The only thing 79-year-old Charlie Matuska wanted was to stay at his North Riverside home. But after what was reportedly months of neglect by his live-in caregiver, Matuska probably will never again see the inside of the house he has lived in for the past half century.
“Charlie will never go home, if he lives, because of this,” said his sister, Linda Skolnik.
Matuska is now living at a long-term advanced care facility, receiving treatment for large, gaping bed sores he incurred while under the allegedly negligent care of 56-year-old Stephen J. Kowalsky, who has lived with Matuska full time since mid-2012.
Kowalsky was charged on March 13 with criminal neglect of an elderly person, a Class 3 felony in Illinois, and is being held at Cook County Jail with his bond set at $100,000. He has a March 31 hearing at the Maybrook courthouse, where prosecutors may indict him.
“I hope he doesn’t have an opportunity to care for another human being again,” said Skolnik, who lives in Pennsylvania with her elderly husband and hasn’t been able to visit Matuska, but has spoken to him on the phone.
“Charlie’s nature is to be stoic,” she said. “I can only imagine how long he’s been in pain.”
According to hospital staff at Loyola University Medical Center, where Matuska was taken by North Riverside paramedics on March 5, the bed sores were not recent; they developed over a period of months.
A social worker told police that emergency room nurses said the bedsores were “stage-four” condition and the worst they had ever seen. In addition, according to North Riverside police, Matuska was malnourished.
“Those photos were the worst things I’ve seen in 26 years as a police officer,” said Deputy Police Chief Deborah Garcia.
It’s unclear what finally drove Kowalsky to end months of alleged deception, but he was the person who called 911 on March 5, telling the North Riverside emergency dispatcher he was unable to care for Matuska any longer.
The around-the-clock care became necessary after Matuska, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, broke his hip in a fall at home. Through the help of a neighbor, Skolnik privately hired Kowalsky at $700 per week to live with and care for Matuska.
It appeared to be a good fit. Prior to Matuska’s hip injury, Kowalsky had helped care for Matuska through a Brookfield home services agency called Visiting Angels. According to Jay Mitchell, Matuska’s good friend and neighbor, Kowalsky and Matuska got along well.
At the time of Matuska’s hip injury, Kowalsky essentially was homeless, living at a motel on Joliet Road in Countryside.
Two decades ago, however, Kowalsky was a musician and a promising composer. According to a 1991 Chicago Tribune story, Kowalsky won the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first Illinois Composers Competition. Along with a $5,000 prize, Kowalsky had the honor of hearing his work, “Last Voyage,” premiered by the Chicago Symphony orchestra under the direction of then-conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Kowalsky, who worked previously as an administrator at Northwestern University, later played bassoon in the DuPage Symphony Orchestra.
The December 2010 edition of Intermezzo, a newsletter published by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, identified Kowalsky as working on his Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Chicago and listed a River Forest address as his residence.
Kowalsky told police he learned to care for the elderly by caring for his own parents. According to his Facebook page, Kowalsky joined Visiting Angels in August 2011 and through that agency came to know Matuska.
But Kowalsky skirted the agency when it came to setting up the live-in arrangement with Matuska. Brookfield Visiting Angels owner Tina Kostial said Kowalsky kept her in the dark about the arrangement. However, she said, Kowalsky still continued to accept jobs from her agency until December 2013.
It was at that time Kowalsky suffered a stroke and had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. During that time, he arranged for a woman to home care for Matuska. The woman was another Visiting Angels employee, and again the agency was not told of the arrangement, said Kostial.
“It’s very common; it happens all the time to all agencies,” Kostial said. “Families like the caregiver, and they can get them for half the price [privately]. He was working with me up until the time he had the stroke. I had no idea he was with Charles.”
At the same time, according to Mitchell, Kowalsky was also deceiving him.
Mitchell got to know Matuska, a fellow Army veteran, more than a decade ago as a neighbor. Matuska was a gentle person who loved living near Komarek School, where he could see kids coming and going and hear their voices.
“Charlie was the kind of guy who if he held out is hand like this, a bird would land in it; he was that gentle,” said Mitchell.
When Mitchell wanted to get rid of some birds that nested just outside a living room window underneath an air-conditioning unit, Matuska wouldn’t hear of it. He liked hearing the birds chirping.
“He called it the ‘sound of life,'” said Mitchell.
Matuska, a lifelong bachelor, grew up in Cicero and served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the 1950s. After leaving the Army, Matuska bought his home in North Riverside in the early 1960s and started a 30-year career with the Zenith Corporation.
In the 1990s when Zenith moved its moved to Texas, Matuska could have relocated along with his job. Instead, he retired to stay in North Riverside.
“It was his one and only home, Skolnik said.
Even as his health began to deteriorate, Matuska fought any notion that he might be better off in a nursing home. Skolnik said she had broached the subject with her brother, but he wouldn’t budge.
“He was desperate not to live in a nursing home,” said Skolnik.
Mitchell helped Matuska stay home. He removed the thick shag carpeting, which was tough for Matuska to navigate with his walker, and screwed metal hand rails along hallways to give Matuska something solid to hold onto.
He also renovated Matuska’s bathroom, taking out the tub and making it wheelchair accessible so Matuska could shower. Mitchell took Matuska to doctor’s appointments and would take Matuska on rides around the city in a car he purchased from Matuska. He would park the car across the street, so Matuska could see it from his bed, which had been moved into the living room so Matuska could see and hear what was going on outside.
And it was through the assistance of Mitchell that Kowalsky was hired to take care of Matuska full time. Mitchell would visit often to make sure Kowalsky was OK.
But as Matuska condition began to deteriorate, Kowalsky allegedly began to hide any sign of trouble. Whenever anyone would visit, Kowalsky was covered with sheets or blankets or dressed in a heavy, long-sleeved sweatshirt, said Mitchell. Kowalsky reportedly claimed everything was fine, and Matuska never complained.
“He hid things well,” Mitchell said.
After discovering Matuska’s condition, Mitchell ordered Kowalsky out of the house. A week later, on March 13 police arrested Kowalsky at the Rodeway Inn in Countryside.
According to police, Kowalsky said it had become too difficult for him to move Matuska, and that he hadn’t taken Matuska to see the doctor in more than a year. He reportedly knew he was being negligent and didn’t tell anyone about Matuska’s condition, because he was afraid he’d lose the job and was afraid of what people would think of him.
“I don’t wish anything bad on anyone,” said Mitchell, “but I hope Stephen gets what he deserves.”