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Mark Brown: Dead woman’s problems began during her youth

Updated: November 14, 2011 12:18AM

We know where Cynthia Barnes’ troubles ended — on a sidewalk outside an apartment building at 59th and Kedzie, three floors below a window through which police say she was pushed.

Where those problems began is a trickier matter, though there’s a pretty clear line that traces back to her childhood.

“She didn’t like rules. You couldn’t tell her no. It just escalated,” said Mary Zavorski, speaking of the daughter to whom she gave birth at 1:04 a.m., July 28, 1971.

Mother and daughter didn’t have a warm relationship. At the time of Cynthia’s death on July 20, they hadn’t spoken in more than two years — since just before the last time Cynthia went to prison.

“It was a never-ending story,” Zavorski said of her daughter’s saga of homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution. “I loved her very much, but I didn’t like what she was doing.”

A main point of contention in Cynthia’s adult years was Zavorski’s refusal to allow her to see her children. Cynthia, 39, had six kids — ages 8 to 20 — but her parental rights were taken away through the courts, usually at birth, because of her addictions and lifestyle.

“She has not seen the 15-year-old or the 11-year-old ever since [giving birth at] the hospital,” said her mother, who has raised four of the children. “I used to give her pictures to kind of give her hope. Yes, she’d ask to see them, and we’d tell her she needed to get off the drugs first, that the kids didn’t need to see that.

“I always told her that if she could get out of the drugs she could be part of their lives, but I didn’t need her to bring them down. It was more or less to protect them.”

Family says she was sexually abused

Zavorski and Cynthia’s father were divorced when she was about 2. Cynthia only saw her birth father a few times again after that. Her mother remarried and gave her children their stepfather’s name.

Growing up on the Northwest Side, Cynthia ran away often as a teenager, was in and out of group homes and never graduated from Prosser High School.

There is general agreement among family members that Cynthia was sexually abused at some point as a child, although accounts differ on who the perpetrator was.

At 17, Cynthia married fellow druggie Marvin Barnes.

“After she got married, that’s when the prostitution arrests started,” Zavorski said. “She’d prostitute to get drugs for both of them.”

This was mostly in Cicero — in the low-end motels where prostitution long thrived.

As it happens, Barnes, who fathered three of the kids, is due to be released this Saturday from a Florida prison after serving a 15-year sentence for a string of convenience store robberies in the Tampa area in 1997.

By the time of his Florida arrest, Cynthia was already sitting in Cook County Jail, charged with murder.

Cynthia and two men had been accused of going on a drug binge on July 4, 1996, then driving to the Cicero home of someone she knew to rip him off. While Cynthia slept in the car, her accomplices went inside and beat him to death, authorities said. They later returned and set fire to the place in an effort to cover their tracks.

‘Clean and sober, she was a very nice person’

The murder charge against Cynthia was dropped when she agreed to testify against the others. She was sentenced to four years in prison for robbery conspiracy.

“We stuck by her through that,” Zavorski said. “Trust me, I tried everything with her.”

But the prostitution arrests started again after Cynthia’s release, and then two years ago, she was sent back to prison for robbing a man after stopping his car on the street.

In yet another strange twist, one of her two co-defendants in that case (along with her lesbian lover) was her older brother.

Michael Zavorski, 42, who has the rap sheet of a career criminal and the smarts of the lawyer he was studying to become at the time of that arrest, got out of prison just two months ago.

Michael Zavorski was extremely close to his sister and the only family member in touch with her in recent months — to the admitted consternation of his wife, Julie, who considered Cynthia a bad influence.

“There was no love lost between me and my sister-in-law,” Julie Zavorski told me. “We had tried so many times to help her. When she was clean and sober, she was a very nice person. She had ambitions. She wanted to go back to school. She wanted to do something to make her kids proud of her. But there was always something pulling her back in.”

A memorial service for Cynthia Barnes will be at 3 p.m., Aug. 14, at Southwest Chicago PADS, a homeless shelter at 3121 W. 71st St. where she was a frequent guest.

When the folks at PADS first alerted me to Barnes’ death, I told them I wasn’t sure it was much of a story. Seems I was wrong.

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