Sunday, May 25, 1997
Kathy Matje's mother
proves life priceless

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Helen Matje lives modestly in a tidy little house in Mount Washington, though she has given away tens of thousands of dollars. Payment from people she holds responsible for her daughter's death, it was not money she wanted to keep.

On Nov. 20, 1981, Kathy Matje committed suicide in jail, hours after she was convicted of drug trafficking. A registered nurse, she said she was set up by an undercover narcotics informant. She told her family and friends she could not bear the thought of being in jail.

Kathy, 32, had no criminal record. She did not hang around with criminals, not counting the Regional Enforcement Narcotics Unit (RENU) informant who testified against her. Louis J. Kahn, according to Kathy's testimony at her trial, asked her to keep a package of Quaaludes for him. She said he had shoved her around and she was scared of him.

Case closed

Six months after her death, Mr. Kahn was sent to jail for manufacturing drugs, receiving stolen property and intimidation. This was in connection with other cases. Kathy's case was closed.

Except to her mother, of course.

Helen Matje sued.

She went after Hamilton County jail officials, who had been warned that her daughter was suicidal, and RENU, claiming that their negligence led to her daughter's death. She won, sort of.

In 1984, she settled out of court for $130,000 and a list of limits on the way RENU can use informants like Louis Kahn. For instance, informants are prohibited from using force or threat of violence, illegal searches, tapping phones, tampering with the mail.

This was, of course, much too late for Kathy Matje, that ''darling girl, so sweet, so much fun to be around.'' At least this is her mother's description.

But you know how mothers are.

Then she shows me a photo of Kathy in her nurse's uniform. A young woman with pretty features, long shiny hair and an open face smiles out at me from a gold frame. Perhaps I'm seeing too much in a photo because I like her mom and because I think Kathy's death was so tragic and wasteful, but this looks like somebody special.

Somebody irreplaceable. Certainly not replaceable by money.

What's the price tag?

And isn't that something you'd like to hear these days? Don't you wish, for instance, that Ron Goldman's parents would refuse to touch O.J. Simpson's money?

The family of Lorenzo Collins, the man who was shot and killed after waving a brick at police, is suing the city and the University of Cincinnati for $10 million. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear that they're doing this to punish and send a message, that when the money rolls in, they're going to use it to help other mental patients?

Helen Matje gave the money she got from the county to the Civil Rights Litigation Fund for victims of things such as employment discrimination and other kinds of civil rights abuses and brutality. She is a retired secretary, widowed a few years before Kathy died, living on a fixed income. She says she never wanted the money from the county, but she wanted to ''get back at the idiots who let this happen to Kathy.''

Her attorney, Alphonse Gerhardstein, says she could have gotten a bigger settlement if she hadn't insisted on the rules for the drug enforcement agency.

But, of course, Helen Matje meant it when she said that her daughter was precious to her, that no amount of money would ever replace her oldest child.

''That money came from Kathy's death. I wanted to use it to help other people. That's the way she lived her life.''

She looks steadily at me, blue eyes magnified just a little by the thick lenses of her glasses. Soft voice. Sad smile. She is taking a chance on this day, dredging up the ugliness again at my request. She still is angry sometimes. And she wants people to know Kathy Matje was a good nurse, a good daughter and a good person.


And she has given us every reason to believe her.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.