The front door was busted open. The doorknob was on the floor. The family dog was in the basement. The television set was on. On February 25, 1983, Kathy Nicarico, a 13-year-old eighth grader from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, arrived home to discover that her family’s house had been burglarized. And her ten-year-old sister, Jeanine, who’d been off school sick that day, was gone.
Born in Naperville on July 7, 1972, Jeanine was reportedly a sweet, sensitive girl with bright eyes and a dimpled smile. According to her friends and family, she loved learning, reading, baking, puppies, horses and make-believe games.
On the day that she disappeared, Jeanine had been at home as she had the flu. Her sisters were at school. Her parents were at work. “I’ll be okay mom, don’t worry,” Jeanine had told her mother, Patricia, when she checked in on her earlier that day, according to the Chicago Tribune. But in the afternoon, at around 1:00 p.m., Jeanine was abducted from her home.
Two days later, her body was discovered close to the Illinois Prairie Path, a nature trail six miles from the family’s house. The crime was shocking. Her last moments had been brutal. Jeanine Nicarico had been raped and sodomized, and bludgeoned to death with a tire iron.
In March 1984 prosecutors indicted three men on charges relating to Nicarico’s rape and murder. Rolando Cruz, an Aurora gang member, had aroused suspicions when, in an apparent attempt to claim reward money, he provided false information to the police. Similarly, high school dropout Alejandro Hernandez had also tried to convince the investigators with a bogus account. And the third suspect, Steven Buckley, had been implicated by Hernandez.
The case received a great deal of publicity and the state attorney’s office was under considerable pressure to resolve it. However, not everyone believed that Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley were responsible. Indeed, a detective resigned in order to give evidence in Cruz’s defense. Mary Brigid Kenney, the assistant attorney general, stepped down as well. And in her resignation letter, she stated that she was “being asked to help execute an innocent man,” according to ProPublica.
Furthermore, some of the evidence presented at trial appeared to have been manipulated in order to secure a conviction. For example, two crime labs, the FBI and one Kanas-based expert compared a footprint at the scene with Buckley’s shoes. None of them found a match. However, Louise Robbins – a supposed “shoe expert” who was later discredited – did connect Buckley’s shoe to the print. And it was her testimony that prosecutors presented in court.
Meanwhile, seemingly compelling evidence was provided by two detectives who testified that Cruz had divulged a great deal of incriminating information to them on May 9, 1983. Specifically, they claimed that Cruz had informed them that he’d experienced a “vision” relating to the murder of Nicarico. And the details that he allegedly provided matched forensic evidence that had not been released to the public domain. Cruz denied making the statement, however, and there was no official record of it.
On February 22, 1985, Hernandez and Cruz were found guilty. In Buckley’s case, the jury was hung. Ultimately, prosecutors decided not to press on, and so in 1987 they dropped the charges that had been brought against Buckley. In contrast, however, Hernandez and Cruz were each given death sentences.
Then, a man named Brian Dugan was arrested in November 1985 for two separate homicides. As part of a plea deal, he confessed to murdering a seven-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman. And he also admitted to killing Jeanine Nicarico, but prosecutors apparently did not take him seriously.
However, in 1988 the Illinois Supreme Court threw out Cruz’s and Hernandez’s convictions on the grounds that they should have had separate trials. For the next several years, the two bounced between different courts, facing retrial after retrial. Convictions were upheld, overturned and secured again. Hernandez managed to reduce his sentence to 80 years in prison. Cruz, though, could not seem to escape his death sentence.
But in 1995 he stood trial for the third and final time. And one of the police officers who had testified against him in the first trial confessed that he’d lied while under oath – Cruz, he said, had never made any statement regarding a “vision.” At the same time, DNA tests placed Brian Dugan at the crime scene. As a result, Cruz and Hernandez were both acquitted before the end of the year.
However, Dugan was not indicted for Nicarico’s kidnapping, rape and murder until November 2005. He pleaded guilty to all three crimes. And on November 11, 2009 – in consideration of the age of the victim, the brutality of the crime and Dugan’s earlier murder convictions – the jury sentenced him to death. His execution was scheduled for February 25, 2010.
In addition to Nicarico, Dugan’s victims included 27-year-old Donna Schnorr, a nurse whom he’d drowned in a quarry in 1984, and seven-year-old Melissa Ackerman, whom ‘dhe abducted and murdered a year later. He is also known to have raped several other women and girls.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 2014, Dugan claimed that he had only intended to steal from the Nicaricos’ home. When he saw Jeanine, however, he changed his plans. After breaking down the front door, he swathed her in a blanket and kidnapped her. “I was driven by some kind of an impulse that kept growing,” he told the Tribune. “I could not stop.”
Highlighting his emotional “numbness”, his impulsiveness, his “very strong rage” and his tendency towards violence, Dugan admitted that he was a “monster” and a danger to society. “I’ve changed to a point, but I’m still dangerous,” he said. “I’m a threat to other people to a certain extent, I realize that… I know I’m a psychopath.”
Meanwhile, in December 1996 three DuPage County prosecutors and four deputies were indicted on almost 50 charges of conspiring to convict Cruz despite knowing about evidence that may have exonerated him. The so-called “DuPage Seven” were acquitted in June 1999. However, DuPage County did settle a lawsuit with Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley for $3.5 million just a year later.
Moreover, the Cruz case has had long-term implications for the Illinois justice system, not least a moratorium on the death penalty. The state’s governor, Pat Quinn, abolished it entirely in March 2011. And this in turn caused Dugan’s death sentence to be reduced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, the Nicarico family’s fight for justice has been long and perhaps not entirely satisfactory. One positive outcome of their struggle, though, has been the establishment of the Jeanine Nicarico Memorial Fund for Literacy, which has provided more than 200 grants valued at over $350,000 to Naperville schools.
“Many people we know have gone through other major tragedies. And you look at that common thread, and support is what it all comes down to,” Christine Nicarico-Roy, Jeanine’s sister, told Naperville news outlet NCTV17 in July 2015. “Life can be really tough, but you know with love and support and feeling you can get through it.”