June Justice buries her daughter, a 14-year-old high school freshman, today. The pain hangs heavy in her voice. She lashes out, blaming a junior with whom her daughter had sex, the school, and local law enforcement for the girl's suicide. She has talked to lawyers, Justice says, and is considering filing suit.
"I'm angry, mad, sad, and shocked," she tells The Daily Beast, following a candlelight vigil near her home on Saturday. "But Samantha died because she wanted to make sure no other girl went through this."
What Samantha Kelly went through has been the talk of Huron Township, Michigan, for weeks. Following a sexual encounter with 18-year-old Joseph Tarnopolski, she and her mother went to the police station, where she accused him of rape. Mother and daughter then gave an interview, airing the charge on a local Fox News affiliate. Friends of Tarnopolski threatened to beat her up. Girls confronted her in the school cafeteria, claiming she was lying. The harassment went on for weeks, and eventually became unbearable. And so Kelly hanged herself. With the key witness deceased, prosecutors decided to drop the charges—allowing her alleged assailant to go free.
Outraged, Justice is speaking out. Samantha told her schoolmates "what she had told me—which was that she'd told him to stop," Justice told The Daily Beast. "Then when she went back to school. I have all kinds of letters from her friends telling me that kids were bullying her, even throwing things at her," she said.
Justice took Kelly to the Huron Police Department on Sept. 27, to file a report of sexual assault, then subsequently did the TV interview. Following news reports on the allegation, Tarnopolski said on his Twitter page that all girls are liars, but did not use Kelly's name. He told a TV station that the two had had sex, but that it was "a mutual thing."
“I’m going to lay my daughter to rest,” Samantha’s mother said, “and then make sure she’s heard.”
After reviewing statements, text messages and other evidence, police agreed. But Kelly was below the legal age of consent—16 in the state of Michigan. Tarnopolski was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct—an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Arraigned Oct. 11, he posted bond and was released.
Last Wednesday, prosecutors dropped the charge. "After her untimely death, there was no evidence to put on in that case," Maria Miller, Wayne County's assistant prosecutor, explained. "Under law, we're not able to use [Kelly's] statement to prove our case. We don't have a witness."
Justice appeared at the court hearing, yelling and cursing at Tarnopolski as he was released. "This 18-year-old smooth-talked my daughter and made her feel he had feelings for her, when he was dating all her friends," she told The Daily Beast.
But Tarnopolski may not be completely in the clear after all. Huron Township police say they are probing a second, similar complaint against him. The investigation is almost complete, said Lt. Scott Carey. Justice said she did not know the identity of the second complainant.
Tarnopolski's lawyer did not immediately reply to a request for comment about a possible second charge. But the court-appointed lawyer, Matthew Evans, told the Detroit News that Justice herself was to blame for the taunting that drove her daughter to suicide. "Did harassment happen? Yes, but not from Joe and not by his direction," said Evans, according to the paper. "These were both nice kids. They liked each other. If mom hadn't dragged her daughter out in front of the camera, I am convinced she would still be alive."
Justice does not blame Tarnopolski alone for Kelly's death. She said officials at Huron High, about 40 miles west of Detroit, had told her measures would be taken to help protect her daughter. The principal, Donovan Rowe, declined comment, although reports said that he had occasionally accompanied Kelly to classes.
"They treated [Tarnopolski] a lot better than they did her," said Justice, 33, a homemaker who lives in a mobile home with her husband and three sons. Tarnopolski lives nearby.
Justice said she had decided to find a new school for Kelly, who had a 3.93 grade point average and designs on college and a career in criminal justice. One day, at home, Kelly took some pills in a suicide attempt, Justice said, and received treatment at an evaluation center.
"They sent her home," said Justice. "She just seemed to be very happy."
After about three weeks, Justice said she got a call from Principal Rowe, who expressed concern that Kelly was nearing truancy status. Justice said she asked for more time, both to care for Kelly and to find another school.
"Three days later, we get a letter in the mail, which Kelly opened, saying that if she didn't come back she would go from an 'A' to an 'F.' I think that put tremendous pressure on her to go back," Justice said.
She soon did, wearing her favorite jeans and white T-shirt, first giving her mother a hug and kiss. Later, Justice retrieved her from the bus stop. "She told me, 'Mom, it wasn't the best day, and it wasn't the worst day.' I told her 'I love you. Stay strong,' " Justice said.
Kelly hanged herself in her bedroom Nov. 8, scrawling the date of the alleged sexual contact, Sept. 26, on her wall. "I think she was just overwhelmed," said Justice. "School was the main part of her world, and now she felt like she was seriously alone."
Tarnopolski lives with his father, Joseph S. Tarnopolski, who as recently as 2007 was employed by Northwest Airlines, court records show. In an interview with local Fox 2 News, he said he did have consensual sex with Kelly, but that he wasn't responsible for her death.
"I really feel bad, she was a friend of mine," he said. "If she was getting ridiculed, it's not because of me."
As of late afternoon Nov. 13, nearly 9,000 people "liked" a Facebook page titled "R.I.P., Samantha Kelly. You will be missed. We love you." Others posted hateful messages on social-media sites created in her memory.
Justice spent Saturday at a visitation, her daughter's body in a casket bedecked with pink flowers, photos and stuffed animals all around. The funeral is today. "I'm going to lay my daughter to rest," she said, "and then make sure she's heard."
Mary M. Chapman has covered business and labor unions for the United Press International and the Bureau of National Affairs Inc. She is an award-winning poet and was recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding reporting. Chapman contributes regularly to The New York Times. She also has written for Newsweek, Fortune, the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, People, MSN.com, Canadian Auto Press and HOUR Detroit.