Daily Herald
Family of slain Naperville girl tells jury of their loss
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/23/2009 3:56 PM | Updated: 10/23/2009 8:42 PM

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She had big, saucer-shaped brown eyes, a contagious giggle and dimpled smile.

The bubbly fifth-grader loved animals, especially her dog, Ruffles, a constant companion who rarely left her side. She had an adventurous spirit and trusting heart, and showered affection on those she loved.

Her name is Jeanine Nicarico.

The 10-year-old Naperville girl's violent death nearly 27 years ago sparked a sad legal saga unparalleled in the history of American justice. Students study her. Politicians politicize her. Strangers instantly know her gaptoothed smile from endless media stories.

But to those who loved her most, Jeanine, or "J" as they often called her, is far more than a cause, a tragic tale or a ghost whose case long haunted the courts.

"She was truly a joy in our lives," her mother, Pat Nicarico, said through tears Friday. "Our beautiful little girl never had the chance to grow up. I often wonder what she would be like if she was with us today.

"That is something I will never know."

For 15 powerful minutes, a DuPage County jury heard about how Jeanine lived and the impact of her Feb. 25, 1983, murder on those who loved her most - her family.

Tom and Pat Nicarico and their oldest daughter, Chris, brought the packed courtroom gallery to tears as they read their emotional victim-impact statements in the death penalty sentencing hearing for Jeanine's killer.

Long-imprisoned murderer Brian Dugan, 53, admitted three months ago that he alone abducted, raped and fatally bludgeoned Jeanine after he kicked in the front door of the Nicarico home while the child was out of school sick with the flu.

Earlier in the proceedings, middle child Kathy Nicarico testified. Then 13, she returned home from school to find a broken front door. Jeanine had vanished. Ruffles cowered in the laundry room.

Two days later, Jeanine's body was found along the Illinois Prairie Path, discarded "like a piece of garbage," her mother said, not far from their home. Jeanine was blindfolded, and her nightgown, which depicted one of the Disney's Seven Dwarfs with the words "I'm Sleepy," was pulled up around her arm and neck.

In seeking Dugan's execution, prosecutors presented more than 50 witnesses and 400 exhibits in 12 days of testimony. They rested Friday with the Nicaricos.

Pat Nicarico told the jury how she still cries herself to sleep many nights, recalling that last kiss and hug as Jeanine told her, "Mommy, don't worry. I'll be OK." Jeanine was home alone less than two hours before she was abducted. Her mother wonders, "Did she scream and cry out for me, for help?"

Tom Nicarico described how his family refused to let the unimaginable pain consume them, despite the simplest triggers, such as how a "passing, giggling little brown-haired girl can suddenly open the gates of intense feelings ranging from nostalgia to absolute dread."

He said the crime not only changed his family but stole an entire community's innocence.

"No longer is it safe to leave doors unlocked, as was the custom at the time of the crime," he said. "No longer is the boogeyman a fairy tale. He is for real. He came to the Nicarico house. ... We have built bridges over the chasms in our hearts even though those chasms are sometimes overflowing with tears.

"We're determined not to allow the evil done to Jeanine to also rape and bury us."

The oldest child, Chris, spoke of happy times as the three sisters rode their bikes, climbed trees, played kick-the-can, or how Jeanine wiggled her way into her sisters' beds. If Dad heeled their sailboat to one side to jokingly scare his little girls, as Chris and Kathy nervously hung on tight, an excited Jeanine was thrilled.

After the murder, Chris Nicarico said, there was one less Easter basket, one less Christmas stocking. Jeanine would never learn how to drive, graduate from college, begin a career or become a mother. She missed sharing her sisters' joys, too. After each walked down the aisle, Chris Nicarico said their wedding parties accompanied them to the cemetery so they could place Jeanine's bridesmaid bouquet on her grave.

"Due to this criminal's heinous actions, Kathy and I didn't get the chance to say goodbye or give that last hug or kiss to our little sister," Chris Nicarico said, fighting back emotion. "Instead, we now have to pray to our little angel, Jeanine, to give us strength and courage to move on without that beautiful smile in our daily lives."

Dugan has been in prison since 1985 for two later murders - of nurse Donna Schnorr, 27, killed July 15, 1984; and 7-year-old Missy Ackerman, of Somonauk, who died June 2, 1985. Dugan admitted abducting, raping and drowning both of them. Jurors also heard about the nine other rapes or attempts that Dugan committed from 1974 to 1985 of women who survived.

His defense team begins its case Wednesday.

His lawyers will fight to save Dugan's life by arguing he is a psychopath who, because of a genetic brain defect, lacks the ability to feel true emotion or to control his impulses. Dugan has remained outwardly unemotional through the lengthy proceedings. He often keeps his head lowered and avoids eye contact with witnesses.

His attorneys contend Dugan deserves credit for pleading guilty to his crimes, sparing victims' families emotional trials. They said Dugan tried to admit that he alone killed Jeanine back in 1985 if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. They refused. They also didn't believe him, as two other men sat on death row for Jeanine's murder.

Both men, including Rolando Cruz, were exonerated in 1995. The seven DuPage County law enforcement officials who pursued them later were cleared of malicious prosecution. It also led to death penalty reforms, and an unofficial Illinois moratorium on executions.

Pat Nicarico said Brian Dugan deserves consideration for nothing.

"I believe it is too late for sympathy or remorse," she said. "The damage has been done, the horror still exists. Nothing can bring Jeanine back to us, that is something we will live with for the rest of our lives. There is no apology that can take away the pain and fear that our little Jeanine endured. This man made a decision, a very bad decision, one that only he could have changed, but he chose not to."