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Holly murdered at age 11, but her search for justice turns 17
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Holly Staker's gravestone marks her death in August 1992.


Burt Constable | Daily Herald

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Published: 5/9/2009 12:01 AM

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Everybody says 11-year-old baby-sitter Holly Staker was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death on Aug. 17, 1992. But her granite gravestone in Gurnee lists her date of death as Aug. 18, 1992.

You see, the Lake County coroner wading through the horrific crime scene that night in a Waukegan apartment didn't officially pronounce the little girl dead until shortly after midnight. In a life so short, you can understand the need to reach for as much time as you can.

The time to find Holly some justice, however, had dragged on and on and on. There have been three trials, three convictions, two life sentences and another sentence scheduled to be doled out on June 25 after jury No. 3 began their Mother's Day weekend at 4:24 p.m. Friday by declaring Juan Rivera guilty of the sexual assault and murder for the third time.

That verdict no doubt will be appealed, again.

Rivera, smartly dressed in a blue shirt and tie, started his Mother's Day weekend by hugging a dozen legal advocates, some in tears after the verdict, who had hoped he'd be a free man by now. Smiling, winking and nodding to his well-wishers and sobbing family members leaving courtroom 303 in the Lake County Courthouse, Rivera held out his hands, waited for the security officer to fasten the handcuffs once again and slowly began the familiar journey back to jail.

Sunday will be Nancy Kalinowski's 17th Mother's Day without her daughter, Holly. Kalinowski and Holly's twin sister, Heather, now 28, attended this newest trial. But the mother left the courtroom right after the evidence included a photograph of Holly's bloody, nearly naked body crumpled behind a bedroom door, according to Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer Tony Gordon, who wrote the very first story about Holly when he worked for another newspaper, and has covered all three trials.

Holly's mother was not in the courtroom when this third jury came back with a third guilty verdict.

Rivera, a 19-year-old burglar at the time of the slaying, became a suspect after a prison inmate serving time with him said Rivera confessed to the crime. Investigators with the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force charged Rivera with the murder just before Halloween in 1992, saying Rivera signed a confession, acted out the crime for them and provided details of the attack that only the killer would know.

About 400 people came to Holly's funeral. She was buried in a white casket, with pink and white flowers at her side.

A jury convicted Rivera of Holly's rape and murder in 1993, found him eligible for the death penalty but opted for a life sentence. When that conviction was thrown out by an appellate court, there was a second trial in 1998. That jury also handed down a guilty verdict to Rivera, who was sentenced to life.

Then new DNA came to light that said semen samples taken on the night of the murder did not belong to Rivera, and this new, third trial was ordered. With all the wrongful convictions in Illinois, Rivera's supporters were confident that the DNA would change everything.

It didn't change the guilty verdict. The newest 12 jurors voted the same as the previous 24.

Of course, Holly's fate never changes either. We still print the school photo of the curly haired blond girl who was a cheerleader and an honor student, who liked math and reading and was about to enter sixth grade at North Elementary School in Waukegan.

So much time has passed since the crime, and the depiction of Holly has changed during those 17 years. She had a sexual experience when she was 8, her sister testified. She might have had sex with somebody else before Rivera stabbed her 27 times, prosecutors suggested. Such a hard and brutal life for a little girl.

At the cemetery where Holly is buried in her white coffin, a tree provides some shade on the sunny Friday afternoon. Her full name, Holly Rai Staker, makes her sound like the kid she was. The dandelions and violets growing nearby would be the sort of thing an 11-year-old girl might enjoy.

But Holly Staker never got a childhood. The trials to bring her killer to justice outlived her.