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Innocence Lost 

A comedy of errors put a good kid in a bad place.

Jim Stadalsky: A stellar student gets pinched for a - burglary he didn't commit.
  • Jim Stadalsky: A stellar student gets pinched for a burglary he didn't commit.
Engineering student Jim Stadalsky used to respect the police. A classic overachiever who worked weekends at a home for the mentally disabled, he'd never even received a speeding ticket.

All that would change February 1. En route to a bowling alley with his girlfriend, he stopped to put five bucks' worth of gas on his credit card before driving away. Moments later, two Seven Hills cops paid a visit to his Parma home and told his mom he'd filled his tank without paying.

Panicked, Sandee Winkelman phoned her son, a freshman at Cleveland State. She couldn't imagine her bookish kid, who has never even been sent to the principal's office, doing something dishonest. Neither could any of his friends, who describe him as a quiet, sensitive computer geek.

Over the phone, a baffled Stadalsky explained to one of the patrolmen that he'd paid at the pump. The officer said that since he hadn't saved his receipt, he'd better straighten it out with the attendant.

Stadalsky made a U-turn and drove back to the Shell station on Broadview Road in Seven Hills. Three cruisers were waiting. He was arrested and driven to police headquarters. But at the station -- to his complete bewilderment -- he was handed off to the Akron police, who told him there was a felony warrant out for his arrest.

A bank statement would later prove that Stadalsky had paid for the gas. When police ran his plate number, however, it matched a guy wanted for a three-month-old burglary in Akron. Unbelievably -- at least to everyone who knows him -- that guy was Stadalsky.

On November 9, an Akron woman (who doesn't want her name published) saw a man wearing a hooded jacket dart into her neighbor's garage and grab an expensive miter saw. He threw it into his teal-green car and sped away.

Laura Miller and her husband were working in their backyard garden when the vigilant neighbor ran to their screen door in a panic. Phone in hand, she repeated the plate number over and over.

Police ran the number through the system, and came up with zero. So they experimented by changing some of the digits and came up with a possibility -- Stadalsky. At least that's what the family's attorney believes.

Chief counsel Mary Ann Kovach claims the plate number was a perfect match to Stadalsky's all along. It's difficult to know what really happened, since the number on the incident report does not match Stadalsky's, while the number in a later report does. Either way, the witness picked Stadalsky out of a photo lineup, says Detective Pierre Irvine.

But that wasn't particularly solid evidence either. Miller says that her neighbor had a hard time deciding, since she hadn't gotten a good look at the thief's face. And there would be more discrepancies.

The witness said the thief's car was teal. Stadalsky's is black. He also lives and works in Parma. "Jim would never drive to Akron," giggles his friend Amy Nenedal. "He'd probably get lost!"

Moreover, Stadalsky was working at The Sprague House, a home for the mentally disabled, when the burglary took place. It would have taken but minimal digging to rule him out as a suspect.

Detective Irvine says that he left two messages at Stadalsky's home and received no response. But Stadalsky says that he never received the calls and that police could have easily interviewed him before issuing the warrant. "They knew where I was!" he says.

Instead, he was stripped to his underwear at the Akron jail, where he spent the night with inmates and correction officers only too pleased to have a slender, pale college boy to pick on.

Stadalsky's misadventure didn't end there. Though even a cursory investigation would have disclosed his innocence, the prosecutor sent his case to a grand jury instead. Only then did anyone actually check Stadalsky's alibi, and the grand jury declined to indict.

Stadalsky missed school, his stepfather missed work, and the whole mess ended up costing the family $6,000 in legal fees. But Sandee Winkelman believes that she lost much more. When she bailed her son out, she immediately saw that he had been through a life-altering experience.

"There was a different person standing there," she says. He wouldn't let her touch him. He stared at the family car as if he were going to lunge at it and smash all the windows. For the first time ever, Winkelman was afraid of what her son might do.

A night in the slam might not seem like much to many people; for a 19-year-old, it might even be considered educational. But to a kid raised in a family where moral convictions verge on the evangelical, it was a kick in the head. "It bothers me to think that everything you taught your child to be and to respect could come to an end one Saturday," writes his mom in a two-page letter, addressed to anyone who will listen.

"This is America, for God sake. Jim feels terrorized by this America . . . There really isn't any incentive to be an exemplary citizen when all you thought you knew about the system and this country turns into lies."

Even Laura Miller, who lost her $750 saw, is surprised that the cops nabbed a kid like Stadalsky. "I feel just awful!" she says.

Her neighbor regrets it as well. "I told [police] I couldn't see his face very good," she claims. "But [robberies] happen almost daily in our neighborhood. We're all tired of it . . . Our house was robbed the week before. It wasn't my intention that this should happen. The police aren't on the ball like they should be."

Stadalsky's now in therapy, says his mom, but the once promising student has seen his grades plummet. For the first time in his life, he is angry at police. "I used to respect them for doing their jobs, but now that I see the way their investigative work . . . I have no respect. It's all corrupt."

Winkelman called two dozen attorneys to file a civil-rights suit, but none wanted to sue the city. Such suits are designed for people who have been beaten or spent years in prison. Her son got off easy, she was told.

Winkelman knows that others have suffered worse at the hands of police, but it angers her that lawyers expect her to be grateful. Her good son has turned into a depressed son, and she threw away $6,000 worth of borrowed money. Worse, a kid she taught to believe in the system is now another member of the embittered class.

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