A trio of onetime McHenry County Sheriff's detectives stole 31/2 years of Gary Gauger's life by conspiring to frame him for his parents' murder, a lawyer for the exonerated former death row inmate told a jury Wednesday.
The claim came during opening statements Wednesday in a trial in Gauger's lawsuit against former detectives Beverly Hendle, Gene Lowery and Christopher Pandre, as well as the sheriff's department.
The suit claims that Hendle, Lowery and Pandre falsely claimed Gauger confessed to his parents' grisly April 1993 slayings on their Richmond-area farm, then used the claim to have him prosecuted and sentenced to death for murder.
Gauger, now 57, spent nine months on death row - and in all about 31/2 years in prison - before the killings of Morris and Ruth Gauger were linked to a pair of bikers during a federal investigation of the Outlaws motorcycle gang. Gary Gauger was released in 1997 and pardoned in 2002.
However, his attorney told jurors Wednesday that Gauger continues to suffer from the "horrifying" experience of an 18-hour interrogation by the detectives, his conviction for a murder he did not commit and an unjustified stay in a maximum-security prison.
"No one can give Gary Gauger back the 31/2 years stolen from him," attorney Matthew Crowl said. "No one can erase the stain put on Gary's name and reputation. No one can remove the psychological strain of living nine months under a death sentence."
But the detectives' attorney, James Sotos, said Gauger is asking jurors to play Monday morning quarterback, only with the benefit of knowledge no one had when Gauger was arrested.
Instead, Sotos said, the detectives were working with evidence indicating Gauger's parents were killed without a struggle, with no signs of forced entry, with no apparent robbery and with their son sleeping in a nearby farmhouse as the murders took place.
"The only evidence, every shred of it, at that point pointed to Gary Gauger," Sotos said. "No one else."
Gauger testified late Wednesday as the first witness in the trial, expected to last more than two weeks. During about 40 minutes on the stand, he described life growing up on a family farm along Route 173, about two miles east of Richmond, his parents' love for motorcycles and his current life as an organic vegetable gardener.
Questions about his parents' murders and his arrest are expected when he returns to the witness stand Thursday morning. Many of those questions are expected to focus on whether he gave a confession, as the detectives say, or if, as he states, he made hypothetical statements about what may have happened if he had a blackout and killed his parents.
The lawsuit officially seeks more than $50,000 from each of the defendants, though it is likely that Gauger will be asking the jury for a figure in the millions should they find the detectives guilty of malicious prosecution and conspiracy.