Man released from prison after murder conviction of Johnsburg teen, seeks to be declared “innocent”

Mario Casciaro was released from prison after his conviction for the murder of his teenage co-worker was overturned, but authorities in McHenry County are balking at formally declaring him innocent.

Casciaro — the only person ever convicted in the 2002 disappearance of 17-year-old Brian Carrick — wants a McHenry County judge to grant him a certificate of innocence. But the prosecutors who took Casciaro to trial three times before getting a guilty verdict — once for perjury and twice for murder — have formally opposed the certificate.

If granted, the court document would allow Casciaro to seek compensation from the state for the 22 months he spent in Menard Correctional Center before his conviction for murder with intimidation — a rarely used charge — was reversed on appeal. Innocence certificates can also help exonerated former inmates get employment and generally reintegrate into society.

“It is unfortunate that the McHenry (County) state’s attorney continues to deny this grave miscarriage of justice,” said Casciaro’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who has won several high-profile murder conviction reversals and now represents Steve Avery, the Wisconsin man from the “Making a Murderer” Netflix series. “We are confident Mr. Casciaro will prevail, even if we have to take this matter all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.”

But prosecutors argue that, although the appeals court determined they lacked sufficient evidence to convict Casciaro, that doesn’t mean he is “actually innocent.”

Casciaro “wishes to cast himself as the victim. He is not. The real victim is lying nameless in an unmarked, unhallowed grave,” prosecutors wrote, in reference to the fact that Carrick’s remains have never been recovered. “The defendant’s disinterest, deceit and contempt … during the investigation exposed his callousness and consciousness of guilt.”

Prosecutors further argued in their 300-page motion that, “even conceding that the state’s evidence of guilt was weak, it does not follow that (Casciaro) is innocent. Rather, (he) must still present evidence of actual innocence that overrides evidence of guilt. (Casciaro) offers no exculpatory physical or DNA evidence, no credible alibi during the time of the attack or thereafter, and no new witnesses or information.”

The case has attracted national attention and has become one of the most notorious murder mysteries in McHenry County. Carrick disappeared days before Christmas 2002 after being seen at the Johnsburg grocery store where he worked with Casciaro, whose family was part owner.

Authorities contended at Casciaro’s two murder trials that Carrick had been dealing marijuana for Casciaro and that he ordered another co-worker, Shane Lamb, to confront Carrick about a debt he owed. Lamb testified that- at both murder trials- he delivered a fatal punch to Carrick inside a grocery store cooler. At Casciaro’s second murder trial in 2013,  Casciaro was convicted of first-degree murder with intimidation and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Prosecutors told jurors that if it were not for Casciaro- acting as the “kingpin”of a drug dealing operation and putting into motion the wheels that led to Carrick’s death- Carrick would not have been killed.

Carrick’s blood was found in and around the cooler, but his body has never been found.

Lamb, who received immunity in the case but is now in prison on an unrelated weapons charge, later said he lied on the witness stand under pressure from prosecutors seeking to convict Casciaro of the murder, a claim officials have vehemently denied.

In their objection to Casciaro’s innocence certificate, prosecutors called Casciaro’s conviction reversal “problematic” and “imprudent.” They cited, for example, witness testimony that supported Lamb’s account, as well as a polygraph test Casciaro took that prosecutors say showed Casciaro being deceptive. They also noted letters Lamb wrote to a local newspaper – while in jail on the weapons’ charges- where he wrote he felt remorse for what happened to Carrick.

They cited trial testimony from one witness who said he saw Casciaro and Carrick arguing that night, as well as testimony from various former grocery store employees,  who said  that Casciaro was selling marijuana and that Carrick worked for him. Prosecutors also pointed to testimony that Carrick owed Casciaro money at the time he disappeared and that Lamb worked as an “enforcer” in Casciaro’s drug business.

In overturning the conviction outright last year, the appellate court noted, among several factors, the lack of physical evidence to convict Casciaro. They also questioned Lamb’s credibility and said his account did not prove intimidation by Casciaro. Additionally, they wrote that details of the alleged physical altercation did not match up with blood spatter found in and around the produce cooler.

“Lamb’s entire testimony was so inconsistent, contradictory and incredible that it was palpably contrary to the verdict,” appellate judges wrote in their ruling.

Prosecutors, however, said Lamb only recanted and claimed he was told what to testify because he was upset about the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence for the weapons charges. They also noted that he had learned he would be featured on a national TV news program about the Carrick case and wanted to “leverage the notoriety and exposure to undercut his prosecution.”

In her appeal, Zellner sought to cast suspicion on another grocery store co-worker, who has since died, as the possible killer. Prosecutors called that theory “fantastical” and said it did not match the facts of the case.

After Casciaro’s release from prison in September, prosecutors attempted to have their case heard at the Illinois Supreme Court but were denied.

Carrick’s disappearance and the drawn-out aftermath — nearly eight years went by before Casciaro was charged with the murder — have long been a source of interest and grief in the small town, where both families were well-known. Carrick was one of 14 siblings and his family lived across the street from the grocery store where he was likely killed. His mother, Terry, died months before Casciaro’s arrest. His father, William, saw Casciaro convicted of murdering his son but died before the conviction was overturned.

Prosecutors noted those turns of events in their objection.

“Since Brian’s disappearance … both of his parents have gone to their grave without ever having known their son’s ultimate fate,” they wrote, adding his siblings remain “haunted” by his presumed death.

The filing also noted that the attention given in recent years to wrongful convictions “has aroused a healthy skepticism of convictions reached without” DNA evidence or a firsthand witness account.

“It is important not to attribute injustices elsewhere to circumstances here,” prosecutors wrote. They added that, “If one accepts the criminal justice system is imperfect” and sometimes convicts the wrong person, it follows that the same system sometimes “acquits those who are guilty, in fact.”

Since his release from prison Casciaro, now 33, has pursued admittance to law school and his family has opened up another grocery store in McHenry County.

*I welcome anyone with information/thoughts on this case to contact me.

Attorney asks trial court to agree exonerated man is innocent in Johnsburg murder of teen

Mario Casciaro, the only person imprisoned in connection with the haunting 2002 disappearance and presumed death of a 17-year-old Johnsburg resident — who eventually walked free — is asking a McHenry County judge to officially acceede to his innocence.

Today Casciaro is a free man about to pursue a law degree, and is seeking to have the presiding judge in his conviction, McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather, issue a “Certificate of Innocence.”

The move – essentially asking the trial judge to agree with the ruling of the appellate judges who exonerated Casciaro last year – is a step toward Casciaro seeking compensation from the state for the 22 months he spent inside Menard Correctional Center in Chester Ill. as an innocent man, his attorney Kathleen Zellner said.

Zellner won Casciaro’s freedom last year after arguing details of his conviction in the infamous cold case mystery of missing teen Brian Carrick at the 2nd District Appellate Court in Elgin. On Wednesday, Casciaro’s 33 birthday, she filed the petition in the McHenry County Clerk’s office.

In court Wednesday McHenry County State’s Attorney Michael Combs asked Prather for time to review and respond to the petition. The matter is up next June 29. Outside the courtroom Combs declined to comment.

Prosecutors have stood by their case against Casciaro that he is guilty of first-degree murder with intimidation because he set into motion the events that led to the death of Carrick inside a grocery store cooler on Dec. 20, 2002.

Casciaro, whose family were part owners of what was Val’s Finer Foods in Johnsburg, faced two juries. The first in 2012 ended in a mistrial and the second a year later resulted in his conviction.

Casciaro, who has long maintained his innocence, was sentenced to 26 years in prison. The state’s case relied heavily on the words of another man, Shane Lamb, who said at Casciaro’s instruction he confronted Carrick on a drug dealing debt owed to Casciaro.

Lamb, currently in prison on unrelated weapons charges who received full immunity in the Carrick case in exchange for his testimony, testified that he argued with Carrick inside a produce cooler.

He detailed for jurors in both trials that he became angry and punched Carrick out cold. He told jurors as Carrick laid bleeding and unconscious Casciaro told him to leave and he’d handle the body.

At the time all three men worked at the grocery store.

Carrick’s blood was found in and around the cooler but his body has never been recovered.

In overturning the conviction outright, the appellate court noted, among several factors, the lack of physical evidence to convict Casciaro. They also said that Lamb’s details of the crime did not show there was any intimidation by Casciaro nor did his tale, if at all true, line up with blood spatter found in and around the produce cooler.

“Lamb’s entire testimony was so inconsistent, contradictory and incredible that it was palpably contrary to the verdict,” appellate judges wrote in their ruling.

The judge’s also noted Lamb later said he made up the story at the instruction of McHenry County State’s Attorneys seeking to convict Casciaro. Combs has vehemently denied this accusation.

Zellner has pointed to another man as being responsible for Carrick’s death. But this man was never brought to trial and died of a heroin overdose between Casciaro’s two trials.

After Casciaro’s release from prison in last year, prosecutors said they stood by their case. They attempted to have their case heard at the Illinois Supreme Court. They were denied in March.

Motioning the court to issue the certificate of innocence is a state law sought in cases where a person is exonerated and there is an outright reversal, Zellner explained.

“It is state law. Many of these have been granted to those (wrongfully convicted) who have been released,” Zellner said. “The statute provides that if you have an outright reversal, which is what we have that we can apply for this … I believe that this will be granted.”

After this certificate of innocence is granted, Zellner can move forward with filing a petition with the Illinois Court of Claims for compensation owed to Casciaro for the time he was “wrongfully incarcerated,” she said.

Should the trial court deny the petition Zellner said she would take it to the appellate court.

Carrick was one of 14 children from a strong Irish Catholic family who grew up in the large white farmhouse across the street from the grocery store. Both of his parents, Terry and William, have died without fully knowing what happened to their son. Neither ever turned vengeful in their quest for answers. Over the years, each expressed just wanting to know the truth so they could forgive and move on.

5 Illinois high school students facing criminal charges after “threatening” comments made

Five Illinois high school students are facing criminal charges as a result of comments “threatening in nature” made in the hallways of Huntley High School and on social media websites.

Authorities from the for northwest suburban high school and Huntley Illinois Police Department reported that between Feb. 3 and 5, officials were made aware of a “small number” of comments made that ultimately resulted in an increased absenteeism, especially on Feb. 8.

“The Huntley Police Department and Huntley Community School District 158
take these matters seriously and vigorously investigate the intent and authenticity of such issues,” read a police news release. “The Huntley Police Department, in cooperation with Huntley High School, continuously takes measures to safeguard the student body and facilities to ensure a safe environment for students and staff.”

After police met with McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office five male students, two 17-year-olds, two 16 year-olds and a 15-year-old student were charged with disorderly conduct. One of the boys faces a misdemeanor charge and the remaining four face felony charges, according to police.

All have been petitioned to McHenry County Juvenile Court.

Police and school officials ask that parents remain vigilant of “unsafe or suspicious” issues that raise concern for student safety. They also encourage parents to use these incidents as opportunities for parents to speak to their children about appropriate use of social media and the potential consequence of bullying, harassment or threats.

Dan Armstrong, director of communications for Huntley Consolidated School District 158, said after a thorough investigation it has been determined that the incidents “for the most part … (were considered) ill-advised jokes.”

Though the postings are now deemed to have not “constituted a real threat in anyway to students” they were “taken seriously.”

Armstrong could not say what the messages said, but insisted there never was a concern about keeping school open.

“When we first heard about these messages we (took) them seriously, at first and … working closely and quickly with police we were able to determine that there was no legitimate threat to students’ safety. In that time we were able to make a decision we were able to keep school open as planned.”

McHenry Il. man will serve out 16 years for “brutal” machete attack: judge rules he is not allowed to withdraw guilty plea

A McHenry County Il. judge denied a lawyer’s motion Friday asking to allow the withdraw of a guilty plea for a man currently serving 16 years in prison for his part in a “brutal” machete attack in 2011.

The response comes about a month after  a new lawyer for Armando Ferral-Mujica argued that the only reason his client pled guilty about three years ago to his part in the attack was because he was told after a conference between his lawyer and the judge he’d be sentenced to between eight and 12 years in prison.

Following the ruling, Ferral-Mujica’s attorney Henry Sugden said  he was “disappointed.” He said the denial of the motion takes from the purpose of a pre-trial conference.

Ferral-Mujica lived in McHenry at the time he and his brother Orlando Ferral-Mujica admitted they attacked Jesus Agaton, shooting him in the chest and “mutilating” him on the neck and head with a machete.

Agaton was attacked by the brothers at a McHenry apartment building. Authorities said Armando shot the victim, and Orlando “mutilated” him with a machete.

An attorney for Orlando Ferral-Mujica said in 2014 the attack stemmed from a family feud that started in their native Mexico. The victim and the brothers are distant cousins, the lawyer said.

Nearly three years into his prison sentence, Armando Ferral-Mujica was back in court with Sugden on a post-conviction petition.

Sugden requested the sentence be reduced or his guilty plea be withdrawn and a trial date be set.

Sugden argued that when Ferral-Mujica pleaded guilty in December of 2012 he did so only because he was told by his defense attorney Dan Hofmann – after a conference with Judge Gordon Graham and Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally – he’d be sentenced to between 8 and 12 years.

But a few months later, the now retired Graham sentenced him to 16.

With an interpreter at his side, Ferral-Mujica took the stand Wednesday and said he would not have pleaded guilty had he known the judge was going to sentence him to 16 years. He said he knew immediately as sheriff’s deputies took him out of the courtroom that he got more years than he was initially told.

Shortly after Hofmann filed for a post-conviction petition.

Sugden argued that Ferral-Mujica,was confused at the time of his initial sentencing. Had he known he would receive more than 12 years, “he never would have pleaded guilty to a blind plea.”

Hofmann took the stand Wednesday and said after leaving the conference it was his “perception” that Graham would sentence him between 8 and 12.

Kenneally also took the stand Wednesday and said he would have never agreed to such a sentencing range.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Zalud countered the defense saying there is no proof Ferral-Mujica didn’t understand his plea deal at the time nor does he not understand what is happening in court now.

At his 2013 sentencing “he had proper admonition, he had an interpreter.”

He said that in exchange for his guilty plea to aggravate battery with a fire arm, numerous more serious charges were dropped including two counts of attempted murder and aggravated battery with a machete.

In light of the lengthy sentence he could have received – up to 30 years in prison- 16 years for such a “brutal crime” is “more than reasonable, if not light.”

To which Sugden quickly responded “It’s not a good deal if he’d gone to trial and been found not guilty.”

Zalud said the facts of the crime have not changed and there is no “legal basis to grant a withdrawal or reduction.”

Months after Ferral-Mujica’s sentencing, his older brother Orlando Ferral-Mujica pleaded guilty to a blind plea. He was sentenced by Judge Sharon Prather to 16 years in prison.

Mystery on Johnsburg Road: How it all Began

It was 2002, five days before Christmas.

My 13 siblings were all in different stages of their lives, some living on their own and some with their own spouses and kids. All were preparing to make the trek home to Johnsburg Il. for our big Irish Catholic family Christmas feast.

I still lived at home with my mom and dad, and a couple of the younger siblings in our small rural town located near the Wisconsin border. I grew up surrounded by lots of family, and cool wooded areas and rivers to explore.

I love my big family and they love me.

I was excited for Christmas. It was my favorite holiday. I loved helping to hang lights and decorate the tree. Mom already had a wrapped present for me under the tree.

Dec. 20, 2002 was the last day of school before Christmas break. It was a Friday and although I didn’t have to work that day, at about 6:30 p.m. I left my big white farmhouse style home where I lived for the last -and only- 17 years of my life.

I didn’t walk far. I just crossed the road to the grocery store. The store I grew up seeing everyday outside our family’s living room window. I’d worked there as a stock boy. I loved that job. Many of my siblings also worked there over the years.

The grocery store was owned by another large, well-known family from the area.

Our families were close — at one time.

I passed my older brother Eddie on my way into the store as he was going out to the parking lot to gather grocery carts.

He never saw me again.

A few employees working that night said they saw me in the store. But no one ever said they saw me outside the store again after that night.

My blood was found pooled in a produce cooler and spattered on boxes and walls leading to a back door exit. My blood also was found on boxes in an outside dumpster.

My blood.

But I was no where to be found.

All the searching. All the praying. All the tears and candlelight vigils. All the rumors, accusations, finger pointing and courtroom dramas.

I have never been found.

(Watch an update to the latest twist on ABC 2020 9 p.m CT Saturday Jan. 2)

A new Illinois horse barn has risen from the ashes and hearts are on the mend

horsesA year after fire ripped through the Valley View Acres stables killing dozens of beloved horses, a new barn has risen from the ashes and new horses are filling the stalls.

“It was hard losing 32 of my best friends,” said Laura Kalivoda of Crystal Lake who has ridden horses at the stables near Woodstock Illinois since she was a child and today gives riding lessons there. “That was the worst thing that had ever happened in my life.”

Kalivoda, 20, knew and loved each horse that perished on that rainy, chilly night of Nov. 22, 2014.

As she recently stood in the new barn, her voice often drowned out by the neighs of feisty horses nearby, she recalled the pain in explaining to many young riders that their favorite horses had died.

That pain was compounded as she worked with students, some as young as 5, learn to ride the new horses.

It was emotional, she explained, because she often referred to a horse who had died as she’d help a student adapt to a new horse. There were moments when the child would pause and a somber look would wash across their face, as if reliving the moment they learned their horse had died.

But the year since has brought the horse community together and together all are ready to ride forward.

Kalivoda is just one of many from the horse community -locally and nationally- who rallied around owners, Amber and Tyson Bauman.

On a recent rainy, chili night, students were back in the new barn quietly brushing horses prepping them to go out into the brightly lit arena to practice their trots and jumps. Their parents gathered in the not quite finished viewing area. Mittens, the Barn’s 17-year-old cat, was once again welcoming the riders and their parents back to the barn.

In the weeks since the new horses moved in and lessons have commenced, Amber Bauman said there have been many firsts. The first jump. The first fall.

“We celebrate those things,” Bauman said as she watched students riding in the arena.

After the tragic fire, which the Baumans refer to as “the barn” many people, those familiar to them and strangers from across the country, raced to their rescue donating horses, tack and money to rebuild.

Bauman said there is much heartache that lingers, but says the time for tears is over.

The tragedy has taught her a lot about life and people.

“You find out who your real friends are,” she said. “There are a lot of wonderful people out there.”

She said many “angels” have logged hundreds of hours by her side laying radiant floor heating, insulation, and plumbing, staining wood, building horse jumps, digging trenches and shoveling gravel.

Their only payment – burgers, sodas and waters.

She said at times horses would just “show up” in her driveway or supplies would appear on her front porch.

Few students left. Many said the best way to deal with the tragedy was to stick together, do the work and to just keep riding.

“It’s family, you’ve got to stick together,” said Amber’s cousin Quentin Britton, as he watched his 11-year-old daughter Isabel riding in the arena. “Don’t let anything get in your way. You gotta rebuild. Keep going.”

Bauman, who also works as a substitute teacher and whose husband Tyson is deputy police chief in nearby Harvard, remained busy all year negotiating with insurance, finding new horses for her students to rid and teaching lessons six days a week in a rented facility in Crystal Lake.

Lessons were taught and riding and jumping competitions were won on the backs of donated horses that Bauman and her students had to work hard to break in.

Bauman said often times at various competitions people she’d never met, but who knew of her because of the fire, would approach her and they’d “hug and cry like you had known them your whole life.”

Her daughter Alexis, 12, has had opportunity to train with Charles Moorcroft, influential rider from Florida who became aware of the family after the fire. Without being solicited, he sent Alexis Sebastian, one of his prized horses, to practice on.

Alexis’ favorite pony Ella Enchanted died in the fire. Today, she has a new favorite, Just Juliet, whom as she writes on a piece of paper hanging outside her stall “just is a pretty one.”

Juliet is a full sister to Hunter, a beloved pony who had died in the fire. Bauman said she “just wanted her” and a Go Fund Me account paid for her to be brought to the barn from Pennsylvania.

Authorities have deemed the fire that leveled the 150-year-old barn as “undetermined.”

The new stables and arena cost $260,000. The facility is equipped with heated stalls that include automatic waterers. The building has been constructed with fireproof materials, sprinkler system, smoke and fire detectors. Each stall has its own exterior door and hay is kept in a separate building away from the horses.

“You go through one tragedy, you think of everything,” said Amber’s father Paul Allen.

Bauman said she received just $5,000 from insurance for loss of business. The horses were not covered by insurance. She has had to take out a $109,000 loan to help with the costs to rebuild. But it’s still not enough.

Crystal Lake Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Olsen confirmed the fire was deemed “undetermined.”

“We don’t know exactly what caused it,” Olsen said.

He said though there is no way of knowing for sure what caused this fire, possible reasons for such barn fires could be related to an electrical malfunction or faulty heating equipment. One thing he knows for sure is the fire was not purposely set by anyone.

He also said, though it varies in different areas and is a case by case scenario, in McHenry County there are no requirements for sprinkler systems or fire alarms in this agriculture type of building. He also said there is no requirement for Bauman’s business to be regularly monitored or inspected by authorities.

Jennifer Austin, mom of 13-year-old Anna, who lost a favorite horse, London, in the fire said being back in the new arena is “Great.”

“It’s just light and bright and cheerful and the horses seem happy… It’s just gorgeous,” she said as her daughter readied for her lesson.

Austin said her daughter who takes lessons weekly was upset by the loss but her best remedy was to continue riding.

“Carry on,” Austin said. “You work hard and don’t give up and continue to make your dreams come true.”

Bauman said there are no tears anymore. “It’s time to move forward,” she said.
There is more work to be done, lessons to be given and competitions to be won.

Now a year after suffering the loss of 32 ”family members,” she said she looks to the future and anticipates “being super successful in the show ring locally and nationally” and “Honestly, just enjoying the ride on this roller coaster called life.”