RACINE - It was the middle of the night, more than 25 years ago, when Jean Szaradowski's phone rang. She picked up and a woman caller asked if she was "Helen's sister." When she said she was, the caller frightened her.
"She said, 'I'm just warning you, she isn't going to live very long,' " Jean said. She asked who the woman was, but the woman hung up on her.
Jean can't remember exactly when she received that call. But it had to be before Feb. 20, 1983, the day her sister, Helen Sebastian, disappeared.
On that day, Helen, 51, stuck a pot roast in the oven. She told her mother, who lived below her in the first-floor flat of the two-family home they shared, that she would be back later. Helen walked away from 1827 Center St., and was never seen alive again.
Just over a month later, Helen's body parts were discovered in different spots in the city.
For 25 years, the gruesome murder has gone unsolved. But Helen's family and Racine Police Department investigators have never given up hope. Even now, they are collecting new leads and new information, like the late-night phone call that Jean received. Police didn't learn of it until recently.
But nothing has ever led them to an arrest. They are hoping someone, somewhere might still be able to bring them the right tip, or the right evidence, that will help them catch Helen Sebastian's killer.
The cold case
The day after Helen didn't come home, her mother, Adela Grabowski, called Doreen, Helen's sister-in-law.
Doreen, who asked that we only use her first name because she is still fearful of Helen's killer, said she went to the house her mother-in-law shared with Helen to help her. Helen had told her mom she was going to a friend's to play cards, but hadn't come back, even by the next morning.
"There was absolutely no word from her at that point," Doreen said.
Together, Helen's mother and Doreen called all of her friends. No one had seen her.
"We just never heard from her again," Doreen said.
Doreen reported Helen missing to Racine police on Feb. 22, 1983, two days after she walked away from home. For weeks, police searched for her.
Then, on March 28, 1983, a little boy led police to the backyard of a home at 1409 12th St. where he said he had seen a human hand. That day, police found body parts in the yard.
Over the next two days, other parts, including a head, were found in bags along the Chicago and North Western railroad tracks near 16th Street, just west of Racine Street.
A family friend identified the remains as Helen's, according to Doreen.
Months later, the family reclaimed the pieces of Helen's body. They gave her a funeral in August. But it did not bring the kind of closure it should have. At the time, there were few leads on who had killed her in such a gruesome way.
"They really don't know for sure when she died," Doreen said. "They don't know where she died."
But it hasn't been for a lack of trying. Investigator Jim Prioletta, who is now assigned to Helen's case, said more than 100 people were brought in for questioning during the initial probe.
"It was a large investigation," Prioletta said.
But, over time, leads were exhausted and the case went dormant. The boxes of files containing detectives' notes and possible evidence was locked in an evidence vault for cold cases.
The dead ends
Helen's case has not sat untouched in the cold-case closet. It's been taken out periodically over the years. Detective William Northrop was one of the lead investigators. In 1991, Detective Jon Soderberg did more follow-up. "He had evidence re-evaluated a few years ago," Prioletta said. In fact, at that point, there was a very strong suspect - a first in the case - but there was never enough evidence to charge the man.
Over the years, Crime Stoppers tips have been submitted and followed up, with additional progress being made.
"I can't imagine what she could have done or said that would have brought on the terrible crime that was committed," Doreen said. "We think maybe that Helen could have seen something or overheard something. I don't know."
In particular, she wonders if Helen's murder was in any way connected to the stabbing death of Joanna Livanis, 74. Livanis was killed on Jan. 12, 1983, at the Sam Livanis Jewelry store, 612 Sixth St. She was killed in her bedroom, which was located in the rear of the store.
William Mattice, now 49 and still in prison, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison, but he wasn't arrested until after Helen's death.
Doreen said she thought Helen was friends with Livanis, and has always wondered if her sister-in-law knew something about her murder.
According to newspaper reports from the time, there was a series of tavern burglaries on Sixth Street in the days before the jewelry store murder. Helen's family said she frequented bars in that area, suggesting a connection between the
But it's a road that has been traveled several times by investigators, Prioletta said.
"It was looked into immediately then," he said. "They never substantiated any of that. They couldn't find a connection."
New leads hard to find
Investigators are still hoping new information will come their way. In fact, in recent days they interviewed Helen's sister Jean for the first time. They had not spoken with her before.
Jean was able to tell Prioletta about the mysterious phone call she received before Helen's death. She also said she heard similar sentiments from a man that rented a room in the flat where Helen lived above her mother.
Before her sister's death, Jean called Helen. The renter, whom Jean remembers as being named Larry, answered the phone and told her Helen wasn't going to live long.
"I asked if she was sick," Jean said. "He said, 'She's not sick. I'm just warning you.' "
Although Larry has been cleared as a suspect, according to Prioletta, investigators believe that someone with information - like Jean - may simply have spent the past 25 years unnoticed or unwilling to come forward.
Helen's lifestyle has made the investigation more difficult.
Jean said her sister was an alcoholic. She was married twice, but divorced her first husband and was widowed by her second. Her single life was spent with a different kind of crowd than her family-oriented siblings.
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Helen was 10 years younger than her sister Jean. They got along well, but because of their age difference they weren't particularly close.
Jean said she called Helen about once a week to check in with her. She and her brother Chester, Doreen's late husband, tried to talk to Helen about her behavior, but were unable to get her to change.
As a result, no one in the family really knew her friends.
"She had her own crowd," Jean said.
That, Prioletta said, makes it difficult for investigators to make contact with the right people. And even if they do find someone today who was in Helen's crowd and might have known something about the crime 25 years ago, a hard life can make those memories
The hope that remains
"It's been a lot of years," Doreen said. "It would be nice to know that the person is some day caught and doesn't go free for the rest of their life.
"You would like to think that there was an end to it. Is that person running around now? Is he dead?"
Helen's family still gets upset thinking about what happened to her. And they want the person responsible for her death found.
Despite her problems, Helen had a good heart, her sister and sister-in-law said.
"She'd give her heart away," Jean said. "She was good that way."
Helen never had any children of her own, Jean said, but she loved children. She used to baby-sit for her nieces and nephews.
"She didn't have a lot," Doreen said. "She did ironing and cleaning for people. But she always had a dollar or two for the kids.
"No one deserved what she got. I can't imagine why they would ever do such a thing."
Prioletta still believes there is hope.
"I personally think that there's someone out there with a name that is scared to come forward," he said. "I welcome those calls.
"You never know what the connection can be somewhere down the road."
Leads still come in on the case occasionally. Prioletta said he and other detectives follow up on them instantly. And with new technology, old evidence is often sent to the State Crime Lab for re-evaluation.
"Most of the time the connections are elimination," he said. "In this case, everyone that we've come across has been eliminated."
But Prioletta thinks the case is solvable.
"I think there's hope. Maybe there's a piece of evidence somewhere that didn't get tested in the right lab," he said. "My feeling is that all of these cases are solvable. There's always wishful thinking on our parts.
"We want them solved - big time. We'd love to get a name or a lead."
Anyone with information on the Helen Sebastian murder case is asked to call the Racine Police Department detective bureau at (262) 635-7756 or Crime Stoppers at (262) 636-9330.
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