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Jury selection starts for exonerated death row inmate's suit against cops
By Charles Keeshan | Daily Herald Staff

Gary Gauger

 

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Published: 8/10/2009 1:45 PM | Updated: 8/10/2009 5:15 PM

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Gary Gauger has been freed from death row, had convictions for his parents' murders overturned, seen two other men sent to prison for the slayings and had a governor formally pardon him.

But his search for what he believes is justice is not yet over.

That search continued Monday with the selection of jurors to decide the lawsuit against three former McHenry County Sheriff's detectives the 57-year-old Richmond man claims conspired to falsely prosecute and imprison him for his parents' 1993 killings.

Gauger's suit, which seeks at least $50,000 from each of the detectives and the McHenry County Sheriff's Department, accuses the investigators of eliciting a false confession from him during a lengthy interrogation and using the statements to have him charged, tried, convicted and ultimately sentenced to death for the slayings.

The former detectives - Beverly Hendle, Gene Lowery and Christopher Pandre - deny the claims, arguing through their defense that they acted on strong evidence pointing to Gauger as the killer. Hendle and Pandre are both retired, but Lowery is now the department's second-in-command under Sheriff Keith Nygren.

All three sat together at a defense table as their lawyers quizzed potential jurors. Gauger, with a full gray bear, his long brown hair pulled back in ponytail and a gray suit coat, sat about 15 feet away, alongside his attorneys. Each side has at least four attorneys representing it.

The trial, expected to last up to three weeks, will bring back to the forefront a 16-year saga that continues to linger over McHenry County's criminal justice system.

It began April 9, 1993, when Gauger, then 41 and living on his parents' farm along Route 173 near Richmond, discovered the slain body of his father, 74-year-old Morris Gauger, lying in a pool of blood in a motorcycle shop on the property. About 21/2 hours later, sheriff's police responding to the scene found his mother Ruth, 70, dead under a rug in a nearby trailer.

Both of their throats had been slit.

Investigators' suspicions quickly turned to Gary Gauger. There was no evidence of forced entry or a struggle, or any obvious signs of a robbery. Both victims had been dead for as long as a day before they were found - time Gauger was on the farm.

Gauger was taken to the McHenry County Sheriff's Office in Woodstock where, during a marathon 18-hour interrogation, he made statements detailing how he killed his parents. Detectives called those statements a confession. Gauger and his lawyers say he was offering a hypothetical scenario after detectives told him they had significant physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Gauger, according to later statements, said he repeatedly told the detectives that he did not remember killing his parents.

Despite that, and the fact that the physical evidence claims were false, Gauger was tried, convicted and sentenced to death mostly on the strength of the incriminating statements.

However, an appellate court threw out the conviction a year later, saying police had no probable cause to arrest Gauger. Months later federal authorities revealed that an ongoing probe of the Outlaws motorcycle gang indicated two bikers, not Gauger, were responsible for the murders.

In 2002, long after those bikers were convicted and sent to prison, Gauger was pardoned by then Gov. George Ryan.

The primary issue before jurors deciding his lawsuit is not whether Gauger killed his parents, but whether the former detectives acted appropriately in arresting him and having charges brought against him.

Their defense laid out its case in pretrial hearings last year, arguing that while the investigators ultimately may have arrested the wrong man, their actions were reasonable given the evidence they had at the time.

Besides the incriminating statements, that evidence including no signs of forced entry at the Gauger property, no obvious signs of a robbery, Gary Gauger's delay in finding the bodies and the fact he stood to make substantial financial gain from his parents' deaths.

"At the time these charges were brought, at the time Gary Gauger was prosecuted, nobody knew anything about the Outlaws motorcycle gang," the detectives' lawyer, James Sotos, said. "In fact, the only evidence available at that time, and all of it, pointed to Gary Gauger and nobody else, and I don't think the plaintiff can really refute that."

Gauger attorney Thomas Henehan declined to comment Monday, but he has refuted that in prior court hearings. Along with the lack of physical evidence tying Gauger to the crime, the statements he made to detectives did not match with what detectives knew of how the murders occurred.

"You put this all together, this is not the stuff of a murder case," Henehan previously said. "This is not the stuff of charging someone with murder."

Jury selection is expected to continue until at least Tuesday afternoon, with opening statements to follow then or Wednesday morning.