She was the last person to survive Brian Dugan's deadly grasp.
More than 24 years later, Opal Horton still lives with fear and guilt for surviving a near abduction in which her best friend was killed.
But after facing Dugan in court during his sentencing hearing, Horton said Wednesday she realized a truth that long eluded her.
"Just being so young and still a child, I thought growing up that he was this monster," said the now 32-year-old married mother of two teenage boys. "Like he was bigger than life, but he's nothing. He is nothing."
Horton escaped June 2, 1985, and watched in horror as Dugan drove off with her best friend, Missy Ackerman, 7, after he tried to abduct them both in Somonauk. Jurors listened intently Oct. 21 as she tearfully testified about the abduction as the girls headed for home on their pink bicycles after playing at their elementary school playground.
Horton recalled hiding behind a tractor tire at a nearby John Deere dealership after narrowly escaping from his blue AMC Gremlin. As she heard the car pull off, Horton said she poked her head out and saw a terrified Missy beating on the window. Horton fled to a nearby house, where she told a local teacher, "Someone took my friend."
It was the last time she'd see Missy alive.
Despite a massive search, the child's nude body wasn't found until about two weeks later, partially buried under rocks and submerged in water in LaSalle County. A necklace, with the letters "MISSY," in beads, hung around her neck. She had been raped and drowned in a creek.
Dugan, 53, has been serving life prison terms since 1985 for killing Missy, as well as a similar murder 11 months earlier of 27-year-old nurse Donna Schnorr of Geneva.
Horton said he "absolutely" deserves the death penalty for his violence. She said her participation in the court proceedings help her confront some old demons, perhaps for good.
"It's a relief, for everybody," she said. "I learned a lot from this case. Brian couldn't have picked a nicer group for his victims. I have never met better people."