CROWN POINT | As the week opens, Lake County juries will be selected to hear two high-profile criminal cases replete with emotional details that moved the region.
One involves the tale of a 2-year-old girl brutally beaten and killed by her 18-year-old cousin and the cousin's 23-year-old boyfriend, a drug dealer by trade. While the cousin has been convicted and her boyfriend is awaiting sentencing in a plea deal, the girl's mother faces trial on a charge of endangering the child by leaving the girl with the couple.
Defense attorneys for 31-year-old Melissa Swiontek last week made last-ditch arguments to have charges dismissed against Swiontek, the mother of a Portage toddler named Jada Justice.
The child was first the focus of a nationwide search in June 2009 following a ruse by her cousin, Engelica Castillo, who told authorities the child had been taken from a Gary gas station. However, Castillo's boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, later led police to the girl's body encased in concrete in a LaPorte County swamp.
Nearly a year after Castillo's murder conviction, prosecutors charged Swiontek with two counts of neglect of a dependent for entrusting the child to Castillo.
On Thursday, Lake County Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. dismissed the more serious of the two charges for which Swiontek had faced a maximum 50-year sentence. However, Swiontek still faces trial for allegedly endangering the child by leaving her with a couple known to take and sell drugs.
She faces a penalty of six months to three years in prison if convicted.
A second and unrelated trial beginning this week involves the hit-and-run death of a 25-year-old Lake County corrections officer in an accident that seriously injured three fellow officers. The incident occurred as the group jogged single-file along 93rd Avenue behind the Lake County Government Complex in March last year.
The case of 43-year-old Jason Cozmanoff, of Lakes of the Four Seasons, has proceeded more quietly with the imposition of a gag order on the case. He is charged with multiple felonies.
Most recently, the defense and the prosecution agreed to the removal of a memorial to the dead officer near the government center and court building for fear of prejudicing the the case.
The order is in effect only during the course of the trial, after which a permanent memorial may be erected in honor of the officer.
A last pretrial hearing was held Friday with the expectation of trial Monday before Lake County Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez.
Cozmanoff remains free on bond.
He faces 12 felony charges, which include reckless homicide, criminal recklessness and failing to stop after an accident resulting in death and serious injury.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Cozmanoff admitted to his estranged wife he was responsible for the fatal crash.
Missing pieces from a damaged GMC Yukon owned by Cozmanoff's father but commonly driven by Cozmanoff were found to be consistent with parts recovered at the crash scene, the affidavit states. Traces of blood and tissue also were found on the car's passenger side.
Shards of broken glass and other residue were recovered from clothing and sunglasses belonging to Cozmanoff, according to the affidavit.