Inside the FBI files of Brian Dugan

Published: 7/22/2009 4:25 PM

Originally published Sunday, Jan. 07, 2007

Whatever fuels Brian Dugan's rage went off that day.

On June 2, 1985, the Aurora man drove aimlessly amid the cornfields of DeKalb and LaSalle counties - until he passed two young girls riding their bikes in the rural town of Somonauk.

He tried to abduct them. One girl escaped, but 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman was trapped. Dugan sexually assaulted the child and drowned her in a creek 17 miles away.

Police nabbed Dugan the day after Melissa's disappearance for questioning in an unrelated rape. By the time searchers found her body 15 days later, the FBI had accumulated hundreds of pages of background on him. Those records have never been made public - until now.

The Daily Herald obtained them through a confidential law enforcement source after prosecutors indicted the imprisoned killer one year ago for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville. She is believed to be the first of his three murder victims. He also stands convicted of killing Donna Schnorr, a 27-year-old nurse from Geneva.

The FBI files contain more than 1,500 leads in the Ackerman investigation. They include dozens of rare interviews with Dugan's mother, siblings, girlfriends and co-workers. The files also hold early prison mental evaluations.

Dugan's 13-year crime spree of arsons, burglaries, rapes and murder is well documented, even chronicled in a book, but the FBI files reveal many new facts about his past, as well as insight into what may have turned him from a thief and arsonist into a sex killer.

As a child, Dugan shared several traits with other violent criminals. A chronic bed-wetter, he suffered severe headaches, tortured animals, became sexually active at an early age and showed a fascination with fire.

There's also evidence he suffered the same kind of sexual violence in a youth home and, later, while in prison, that he inflicted upon his victims.

The files paint a profile of a budding serial killer whose freedom ended in June 1985 as his random acts of violence grew. Those who knew Brian Dugan back then say he may have been just getting started.

Seeds of mayhem

Brian James Dugan was born Sept. 23, 1956, in Nashua, N.H., the second of five children.

If a family tale is true, two siblings told the FBI, even his first seconds were traumatic.

He emerged before the delivery doctor arrived. Attempting to delay his birth, a nurse and intern pushed his head back into his mother's womb and strapped her legs together.

The family questioned whether Dugan suffered brain damage as a result because, from the time he could sit up, he banged his head against his crib. His headaches were followed by severe vomiting. He remained on medication until his early teens for the headaches and allergies.

At 8, Dugan and one of his younger brothers burned down their garage in Nashua while playing with matches - the first of several arsons. He also knocked out some of his brother's teeth while roughhousing in a clubhouse.

His parents, James and Genevieve "Jenny" Dugan, moved their daughter and four sons to Lisle in 1967. They later lived in Aurora and Batavia.

Dugan was a bed wetter, his siblings and mother reported, as was his father, even as an adult. Brian's bedroom wreaked of urine. As punishment, he was forced to sleep in soiled sheets.

But his mother described a normal childhood in a June 9, 1985, interview with two FBI agents in her Addison home. She said Brian liked to read and play sports, especially baseball, in which he excelled and his father coached.

Dugan attended Lisle High School and then Aurora East, but he quit at 16. He told the FBI he later obtained a GED in prison.

Jenny Dugan said her son's problems began in high school, after his first arrest in 1972 for burglary. He was 15. His crimes continued, and Dugan became well known to police as a petty thief and drug user.

But on April 21, 1974, Dugan was accused of trying to abduct a 10-year-old girl named Barbara near the Lisle train station. The charges later were dropped on a legal technicality.

Dugan's only sister, Hilary Burr, met with agents June 26, 1985 in an FBI car in Itasca. She recalled a spot of the girl's blood, from a nosebleed, on his silver jacket.

Hilary and Brian's brother, Steven Dugan, described a rough household. Both their parents had been alcoholics.

Their father, James, a salesman, was on the road a lot. He gradually "lost it," Steven reported, and began to drink heavily. He died in 1975 of liver cirrhosis.

Jenny Dugan was the disciplinarian. Once, after she caught Brian and Steven with matches, he said, she made them hold a lit one until it burned their fingers. If they were bad, she'd force feed them hot sauce or whip them, but they denied serious abuse.

She died several years later, after Brian Dugan's 1985 arrest.

An imprisoned Brian missed both of his parents' funerals - something he later told police troubled him.

Abused in prison?

Jenny Dugan told FBI agents she didn't think her son capable of anything beyond "thievery." His siblings suggested otherwise.

In their interviews, Hilary and Steven - closest in age to Brian - both said they thought he could have killed Melissa Ackerman.

If he did, Hilary said, "he should get the death penalty."

There was no love lost between the two, especially after Dugan in 1975 busted the lights of her car, threatened to kill her and "chop up" her son, in a dispute documented both by the FBI and police reports.

Steven Dugan, two years Brian's junior and the closest to him, was not initially as forthcoming with the FBI. At Hilary's urging, he spoke to agents again, on June 26, 1985, after his brother had been officially charged with killing Melissa.

He told them Brian was often cruel to family pets and, at 13, claimed he poured gasoline on a cat and lit it on fire.

"He laughed and thought it was really great," Steven said.

He said his brother lost his virginity at 13 and had an affair as a teen with an older, married woman, the wife of one of Brian's friends.

Steven also said Brian tried to molest him once in their bathroom in 1972, shortly after his release from a youth home. Steven suspected his brother had been sexually assaulted there, and, years later, a tearful Dugan suggested he was attacked at Menard Correctional Center between 1979 and 1982.

According to the FBI files, Brian Dugan told his brother: "If you were in prison, as my brother, you are just another pound of meat. I couldn't help you. You'd have to make it or break it on your own. You have to submit to it or die."

Steven said his brother often got him into trouble when they were teens. Later, he distanced himself from Brian, serving in the Marines and settling down with a family and work.

Steven offered his own confession to the FBI. It had been gnawing at him, he said. He told them he lied for Brian in Kane County court when offering a false alibi for a 1982 attempted assault on a gas station attendant in Aurora. At the time, Steven said, he believed his brother's innocence.

Jenny Dugan said she often bailed out Brian, but later cut him off, too.

"She stated she never received even as much as a thanks for all that she was doing for him," an FBI agent wrote in a June 9, 1985 interview. "She stated that through the years it got to be such a burden that she told him that he was on his own and that she did not want anything further to do with him."

The FBI files capture the Dugan family in crisis.

Hilary's husband was dying. Jenny Dugan was facing heart surgery. A brother was in the midst of divorce. Another was in jail for a property crime.

Despite all that, the family managed a rare get-together at Jenny Dugan's home Christmas Day 1984. Brian also attended.

His mother told the FBI she didn't hear from him again until May 26, 1985 - a week before Melissa Ackerman's murder - when he called and apologized for all the trouble he had caused her over the years.

Jenny Dugan said she invited Brian for dinner. He was supposed to call back.

He didn't.

'I don't want to die'

Many of those who interviewed Brian Dugan say he is in that group of cold-blooded killers who lack a conscience and strike at random.

Often, he detailed the murders as if swatting a fly, without showing a hint of remorse. Hours after Melissa was murdered, Brian and Steven visited; Brian spoke casually about some new plants he bought.

Their sister, Hilary, told the FBI she doubted Brian could feel sorry for anyone but himself.

But is he a serial killer?

The accepted definition is anyone who has killed at least twice, experts say, with a cooling off period in between.

Robert D. Keppel is a former Seattle, Wash., homicide detective, author and criminal justice professor who is best known for his work tracking serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, also known as the Green River Killer. In fact, his frequent interviews with Bundy helped inspire the novel "The Silence of the Lambs."

"All serial killers are different, that's the hard part," Keppel said in a telephone interview.

"The two key words for a serial killer are 'opportunity' and 'control,' and once they answer 'yes' to both questions without being caught, they act."

He added: "Remorse isn't a word in their backgrounds. The only remorse they have is the fact they got caught."

Unlike some killers who methodically plan, Dugan acted on pure opportunity. He did attempt to cover up his crimes afterward, though. For example, Melissa's body was found hidden under rocks.

The FBI files also contain a few of Dugan's mental exams from prison - evaluations done before he killed.

One expert recommended he be placed in protective custody, after describing Dugan as immature, feminine and "extremely unstable," with a poor self-image.

Another expert pegged him as a "sensation-addicted" neurotic, who drank alcohol and smoked marijuana to lessen his inhibitions before the crimes.

In the FBI files, on the day he was charged with killing Melissa, the authorities tried to push his buttons. They placed the horrific crime-scene photos on a table before him.

Dugan averted his eyes, stared straight ahead and said, "I don't want to look at those pictures, I don't want to think about that."

He was told that the parents of Melissa Ackerman had no other children. The person who had kidnapped, raped and murdered her had caused them "overwhelming anguish."

He replied: "I just don't want to think about that."

Later, Dugan confided that he was extremely fearful of the death penalty, in that same conversation in the FBI files, saying, "I don't want to die."

Theoretically, Dugan could be sentenced to die for Jeanine Nicarico's murder, for which he awaits trial.

Years ago, he informally confessed to killing Jeanine during plea negotiations for the Schnorr and Ackerman slayings. But he wanted a guarantee of immunity from the death penalty for a formal confession - a deal prosecutors to this day refuse to make.

In the meantime, three other men were charged with Jeanine's murder; two of them were repeatedly convicted and served years on death row until the best-known defendant, Rolando Cruz, was acquitted during his third trial in 1995.

Cruz's nearly decade-long stay on death row was highlighted by former Gov. George Ryan as he ordered a moratorium in 2000 on Illinois executions. Other murderers since have been sentenced to death, but a serious attempt to reinstate executions hasn't been mounted.

Thus, Jeanine, alleged to be Dugan's first murder victim, remains the last chance that he could get the death penalty.

On a binge

The 10-year-old Naperville girl was home sick from school on Feb. 25, 1983, when she vanished. Her body was found two days later near the Illinois Prairie Path. She had been sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death.

Nearly 17 months later, Dugan spotted Donna Schnorr sitting alone in her car at a stoplight early July 15, 1984, on Randall Road near Aurora.

After running the Geneva nurse's car off the road, he beat, raped and drowned her in a Kane County quarry.

He laid low for almost a year. Then, Brian Dugan went on a binge. As part of his plea deal, he admitted committing the following crimes:

- On May 6, 1985, after helping a 21-year-old North Aurora woman start her car, he pushed his way inside, flashed a hunting knife, gagged and blindfolded her. Then he drove her to Batavia and raped her in the back seat. She survived.

- As a 19-year-old Geneva woman walked along Route 31 on May 28, Dugan tried to force her into his car. She escaped.

- The next day, Dugan forced a 16-year-old girl into his car in Aurora after threatening her with a tire iron. He drove her to Will County, where he wrapped a belt around her neck and raped her, then took her home.

A few days later, 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman would not be as lucky. In his confession, five months later, Dugan didn't offer much insight.

He said: "It might have been for the sex, but I don't understand why. I wish I knew why I did a lot of things, but I don't."

Ed Cisowski, a retired 23-year state police lieutenant, interviewed Dugan a half-dozen times in the mid-1980s.

"He was cold and matter-of-fact, but never remorseful," said Cisowski, of Naperville. "His crimes were impulsive. He was an opportunist who was all about power and control."

Where he belongs

Dugan hasn't walked as a free man since summer 1985 when he was 28 - 13 years after his first burglary arrest.

One day after Melissa's abduction, at 6:45 a.m. he pulled his blue Gremlin into the parking lot of Midwest Hydraulics, where he worked as a machine operator. Dugan found himself surrounded by a virtual SWAT team of FBI, local, county and state police.

He had emerged as a suspect after a police officer in a town next to Somonauk recalled encountering an out-of-town motorist with an expired vehicle sticker. His car matched a description provided from Melissa's friend, who got away.

Police kept Dugan in custody for one of the recent unsolved rapes and, weeks later, after Melissa's body was found and he was linked through physical evidence - a strand of her hair on his sleeping bag - he was charged with her murder.

Shortly later, Dugan admitted killing Melissa and Schnorr in exchange that his own life be spared. He got his wish. Dugan has spent the past 21 years in prison, serving a life sentence.

At 50, Brian Dugan will never again live outside the impenetrable prison walls that surround him. Years ago, those who knew him best, including his family, told the FBI that's where he belongs.

His siblings, with whom he long ago lost contact, described a lifetime of violence in the old FBI files - which begs the question:

Would he have continued to kill if not caught?

Cisowski is certain.

"Absolutely," he said. "I don't think he could stop himself."