all these kids who committed simple offenses, ones that would require nothing more than slap on the wrist or even community service. There just seemed to be no oversight or supervision of the process. There was no media allowed in the courtroom because they were juveniles, and he acted with impunity. He was the dictator, no questions asked. So many young kids were put into holding with much older kids and some were abused during that time. It didn’t matter to him that they were humans, or even just babies, really.”
When Ed finally came home, his mother said he was never the same. He was not simply an introverted thinker any longer; he was angry and depressed. He had missed senior year and never graduated. He rarely smiled anymore and seemed to have lost interest in life from the time he was sent away. He never did tell his mother about much that happened when he was gone. Sandy tried to get him to tell her so he could heal. “And now, I will never know” she utters, struggling to maintain her composure. When he was just 23, he shot himself in the heart.
In what has been coined in the media as the “Kids for Cash Scandal,” Ciarvarella and Judge Conahan have since been exposed as having made deals with the developer of the for-profit juvenile detention facilities co-owned by Robert Powell of PA Child Care and another company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care. They were to increase their conviction rates and send kids off to facilities to serve long sentences. In total, both judges received nearly $3 million dollars in bribes and kickbacks. The PA Supreme Court tasked Berks County Judge Arthur Grim with deconstructing the case against Ciavarella and Conahan and as a result of his findings, almost 4,000 of Ciavarella’s juvenile cases were reversed.
In 2011, Ciarvarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay about $1 million in restitution to the victims and their families. Conahan, for his part, received 17.5 years because he cooperated with prosecutors. While Conahan did at one point offer public apologies to the kids and families who were sentenced in his court, Ciarverella remains indignant and refuses to acknowledge that he was guilty of accepting bribes or kickbacks.
Ed’s mother was furious the day of Ciavarella’s conviction because prior to sentencing, the former judge (who tendered his resignation to the governor before public statement of the charges against him), was allowed to go home to be with his own family while awaiting his fate. She confronted him outside of court while his attorney spoke to the press.
“My kid’s not here any more! He’s dead! Because of him! He ruined my fucking life! I’d like him to go to hell and rot there forever! You know what he told everyone in court? ‘You need to be accountable for your actions.’ You need to be! Do you remember me? Do you remember my son? An all-star wrestler? He’s gone! He shot himself in the heart! You ruined my fucking life, you scumbag!”
While both judges were sentenced in 2011 and are now serving time, it makes one wonder just how many similar judicial branches are insidiously entangled with for-profit juvenile detention facilities and just how many people working for the system saw red flags and remained silent. Just how deep does the rabbit hole go? Kids weren’t being taught community values or served justice. They were actively being sought to fill beds and line pockets. That’s not just sick, it’s unconscionable.
Watch Ed’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, confront former judge and scumbag supreme at the 1 minute mark.
*These days, Sandy lobbies and speaks whenever and wherever she can about the for-profit prison industry and keeps vigil for her son at Edward R. Kenzakowski III: Wild and Free. She wants us to know that Ed could be any of our kids, so don’t wait until the system comes for yours. She is available to all media to keep this story out there.
** “An investigation into improper sentencing in Luzerne County began early in 2007 as a result of requests for assistance from several youths received by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. Lawyers from the law center determined that several hundred cases were tried without the defendants receiving proper counsel. In April 2008, the Juvenile Law Center petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking relief for alleged violation of the youths’ civil rights. The application of relief was later denied, then reconsidered in January 2009 when charges of corruption against the judges surfaced.”
“Luzerne County”. Juvenile Law Center. April 27, 2009.