Witness recounts discovering Savio’s body
By Janet Lundquist email@example.com August 11, 2012 10:28PM
The Hernandez house at 392 Pheasant Chase Drive in Bolingbrook, IL on Tuesday July 3, 2012. It is the house Kathleen Savio died in. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media .
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:09AM
A glance at an 8-year-old photo of her dear friend, curled up, dead in a bathtub, brought Mary Pontarelli to tears.
Pontarelli was Kathleen Savio’s next-door neighbor, one of the first to find her friend’s dead body in 2004, and the first witness to testify in the murder trial of Savio’s ex-husband, Drew Peterson.
On the witness stand, Pontarelli said her initial reaction to the discovery was to throw herself on the ground and scream.
Approached outside her Bolingbrook home earlier this summer, Pontarelli declined to speak with a reporter about Savio, saying it was too difficult a subject for her to discuss.
Obviously, the death of a loved one is an event that affects a person for the rest of his or her life. But what impact does it have if you are the one who found him or her that way?
It all depends, said Boston-based psychotherapist Dr. Karen Ruskin.
Your own personality, what the dead person meant to you, whether the death makes sense to you, and your own philosophy of life all play into how that type of situation can affect you, she said.
At the death scene, upon seeing the person for the first time, there are six standard reactions, Ruskin said: denial, shock, action, upset, curiosity and helpfulness. And people can experience more than one reaction at a time.
Ruskin described finding her own grandfather dead one morning when she was a teenager, a scene she remembers in detail.
“I think back, what did I do? I walked out and told my father, ‘Dad I’m so sorry, he passed away,’ ” she said. She held her father’s hand and watched with curiosity as her grandfather’s body was moved from the house.
Her feelings of helpfulness and support for her father may have been different if the death did not make sense in her mind.
“If a death doesn’t make sense, then you can certainly consider that as a trauma,” Ruskin said. “This person can hold the trauma for many years to come, replaying the event in their head over an extended period of time. It can affect their sleeping, their eating, their relationships with other people.”
However, it could also mean positive lifestyle changes, she said, triggering a desire to live life to the fullest when the reality of death hits home.
The weight of the impact certainly depends on who the dead person is. Finding the body of a loved one is different than finding the dead body of someone you don’t know, said Plainfield clinical psychologist Phil Bonelli.
Details of the death scene would stand out more profoundly in a person’s mind, he said.
“I recall reading the articles mentioning (Savio’s) hair clip,” which Pontarelli mentioned in her testimony. Savio usually pulled her hair up with a clip before taking a bath, Pontarelli said. But her friend’s hair was down when her body was discovered in the bathtub.
“That’s the type of detail that would be more noticeable,” Bonelli said.
The Rev. George Klima, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Shorewood, who also serves as the chaplain for the Shorewood Police Department, has been on the front line of many death scenes, both expected and unexpected.
“It’s like getting hit in the head by a two-by-four. It’s very traumatic,” Klima said. “It just takes the wind out of your sails.”
The worst part is how deep the memory of their loved one’s death scene is burned into their minds, said the Rev. Chere Bates, who serves as chaplain for the Plainfield Police Department.
“The hardest thing for them down the road is remembering seeing the person like that, and that’s the memory that will tend to come up first, as opposed to the good times, the other times. How they really were,” she said. “The horrific sticks in your mind more clearly than the other.”