Naperville teen’s senseless tragedy: ‘They scared him to death’
After he was reprimanded by a faculty member Corey Walgren walked out of Naperville North High School where he was a student and committed suicide according to his mother Maureen Walgren. (Chicago Tribune)
On the last night of his life, Corey Walgren sat with his parents in the kitchen and talked about the colleges they would visit over spring break.
At 16, Corey didn’t know what he wanted to study — maybe business, maybe astronomy — but he liked the idea of attending a Big Ten school. He wanted a big, bustling campus with different kinds of people, a place that could match his energy and varied interests.
His parents, Doug and Maureen Walgren, described it as an exciting but bittersweet discussion with their eldest child, a rite-of-passage conversation that occurs in kitchens all across the country. It ended with the family deciding to visit the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota, both of which seemed realistic options given Corey’s solid grade point average and extra-curricular activities.
With his future before him and a high school hockey tournament that weekend, Corey went to bed that night as he had for much of his life: Happy. Healthy. Home.
"There was no concern for anything," Maureen Walgren said. "Everything was fine. Everything was normal."
Life for the Walgren family would never be normal again, at least as they knew it on that January evening.
The following day, Naperville police suspected that Corey — who had no criminal history and had never been in serious trouble at school — had video on his phone of a consensual sexual encounter with a 16-year-old classmate and possibly played it for friends.
At lunchtime, he was called into the dean’s office.
There, with a police officer and campus dean, Corey was questioned about possessing and possibly sharing "child pornography," allegedly threatened that he’d be put on the state’s sex offender registry, then was left alone to wait for his mother.
It does not appear any pornographic images were found on the teen’s phone, but it did contain a file with audio of the sexual encounter. Police did not intend to pursue charges, records show, and they indicated they wanted to handle the matter in a way that ensured Corey understood the seriousness of his actions and how it affected his classmate.
Yet Corey left school after the confrontation, walked nearly a mile to downtown Naperville and committed suicide by falling from the top of a parking deck.
"I think they wanted to scare him straight," Maureen Walgren said. "Instead, they scared him to death."
A young man whose life seemed so full of promise to those who knew him, Corey Walgren now serves as the subject of a cautionary tale in Naperville, the affluent west suburban community where many have whispered about his final day but few talk about it openly. In many ways, Corey’s story represents a dangerous melding of teenage sex, modern technology, a 16-year-old boy’s poor judgment and a response from school officials and local police that legal experts say may have violated the law.
And with its many uncomfortable and heartbreaking turns, it’s a difficult story for his parents to share publicly. They still struggle with an often paralyzing grief, and they have two other children they want to protect. But Corey’s parents also believe their son’s death could have been prevented. They say they feel an obligation to speak out.
"This could happen to anyone’s child," Maureen Walgren said.
A junior at Naperville North High School, Corey Walgren had caused his parents little worry growing up. He was the oldest of three children, a lanky teen with strawberry-blond hair that leaned toward red and a background that would make a strong foundation for a college application: He routinely made the honor roll, earned a varsity letter in hockey his freshman year and worked part time busing tables at a local Italian restaurant.
He had a tight-knit group of friends and was the one who made sure everyone in their circle knew the weekend’s social plans. Though only an occasional fisherman as a child, he surprised his parents by joining the high school’s competitive fishing team his freshman year; he later persuaded several of his hockey teammates to do the same.
There was nothing that made him happier than his dog, a Chihuahua-dachshund mix he called Buppy, and McChicken sandwiches from McDonald’s dollar menu — in that order, friends say.
"He wasn’t afraid to branch out and be friends with everyone," said Zach Rang, a hockey and fishing teammate. "He was a hilarious kid who always made sure that everyone felt included."
Like many boys and girls in his neighborhood, Corey started playing hockey after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. He quickly mastered skating, which led to a club team and a childhood filled with predawn practices and weekend tournaments. In a sport where most young players want to be forwards, he agreed to be a defenseman because he was one of the few who could skate well backward.
"He was the kid who did whatever you told him to do and never complained," said Chris Hall, the parent who serves as president of the Naperville North Hockey Club. "He was a dependable kid from an involved family. You could count on him to be at every practice and every game."
During his final season, Corey was the only player on the Naperville North team who didn’t earn a single penalty. It’s an unusual statistic for someone playing his rough-and-tumble position, and one made even more surprising given that Naperville North led the conference in penalties at one point.
"It says everything about Corey," Hall said. "He wasn’t taking runs at people or throwing elbows. He played the game his way and was very good at it."
The Tribune pieced together what happened to Corey through documents from police and the DuPage County coroner, obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act, as well as interviews with his parents, friends and others.
The police reports were heavily redacted and withheld all information about the confrontation at the high school less than two hours before Corey killed himself. The Tribune, though, obtained from other sources a less redacted copy of the police reports, including the report written by the officer who questioned the teen.
The DuPage County coroner released its report, which shows police described the case as a "child pornography" investigation.
In a statement to the Tribune, Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall called Corey’s death a tragedy but said the officer who questioned him acted properly.
"At the time of the incident, the Police Department determined that the school resource officer followed proper policies and procedures," Marshall said.
Naperville District 203 officials also provided a statement saying the district was "incredibly saddened by Corey’s death," but believed it handled the situation appropriately.
"At the outset of this incident, we worked to ensure a thorough and fair review of the facts, and involved the appropriate school and law enforcement officials," the statement said. "Our main concern with any matter involving students is fairness, discretion and objectivity. The school district feels confident that we handled this issue appropriately and engaged the right officials pursuant to the protocols and procedures that govern student affairs."
On Jan. 11, records show, a female classmate told a dean that she had learned that Corey had a recording of a sexual encounter they had shortly before Christmas, and believed he had played it for friends. Police described her as "mortified," according to the coroner’s report.
The Tribune was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the girl’s family.
At lunch that Wednesday, Corey was showing friends the giant Walmart sandwich his mother had packed for him when a school administrator walked up and asked to speak with him. Walgren followed him to an office, where a school dean and a Naperville police officer assigned to the campus were waiting for him.
Officer Brett Heun asked Corey if he could download the contents of his phone and remove the "illegal items," according to a police report. Police told the coroner’s office that Corey consented to the request and was "very cooperative, forthright and did not appear to be scared."
The recording the officer sought ended up being a video file with no discernible images. Police described it as "very dark" and "more of only audio." A lawyer for the family said nothing can be seen in the recording.
According to the redacted police records, the officer and school dean spoke with Corey about the recording for 18 minutes before trying to reach his parents.
Illinois law requires police to "immediately make a reasonable attempt to notify the parent" after a minor is taken into custody. Unless a juvenile believes that he is free to stop the questioning and walk out of the room, according to a legal expert, he is considered to be in police custody.
"There’s no question his parents should have been called," said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor and an attorney with the school’s MacArthur Justice Center. "The clear intent of the law is to give a parent the opportunity to intervene if their child is being interrogated."
To be sure, the courts have found that students have fewer rights in a school setting because administrators have a legitimate need to maintain a conducive learning environment. The Illinois Council of School Attorneys’ guidelines also state that school resource officers can interview students without parental permission if it’s a school-related incident or may have potential consequences for the safety of students or employees.
The advisory, published in January 2015, lists as possible situations fights that may result in retaliation on campus, threats made against another student, gang-related offenses and drug possession.
But the guidelines also state that when school officials request a police officer to interview a student for law-enforcement purposes, administrators "shall, before allowing the law enforcement agent to interview the student, attempt to contact and obtain permission of the student’s parent or guardian." According to the guidelines, schools can skip parental notification in cases where there is imminent danger or if officers need to act promptly to prevent the destruction of evidence in a serious crime.
Walgren family attorney Terry Ekl said none of those exemptions would apply in Corey’s situation.
"Parents of students understandably trust that when they send their children to school, the best interests of their children will be the one and only priority of school staff, including, especially, that any allegations involving misconduct of a child will be handled reasonably," Ekl said. "In this case, the Naperville North High School staff, including the assigned liaison Naperville police officer, violated that trust."
After speaking to Corey alone, the dean and police officer tried to reach Doug Walgren on his cellphone. They also tried the family’s home phone before calling Maureen Walgren at work.
Heun, the officer, talked to Maureen Walgren on a speakerphone with Corey in the room. He told her that her son was being investigated for "child pornography" and could end up being placed on the sex offender registry, Walgren said.
Her heart pounding and her head spinning, Walgren asked if she needed to hire a lawyer.
Heun told her "no," according to her recollection and the coroner’s report, which was based in part on interviews with police.
Heun, however, wrote in his police report that he declined to answer the question.
"I told her that was a decision she needed to make as I could not influence her one way or the other," Heun wrote. "I explained to her that my goal was to keep this incident out of the courts."
Heun suggested the case might be resolved with what is typically called a "station adjustment," a legally sanctioned way of reprimanding minors without formally arresting them. Under state law, punishments can range from a lecture to community service or counseling. A formal station adjustment includes an agreement signed by both the youth and his or her parents, indicating that the juvenile will abide by the terms.
"She (Maureen Walgren) stated Corey would fulfill it without a problem," Heun wrote in his report.
The officer then told Maureen Walgren he intended to download items from Corey’s phone and needed her consent, according to the reports. Walgren, a nurse, said she would leave work immediately and be at the school within 50 minutes.
After the phone call ended, the officer and the dean walked Corey to an office waiting area and told him to sit down. The two then went to speak with Principal Stephanie Posey, leaving Corey to wait for his mother.
Corey, his parents said, must have realized the gravity of the situation. For years, his parents had lectured him about how bad decisions — especially ones involving sex — could lead to serious problems. Every time there was a news story about a teenager in trouble with police, his mother pointed it out to him.
"We had lots of what we called ‘Making good choices’ conversations," Doug Walgren said.
In fact, the Walgrens had had one of those conversations with Corey the previous weekend. He had confided to them he recently had had a sexual encounter, in large part because he told them it had been his first time and he was worried about potential consequences.
"It wasn’t a comfortable conversation, and we’re not proud that we had to have it," Maureen Walgren said. "But we addressed it as a family."
Indeed, the family moved ahead and, a few days later, had the forward-looking conversation about college visits.
As Maureen Walgren drove to the high school, summoned by authorities, her thoughts alternated between thinking she wanted to "wring" Corey’s neck and praying the situation wasn’t as bad as she feared.
The term "registered sex offender" echoed in her mind.
She tried to calm herself by repeating what Heun said about the station adjustment, though she said she texted a friend for advice on hiring a lawyer.
"I know how fearful I felt at that moment. I was completely shaken," she said. "I can only imagine what Corey was thinking. He must have been terrified."
Maureen Walgren drove straight to the school, arriving 15 minutes earlier than she predicted.
Corey, however, had already left.
After signing into the building, Maureen Walgren immediately asked to see her son. A dean pulled her into an office, shut the door and told her that they couldn’t find Corey. She said she assumed he had simply gone back to class. In her mind, it was the only plausible explanation for an increasingly surreal situation.
The dean told Walgren that they believed Corey had left the building. She said they asked if there was any reason to believe he would hurt himself.
Corey had no history of mental illness or suicidal ideation, according to the coroner’s report. He hadn’t exhibited any signs of depression in the days before he died or in a routine text exchange about next year’s class schedule with his mother that morning.
"I told them that under normal circumstances, no, he wouldn’t hurt himself," Maureen Walgren said. "But these weren’t normal circumstances."
Walgren knew Corey parked on a side street near the campus, so she left the building to see if his silver Toyota Highlander was still parked there. She asked the school to contact police so they could begin searching for Corey.
School officials found Corey’s keys in his backpack, meaning he had likely left on foot. They informed his mother, who then drove home to see if Corey had walked there. When she didn’t find him at the house, she headed back to the school, passing through downtown as she drove.
At 2:37 p.m., a Naperville police officer spotted the teen sitting on the ledge atop a five-story parking garage located less than a mile from campus. He looked calmly at the patrolman, according to the police report, and did not appear to be in distress.
The officer had not been briefed on the situation at the high school and did not know if the teen posed a threat, so he did not approach Corey. Instead, he drove past him and planned to park by a row of nearby cars for cover in case he was dangerous. When he looked back seconds later, Corey was no longer on the ledge.
At 2:38 p.m., Corey Walgren — big brother, varsity hockey player, bass fisherman, honor roll student and social coordinator for a tight-knit group of friends — plummeted 53 feet.
His mother was about five blocks away.
Minutes after Corey fell, Maureen Walgren called the school again to see if her son had been found. Heun — who had just been notified about the parking garage incident — asked her to return to the school.
"She asked if we had found Corey yet and I told her I believed we had found him and I needed her to return to NNHS," Heun wrote in his report. "She asked if Corey was safe and I told her I wasn’t sure but I needed her to return to NNHS. She asked if Corey was in the hospital and I told her I wasn’t sure and again told her I needed her to come back to NNHS so I could talk with her."
When Walgren arrived at the school, Heun told her that someone had fallen from the parking garage and was injured. Dreading the answer, she asked if the person had curly, strawberry blond hair.
Heun didn’t know.
She asked what the person was wearing, but Heun didn’t have that information either, the police report shows. Walgren told Heun she wished he had told her about the parking deck when she was downtown so she could have driven there — though no police officer would knowingly send a victim’s mother to such a scene.
A doctor who happened to be passing by immediately began treating Corey, who was still breathing. Maureen Walgren knows this now and is haunted by the thought of not being with her son in those last moments.
"I was so close when it happened," she said. "I’m a nurse. I could have done something. I could have at least ridden in the ambulance with him so he wasn’t alone. I could have held my son’s hand while he took his final breaths."
As Heun drove Walgren to Naperville’s Edward Hospital, the police department emailed him pictures from the parking deck security cameras. The images were of such poor quality that it was impossible to make out the color of the person’s hair or clothes.
Maureen Walgren asked to look at the images and immediately recognized Corey’s gait, the shoulders that were identical to his father’s and the clothes he had worn to school that day. There was no doubt it was her child.
"And I knew immediately that he was dead," she said. "I just knew it in my heart."
She called her husband, a software engineer who had started a new job in Schaumburg that week, and told him he needed to get to the hospital. She didn’t tell him why. She didn’t want him driving all that way knowing what had happened.
When Maureen Walgren arrived at the hospital, she was taken to a private room and her fears were confirmed. Corey had been pronounced dead at 3:27 p.m., less than three hours after he had been called into the dean’s office.
A doctor explained how they tried to save Corey’s life, but his injuries were too severe.
Doug Walgren arrived a half-hour later and also was told Corey was dead. He began having chest pains and trouble breathing, according to police reports, but he repeatedly refused to be admitted to the hospital.
"I needed to see Corey," he said.
More than 2,000 people attended Corey Walgren’s wake, including several area hockey teams in their game sweaters. His hockey club decided not to play in the tournament scheduled for the weekend after Corey’s death, so its archrival Naperville Central volunteered to take Naperville North’s spot and played in Corey’s memory.
In a Hollywood script, Naperville North would have overcome the tragedy and lifted a trophy at the season’s end. Instead, the team won only a couple more games and suffered an early exit from the playoffs.
"Obviously, our first thought was that we wanted to win for our guy," teammate and close friend Michael Hall said. "But in our hearts, we knew the season was over as soon as we were told what happened. Hockey wasn’t in the forefront of our minds anymore. There was just such a huge hole in our lives."
The team retired Corey’s No. 18 sweater, a number he chose because he was a member of the Class of 2018. It also created the Corey Walgren Memorial Trophy, an honor given to a varsity player who has earned the respect of teammates and coaches "through dedication, hustle and exemplary sportsmanship."
Corey’s younger siblings — Josh, 14, and Shannon, 11 — are also still learning to cope without their older brother, who they had always relied on to come up with games and stories to keep them entertained. They have insisted their parents maintain all the traditions Corey enjoyed, including the annual Super Bowl party that they had always thrown to celebrate Corey’s Feb. 5 birthday.
Three weeks after Corey’s death, they had 50 people over to watch the game in the family’s finished basement, the place where Corey’s friends had spent countless hours playing video games and shinny hockey.
His parents hadn’t been in the basement since Corey’s death, but they were willing to hold the gathering if it comforted Josh and Shannon. They ordered the six-foot Subway sandwich Corey always liked and found solace in the stories that friends and family shared that night.
"We all have waves of grief and it hits us at certain times," Doug Walgren said. "And we’re the only ones who can help each other through it."
Corey’s parents continue to struggle with their son’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. Several weeks ago, Edward Hospital notified them that 19 employees from the hospital and its affiliates had accessed Corey’s medical records after his death without authorization, an unsettling invasion that reflects the widespread curiosity about his suicide and compounded the family’s grief.
Doug and Maureen Walgren plan to file a lawsuit against both the school district and the police department. They hope legal action will spur the school and police to rethink how they handle future incidents involving minors.
"There has to be a change in their policy and their procedures," Maureen Walgren said. "Corey’s death cannot go by with no meaning at all."
The Walgrens have had minimal contact with school officials or the police department, though Maureen Walgren contacted Naperville North a few months ago to ask for a copy of Corey’s final report card.
"He had worked so hard to a get a B in pre-calculus," she said. "I wanted to have a proof of that. I wanted to have proof that he had done it."
And he had.