Calls for Help
Not until she returns home to husband John, a 46-year-old computer programming instructor, does Kathy bare her grief. "There's enough sorrow in the world, so I keep mine private," she says, tears welling. "It doesn't take much—like when I see a mother and child—and the flashbacks hit me." Her nightmare began Nov. 11, 1994, when a mob of students from neighboring communities came to Fox Chase cruising for a fight. Eddie, who was hanging out at a local park, was attacked at random by several boys with baseball bats and steel-toed boots. The savageness of the beating—Polec suffered seven skull fractures—drew public outrage, as did the surliness and sluggishness of the six 911 operators who took the calls (and who would be parodied on Saturday Night Live). When Mayor Edward Rendell dismissed the operators, all of them black, charges of racism divided the city.
But John and Kathy—along with children Kristie, then 19, and Billy, 14—kept their cool amid the fray. "It was clear to the press, prosecutors and police that there was something extraordinary about this family," says Bryn Freedman, who, with husband William Knoedelseder, covered the tragedy for local TV stations. In their new book In Eddie's Name: One Family's Triumph Over Tragedy, the authors describe how the Polecs never sought revenge or sued for millions. Instead, when John learned that police didn't arrive at St. Cecilia's until 40 minutes after operators received the first of 15 frantic calls, he set out to revamp Philadelphia's flawed 911 system. "I did it so the same thing wouldn't happen again," says John, whose crusade led to an $8 million overhaul that has significantly reduced response time. "If someone else died waiting for a cop, we'd be guilty."
Sitting in the kitchen of her modest, red-brick house, Kathy sips her tea and sifts through her memories. "Ed was playful, like an overgrown puppy. He'd come up behind me, touch my ear and whisper, 'I wuv you.' " Her son, Kathy adds, had the same gentle spirit that drew her to John, whom she met on a blind date and married four years later, in 1975. A gregarious teen who loved Pearl Jam, roast beef and touch football, Ed worked long hours at a fast-food place before Kathy, alarmed by his slipping grades at Cardinal Dougherty High, had him cut back.
On Friday, Nov. 11, a night he normally would have been working, Ed went to the park to drink beer with his pals. The middle-class Fox Chase kids were expecting a rumble, having heard that roving gangs were searching for victims to avenge a rumored rape the week before. After carloads of teenagers brandishing Louisville Sluggers began showing up around 10 p.m., Eddie and his friends ran toward St. Cecilia's for refuge. Eddie never made it. First came a blow to his legs, then nine swings at his head and face; one boy lifted his limp body from the ground to give others a clean shot. His skull shattered, Eddie was taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where at 10:24 the next morning, doctors gave up hope. The life-support system was turned off, as family and friends stood in silence and shock.
The stricken community rallied round the Polecs. Some 4,000 people attended Eddie's memorial service. There was the ritual laying of flowers and youth counseling sessions. But Kathy fell into an emotional abyss, becoming so depressed she couldn't get out of bed. "John and I were nothing but exposed, raw nerves. We couldn't comfort each other, and it drove us apart."
Meantime, John pored over the 911 logs, quickly concluding it wasn't rudeness that slowed down the cops. All the 911 calls in Northeast Philly that night—not just the ones about Eddie's attackers—were funneled to a single radio dispatcher handling some 80 officers patrolling the area. And the 911 airwaves were tied up whenever police requested routine license and registration checks for traffic violations. John figured that if patrolmen could retrieve the data on personal computers running on cell phone frequencies, the radio could be freed for emergencies only. "It was a no-brainer at this point. I bought a computer and phone for $2,000, hooked them up right here, and it worked," says John, who promptly informed city officials in March 1995.
The trial of Eddie's attackers began 10 months later. After six weeks, Anthony Rienzi, Nicholas Pinero, Thomas Crook, Dewan Alexander, Carlo Johnson and Bou Khathavong were found guilty of charges ranging from conspiracy to third-degree murder and received sentences of 5 to 30 years. (Kevin Convey, who testified against the others, pled guilty before the trial began.) That brought some surcease from grief, but not enough. "When each of us addressed the defendants, it brought home how close our family was," says Kathy. "But the circle was broken with Ed missing."
And there was still the matter of the bottlenecked 911 system. Despite promises, Philadelphia officials had taken no action. Fed up and furious, John threatened in September 1996 to file a suit against the city for negligence in Eddie's death; within days, Mayor Rendell agreed to begin installing the computers the following February. Today there are terminals in 779 patrol cars—virtually the entire fleet—and the number of operators has increased from 207 to 253. (The six dismissed operators have been reinstated.) "John was determined and dogged," says Deputy Police Commissioner Charles Brennan. "I give him a lot of credit."
Strict Catholics, the Polecs have settled into a life of quiet dignity. When the pain becomes too much, Kathy takes solace in her garden. "I used to have a black thumb, but not long after Eddie died there were flowers, chipmunks, birds, butterflies," she says. "A friend said, 'If you had any doubt Ed is near, look around you. These were the things he loved.' For me, sitting there was an oasis. It still is."