A mother and son try to move on from their painful pasts and reconnect after more than a decade
Jennifer Del Prete hopes to make up for the moments missed while she was in prison
By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
Updated: 3 p.m., July 10, 2017
GALENA, Ill.—Draven was missing from home.
The 16-year-old boy had slipped out without saying a word, boarded a train from Chicago and rode for over two hours to meet a girl he met online. He didn’t see the flood of texts, missed calls and voicemails from friends and family. From everyone, it seemed—except his mom.
She had no idea he had gone missing. She was missing, too, in a way: locked up for a murder she maintained she didn’t commit.
Late that night, Draven returned home to a furious dad, aunt and grandma. They took his phone away, a blow to a teenager who already felt alone and used his phone to stay connected with his few friends. He says he was also dealing with being bullied in school, which he blamed partly on having a mom in prison.
Draven says he started cutting himself–small cuts, at first—before being hospitalized. Then it got worse as he says he continued to cut himself for nearly a year until there was “nowhere else on my body to cut.”
Draven blames his spiral in part on not being able to talk to his mom on his own terms, beyond the 30-minute calls he was allowed. “That,” he says of the downslide, “could have all been avoided had I been able to talk to my mom.”
In 2005, when Draven Del Prete Sieczka was 7, he found out his mom wasn’t coming home. Jennifer Del Prete, then a day care worker, had just been convicted of first-degree murder.
The next time he saw his mom, he was separated from her by prison glass, having a face-to-face conversation that required them to speak by phone even as they looked at each other. When he was about 13, he says he was shocked at the sight of Jenni’s broken nose and left the prison with the weight that his mom was being beaten by other prisoners. During other visits, he says, their time together was drowned out by inmates “hollering and yelling.”
The prison din was frightening to Draven, and his uncle realized Jenni’s incarceration took a deep toll on the boy.
“It affected everybody, but I believe in a lot of ways it affected him the most,” says Aaron Neal, Draven’s uncle. “… I mean, he was so young when it happened.”
For Jenni, the pain of separation was unrelenting in prison. “I did not want to live,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine living without the kids. I couldn’t even breathe.”
She remembers a prison visit when Draven was a teenager, and the air conditioner was broken in the visiting room. Everyone was sweating in the heat. Draven sat there wearing a hoodie. When she told him he could take it off, he responded, “No, I’m good.” Jenni knew he wasn’t. What she didn’t know was he was hiding scars.
“I’m mad at myself,” Jenni says. “… I didn’t put enough focus on that, and I kind of got distracted. So maybe if I stayed on him more, I could’ve fixed it.”
Later, Jenni sensed her kids—Draven and her older daughter Tia—were drifting from her. The son whom she once called her “little shadow” gradually stopped visiting and accepting her phone calls from prison as he grew frustrated with the limited time they had to talk about things that mattered—life.
Then in 2014, after serving nearly half of her 20-year sentence, a federal judge freed Jenni, saying no reasonable jury would have found her guilty. Two years later, her conviction was overturned. After she was released, she tried to reconnect with her then 24-year-old daughter Tia and her 17-year-old son. For Mother’s Day, less than two weeks after she got out of prison, Jenni expected her kids to make plans with her. Draven didn’t.
“We hadn’t had a mother for 10 years, so we weren’t used to it,” Draven says.
Jenni didn’t understand. “I was being a little selfish, and I think I was kind of raising my voice,” she says. “I was upset with him. ‘What do you mean you’re not going to see me my first time home?’ And I think I put a little too much pressure on him.”
Even now, there remains a trace of pain in Draven’s controlled response: “We felt abandoned for so long that it was kind of hypocritical to say that we abandoned her for Mother’s Day,” he says. “… We felt angry that she would even say something like that—like, that we were just blowing her off for Mother’s Day, because she blew us off so many times.”
After that, Jenni texted Draven almost every day for more than a year and a half.
“Hi, I miss you.”
“Please consider calling me.”
“You can come over any time.”
He didn’t respond.
Talking to ghosts
Draven has found his way home—Jenni’s home.
After the three-hour drive from Burbank, just southwest of Chicago, he’s spending five days with his mom at her place in Galena, a quaint town in northwest Illinois. Draven and his mom reconnected last year; not wanting to miss out on more time with her, he texted her during the holidays, “Merry Christmas.” He says he came to realize he had nothing to be angry about, and he didn’t want to have any regrets.
Jenni says she’s not sure what changed Draven’s mind, but they haven’t dwelled on it. “I don’t know what clicked [with Draven] … and I don’t care,” she says. “I’m just glad [our relationship]’s there and it exists now and it’s good.”
Her father, Wesley Del Prete, understands how “heartbroken” Jenni was by the separation from her son. “You can’t make up that time,” he says, but he sees that Draven’s visits have restored Jenni, now 46. She and Draven have tried to see each other at least once a month but this moment in Galena is the longest they’ve spent together since before Jenni went to prison more than a decade ago.
To mark the occasion, Jenni has been frantically preparing for Draven’s arrival, “planning like crazy” and rearranging the furniture in Draven’s room, says Karen “Slim” Alonzo, Jenni’s wife.
“[She] probably redid the bedroom like a thousand different times,” Slim says.
Jenni went grocery shopping, too, not holding back on everything he’d want, even though she makes minimum wage working as a cashier in the town general store. What she bought: a 24-pack of Go-GURT yogurts, three different kinds of frozen pizza, two packets of bacon, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, four party size bags of Doritos, three different brands of cinnamon rolls and a package of Cosmic Brownies.
“How much do you think I eat?” Draven asks her, laughing.
“I’m getting to know him more,” Jenni says. “… I lost a lot of who he was—what he liked, you know, what made him cry, what made him laugh. So I’m getting to know all that again.”
At night, when 27-year-old Tia comes to dinner, Jenni wraps her arms around her daughter, kissing her and resting her chin atop Tia’s head. With Draven, Jenni is careful, always leaving at least a few inches of space.
“I don’t really say ‘I love you’ that often,” Draven says. “… My mom says it all the time, she’s just like, 50 times a day, she’ll say ‘I love you,’ and she’ll hug you and—so that’s weird. I feel a little bit uncomfortable with, like, emotional stuff.”
Instead of hugs, Jenni showers her son with presents. As a belated birthday gift for Draven, who turned 20 in April, Jenni got tickets for a ghost tour since she knows he loves tales of horror—reading, watching and writing them. A 75-minute bus ride takes them around Galena while a tour guide regales them with stories of ghosts who play pranks on waiters at the local Italian restaurant and ring the bells in a historic mansion. Despite the oppressive heat, Draven wears long sleeves to hide his scars. As they sit on the bouncing bus, Jenni brags to the guide about her son’s talent for writing horror stories.
“Draven loves ghosts,” Jenni says.
The bus stops at a cemetery where Jenni and Draven learn to use dowsing rods—L-shaped tools that seem to move of their own will in their hands, the idea being that they allow them to communicate with hovering spirits. Jenni encourages Draven to try.
Holding the rods in his hands, he asks aloud if the spirit is related to him. The rod moves right, indicating yes.
“Ask what side it’s on,” Jenni says.
“Are you on my mom’s side?”
“Are you my grandma?” Draven asks.
“It’s your grandma, oh my God,” Jenni says, wiping tears from her eyes as Draven asks more questions of his Grandma Mary, the woman who had paid for Jenni’s phone calls to Draven from prison.
Draven doesn’t want to let on to his mom that he doesn’t quite believe in the hereafter.
“I sort of believe in ghosts, not entirely,” he says hesitantly. “… I mean, she definitely believes in them 100 percent. … I put the show on for my mom.”
“I definitely enjoyed it,” he adds hurriedly.
Jenni has her own private doubts she doesn’t share with Draven, worrying whether he is having a good time. Even when he was a little boy, she remembers he would cheat when they played Candy Land so that she would win.
“I hope the smiles are real and I hope he’s genuinely okay because he’s a people pleaser,” she says.
If he is enjoying himself, maybe he will visit again or—even better—come live with her, Jenni hopes. Back at the two-story house Jenni rents, she has saved a bedroom for Draven. At the moment, it’s occupied only by a bed, a few pieces of furniture, his clothes and a few birthday presents Jenni bought him. She hopes he’ll arrange the room if he moves in.
“I want him to have a feeling inside that this is home, just like it used to be,” Jenni says.
The ties that bind Draven to his life away from Jenni seem to be loosening; he graduated from high school about a year ago, doesn’t have a job at the moment and lives with his dad. He notices how many places around her town are hiring, including Culver’s where they stop for fries. At dinner, he says he likes Galena more than he expected and he’d like to come back again soon—maybe stay longer next time.
“Yeah!” Jenni says. “I’ll rent the U-Haul.”
In the hallway leading up to Draven’s room, Jenni has hung a framed photo of him no older than 5, clad in cobalt blue swimming trunks at the beach. Strands of blond hair blow in the wind as he stands against a backdrop of cerulean sky and white sand. It’s not fair she missed out on watching him grow up, she says, thinking of his pain and scars.
“[M]y son doesn’t want to go swimming and wear short sleeves because [of] his poor body,” she says, crying. “And I promise, it would’ve never been that way if I was home. Ever.”
Jenni wipes away the tears. “I’m just grateful that he’s here,” she says. “I can’t keep dwelling on the past, like, ‘God, I missed all those days.’”