Sharon Grajek always viewed herself as a fighter.
But when an armed Brian Dugan attacked, her will to survive proved more powerful.
Grajek believes her decision to surrender is likely why she lived to tell her story. She is among at least 10 women who survived the three-time killer's savagery. Two died decades later of unrelated causes, but the others testified against Dugan in his sentencing hearing for the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico, 10, of Naperville.
Despite the passage of so many years, they fought back tears, trembled and avoided eye contact with their attacker. Jurors sat riveted as Grajek, dressed in a sharp suit, her blond hair pulled back, remained composed while recounting with resolved dignity her abduction, rape and near death.
The former North Aurora woman's car temporarily stalled as she drove home alone May 6, 1985. Another motorist slowed as he passed. Grajek, then 21, saw the same man again while both were stopped at a red light. He stared at her.
Grajek lost track of his car, and soon pulled up outside the townhouse she lived in with her mother, stepfather and four siblings.
Before she could react, Grajek said, the man was standing outside her car.
He said her taillight was out and asked Grajek if she wanted to grab a drink and bite to eat. She declined. Afterward, he propositioned her. Want to make $80, he asked. She declined again.
"I was pretty leery at this point because he's hanging around my car," Grajek said. "It's late and I'm alone. I tried to roll up my window. He reached in and pinned me against the seat with a knife to my throat. He started choking me and telling me to be quiet, that I was going to do whatever he wanted or he was going to kill me."
He forced her into his car, tied her hands behind her back, blindfolded her and drove off with his knife resting near her head, and with the threat of a gun in his pocket. She recalls the sound of gravel underneath his tires.
After they stopped, 15 minutes later, she heard a dog barking, crickets, frogs and his husky voice demanding her to disrobe.
He then repeatedly sexually assaulted her. He removed her blindfold only to allow her to dress afterward. On the ride home, he tried to make small talk. Where did you go to high school? Where do you party? He told her his first name was Brian.
If she didn't answer, Grajek said, Dugan grew angry. At one point, he flipped through photos in her wallet and asked about her sisters. Finally, he agreed to let her go. He left her blindfolded outside a school near her home, but not without a final warning.
"I'm going to drive away," she recalls him saying. "If you turn around, I'm going to kill you and I'm going to come back and do the same thing to your sisters."
A month later, in June 1985, police nabbed Dugan after his final murder. Police were able to link him to Grajek's sexual assault through DNA. Hers was one of three Kane County attacks Dugan pleaded guilty to during his 1985 plea deals for the two other murders.
Grajek was in counseling for five months after her attack to sort through her emotions. Now a 45-year-old IT manager for a major global corporation in another state, she resolved long ago not to let Brian Dugan's violence consume her life.
Nearly a quarter century after his attack, when she came face to face with Dugan in court, her emotions varied between nervousness and hatred.
"Hearing his voice was even worse than seeing him, as it was hearing his voice, not seeing his face, that happened during most of my assault since I was blindfolded," she said.
Still, she considered her testimony an act of defiance, letting Dugan know he is no longer the one in control. She walked out of the packed courtroom feeling empowered, with a sense of finality. The Nicaricos thanked Grajek and the other women for their strength.
"Words do not convey the gratitude and empathy we feel toward those very brave women," Tom Nicarico said. "They exposed the rawness of their very personal pain and revisited humiliations and inner fears in an effort to ease ours. You are very special in our hearts."
Grajek wonders why Dugan let her live. In fact, she struggles with survivor's guilt similar to the others who testified. But she also recounted her testimony and subsequent feelings in detail with the Daily Herald - hoping in part to remove the stigma of sexual assault, and to encourage other women to report violence, seek counseling and follow through with the prosecution.
"Do what you have to do to stay alive," Grajek said when asked what advice she'd offer others. "Try as best you can to assess the situation before responding. Fighting may sometimes save your life. But sometimes not fighting will, as in my case.
"I always considered myself someone who would never let a thing like that happen to me. I'd fight; I'd hurt him in some way. But, when I tried that, it made him more violent and aggressive. So, I made myself give in. I'd like to think that's why I'm still alive today."