The brother of one of Northwest Indiana's fallen soldiers says he's prolonging a visit here to help his family retrieve a collection of his sister's personal effects -- including her dog tags and funeral flag -- now owned by a Lake Station businessman.
Matthew Winters Jr., brother of the late Marine Sgt. Jeannette Winters, said he wants "peace of mind" before returning to his California home. But businessman Mark Perko said he can't simply give away property he purchased from a storage unit more than four years ago after payments were missed.
» Click to enlarge image
Marine Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters' Navy Commendation Medal sits among personal effects including a family photo and the class picture from Calumet High School in a Lake Station business.
(Scott M. Bort/Post-Tribune)
"This is how I make my living," Perko, a Hobart resident, said. "This is how I feed my kids."
The stash includes Winters' military records and medals, her personal photographs and address book, and a white Calumet High School graduation gown. Among the items is a vial of sand from Pakistan.
Robert Farmer, executive director of Webb House Inc., helped dedicate the Sgt. Jeannette Winters Center for Homeless Female Veterans last week in the Glen Park neighborhood of Gary. Farmer said he'd like to display some of the commemorative items there, and he said he offered Perko $1,000 and four tickets to Chicago Bears football games for it.
"He would not take it," Farmer said. "That's where we stand."
Sgt. Jeannette Winters became the first U.S. servicewoman to die in the war in Afghanistan when a tanker plane crashed into a mountain in Pakistan in January 2002.
Her father's home was broken into during her funeral, and her brother said the family put her property in a storage unit for safekeeping. Later, Matthew Winters said, their father became sick, likely causing him to miss the payments.
That, Matthew Winters said, would have been about the same time Perko said he purchased its contents. Perko said it was one of many he purchases every year, but he knew immediately what he was buying when offered a peek inside.
"The picture was right there," Perko said, pointing to a photo of Sgt. Winters with her framed uniform.
Perko said he doesn't remember how much he paid, nor would he say how much it would take for him to part with it. He said he's kept the collection in the back of his Lake Station furniture outlet business for years, but publicity might prompt him to move it.
It includes Winters' funeral flag, her birth certificate and a report about the crash that took her life. Perko also has letters from President Bush, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, an Indiana General Assembly proclamation and a Gary City Council resolution.
"There's just all kinds of different things," Perko said.
Soon after first purchasing the items, Perko said he reached out to Winters' family through a friend with connections to the U.S. Marine Corps. He said he never heard back, but he declined to say if he would have donated them to the family then.
"If they left it in a storage unit, obviously it didn't mean a whole hell of a lot," Perko said.
Farmer said the items are only valuable to the Winters family and his not-for-profit agency, Webb House.
"And, of course, the public to see it," Farmer said.
Perko said he isn't seeking bids on the property, but he reached out to participants of last week's dedication of the homeless shelter named after Winters. He connected with Farmer, who said he visited Perko's business with Matthew Winters to verify the collection's authenticity.
"It was definitely all of her stuff," Farmer said.
That stuff, Matthew Winters said, is the only reason he skipped a non-refundable flight back home to California this week.
"I should have been back at work today," Winters said.