Man freed from prison after reversal of murder conviction of Johnsburg Ill. teen suing for “millions”

Mario Casciaro – convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison for the 2002 murder of a Johnsburg Ill. teen and later released – is suing those who brought on his conviction for “millions” of dollars.

After two murder trials, the first ending in a hung jury, Casciaro, 33,
was convicted in 2013 for the murder of 17-year-old Brian Carrick in a mysterious case that has rattled the quiet far northwest town.

The jury found Casciaro guilty of the rarely used charge of murder with intimidation, meaning he set into motion the events that led to Carrick’s death.

Carrick worked as a stock boy at a grocery store across the street from his home on Johnsburg Road. He was a well-liked boy who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with 13 siblings.

The store, at the time named “Val’s Finer Foods” was partially owned by the Casciaro family. Authorities have long said that Casciaro sold pot from the grocery store and used Carrick as one of his dealers.

During both trials, a third co-worker, Shane Lamb the alleged “muscle” of the operation according to prosecutors, said Casciaro summoned him to the store on the night of Dec. 20 2002 to “talk” to Carrick about a drug dealing debt.

The confrontation turned violent and Lamb testified that he punched Carrick knocking him unconscious on the floor inside a produce cooler. He said Casciaro told him to leave the store and he would take care of the body.

Lamb said he never saw Carrick again.

Carrick’s blood was located in an around the cooler area and on boxes in a dumpster outside the store – but his body has never been found.

Rumors of his disappearance and presumed murder swirled around the small town nestled near the Wisconsin border for nearly a decade before Casciaro’s arrest.

In 2010, while facing a lengthy prison term in an unrelated drug case, Lamb — with a growing rap sheet who gave varying accounts to authorities over the years of what happened to Carrick — was given a deal to testify against Casciaro in exchange for immunity.

But, in a nationalized television program, while in jail facing weapons charges, Lamb recanted the tale he told on the stand twice and accused prosecutors of telling him what to say to convict Casciaro — accusations prosecutors vehemently deny.

About a year later, Casciaro was released from prison after an appellate court ruled that the state’s case was improbable and Lamb’s testimony did not match the physical evidence found at the scene.

The appellate judges also believed Casciaro’s lawyer Kathleen Zellner who asserted there was blood evidence and testimony that the jury never heard that did not match up with Lamb’s story. She claims blood evidence shows Carrick died not by a punch and fall to the cold, concrete floor, but by a knife wound to the neck.

Zellner pointed the finger at another store employee, whose blood also was found in and around the cooler. In earlier police interviews this man was asked why his blood would be found in the cooler and he said he often bit his nails low and he would bleed. This man was never charged with the murder and had died of a drug overdose while staying in a halfway house sometime between the two trials. In 2008, he was charged with concealment in the case but those charges were later dropped.

In the lawsuit, Casciaro is seeking monetary damages from Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs, McHenry County and the entire McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office, as well as Johnsburg Police Chief Keith Von Allmen, the city of Johnsburg and the entire Johnsburg Police Department.

In the lawsuit, Zellner accuses authorities of “deliberately withholding” exculpatory evidence including this other co-workers behavior in the days after Carrick went missing and his alleged absence during his work shift. She wrote that evidence was not shown to jurors that would have shone light on this man as the “actual culprit.”

The lawsuit also accuses Von Allmen of being biased in the investigation because he was friends with this man’s father. The motion further claims interviews were not reported or presented to jurors regarding witnesses where it was supposedly said that this man had “hostility” toward Carrick.

Zellner, who requested a jury trial in the civil matter, also made strong claims that Combs out of his “sheer dislike” of Casciaro “fabricated” and “concocted” the story that jurors heard Lamb testify to. She claims that authorities knew Casciaro was innocent and ignored evidence that could have been presented to jurors to show his innocence.

Zellner claims that Casciaro’s ”unjust conviction” was done “intentionally” and was a violation of his rights resulting in a loss of his freedom, emotional distress, great mental anguish … humiliation, indignities, and embarrassment … natural psychological development … personal contact .. personal fulfillment … .”

The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office firmly stands by its prosecution of Casciaro and zealously denies any wrongdoing or fabrication of any type.

Prosecutors have argued their case was not based solely on Lamb’s account of what happened that night -as Zellner asserts- but also by testimony of several other witnesses who testified that Casciaro was selling marijuana out of the store and Carrick owed him money. During the trials they identified one man who claimed he saw the two allegedly arguing that night. Prosecutors also stand by one witness who testified that Casciaro allegedly claimed that he can “make people disappear.” They also note to another  witness who testified that Casciaro allegedly told him a similar account of what happened the night Carrick went missing. They further point to Casciaro’s own alleged unaccounted for whereabouts for a period of time that night and his own inconsistent stories and behavior during police interviews as disinterested and arrogant.

Authorities in the case say they are not surprised by the latest motion.

“We knew this was coming,” said McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally who along with Combs prosecuted Casciaro. “This is an opportunistic lawsuit filed on behalf of a defendant convicted of felony murder by a McHenry County jury. The allegations in the lawsuit, while imaginative, are entirely without merit. We are eager for our day in court to prove where the real injustice lies and, once again, the sad truth about what happened to Brian Carrick in 2002.”

Casciaro’s release was held up by the Illinois Supreme Court which denied the state’s objection.

Casciaro, who is currently attending law school, also is seeking a certificate of innocence from the county. In an earlier court hearing Kenneally passionately argued that just because the appellate court ruled there was not sufficient evidence to convict Casciaro “beyond a reasonable doubt” that  is a “far cry from declaring him innocent.”  This matter will be back in court May 11.

Carrick’s parents, William and Terry, both have died not knowing what happened to their son or allowed the opportunity to properly bury or grieve him.

Neither Von Allmen nor Carrick’s family could be reached for comment.

In past statements, a family member of the co-worker on whom Zellner places the blame for Carrick’s death, has strongly defended his innocence. He was not identified by name in this story because he was not charged with murder, never testified in the Casciaro case and has since died.  The relative and the man’s former lawyer have voiced strong opposition and disgust with this man being used as a “scapegoat” in Carrick’s death, and have asked that his name not continue to be tarnished.  The female relative has described this man as a son, brother and father and proclaimed he had nothing to do with Carrick’s murder.

$3 million bond set for ex-Chicago cop charged with allegedly shooting, killing wife on her 68th birthday

Amanda Marrazzo

Bond was increased Thursday to $3 million for a former Chicago police officer accused of shooting and killing his wife in their Spring Grove home last week.

Lorin Volberding, 71, was brought out before McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather in a wheelchair as prosecutors asked to increase his bond from $1 million to $5 million.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Zalud said Volberding is a “significant danger” to himself and others.

Zalud said Volberding’s home is valued at $299,000 therefore he could potentially post the required 10 percent of the lower bond. He also said he read police reports stating that Volberding called his neighbor on Friday afternoon and said he had shot his wife. The neighbor called police and when they arrived Zalud said Volberding in “a clear and coherent manner” is heard and seen on police body cameras saying “I shot my wife … give me a few minutes…

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$3 million bond set for ex-Chicago cop charged with allegedly shooting, killing wife on her 68th birthday

Bond was increased Thursday to $3 million for a former Chicago police officer accused of shooting and killing his wife in their Spring Grove home last week.

Lorin Volberding, 71, was brought out before McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather in a wheelchair as prosecutors asked to increase his bond from $1 million to $5 million.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Zalud said Volberding is a “significant danger” to himself and others.

Zalud said Volberding’s home is valued at $299,000 therefore he could potentially post the required 10 percent of the lower bond. He also said he read police reports stating that Volberding called his neighbor on Friday afternoon and said he had shot his wife. The neighbor called police and when they arrived Zalud said Volberding in “a clear and coherent manner” is heard and seen on police body cameras saying “I shot my wife … give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you everything that happened.”

Police found Elizabeth Volberding lying on dead on her kitchen floor with a gun nearby. It was her 68th birthday.

Zalud also told the judge about an incident in January of 2015 when authorities said he had barricaded himself and his wife inside their home and threatened to kill her.
Volberding’s firearm owner’s identification card was revoked after this incident but he was not charged.

Spring Grove Police said at the time Elizabeth Volberding, who also was known as Betty, reported that her husband was diagnosed with dementia.

In arguing against the increase, Assistant Public Defender Angelo Mourelatos noted Volberding’s current condition making it difficult to “ascertain his assets now.”

In court Volberding appears somewhat weak, incoherent and disheveled.

“Based on his age and (having) no real criminal background I think the $1 million is fair,” Mourelaots said.

Earlier this week, Volberding walked before the judge with the assistance of a sheriff’s deputy. He was visibly trembling and disoriented. Prather ordered that Volberding undergo a physical and mental health evaluation.

Elizabeth Volberding’s son was in court Thursday but left without comment.

McHenry County lawyer convicted of manufacturing child porn

A Crystal Lake attorney was found guilty this week of manufacturing child pornography involving a 14-year-old girl inside a family changing area at an Algonquin fitness center.

A McHenry County judge ruled that James T. Zeas, 48, of Lake Barrington, recorded video of the girl as she undressed inside a bathroom at LifeTime Fitness Club in Algonquin. His case was heard before Judge Michael Feetterer rather than a jury.

Feetterer read his ruling stating that he had considered all the evidence including the factors present which made the video rise to the level of being lewd. Saying the video did show the young girl “partially nude” revealed her breasts and its recording appeared to be “intended to illicit a sexual response.”

He also noted that Zeas was seen on the video during both attempts to record the girl and seen trying to hide the camera with paper towels and a red hat.

The video appeared to be shot by a “voyeur” as part of “sexually deviant behavior,” Feetterer said.

Zeas, whose bond was immediately revoked, nervously ran his hands through his hair, rubbed and wrinkled his face several times during the judge’s ruling.

In closing arguments held last month Assistant State’s Attorney Kate Lenhard likened Zeas to a “voyeur” and a “peeping tom.”

Lenhard said in the summer of 2009, without the girl’s knowledge, Zeas set up a camera inside the bathroom, left then waited for her to change from her street clothes into a bathing suit. But his first attempt failed as the girl was out of the camera’s view.

Lenhard said that later that day after the girl swam Zeas tried again. She said he is seen on the video adjusting the camera’s angle to capture a larger view, he then covers the camera with a red hat and leaves the bathroom. Shortly after the girl enters and changes from her swimsuit into street clothes. This time she was captured on the video and her breasts were “exposed” to the camera as part of Zeas’ ”covert observation.”

Lenhard said the girl was not posing or aware of the camera. She thought she was alone and private not knowing “the peeping tom is watching.”

“He took the innocence of a child … he manufactured that into a voyeuristic (video) … that he then kept.” Lenhard said.

The images were discovered on Zeas’ laptop in 2011 by his wife who was “horrified” by what she saw, Lenhard said. The woman kicked Zeas out of their Crystal Lake home and filed for divorce. The videos were eventually turned over to authority.

When his then wife asked about the videos Lenhard said Zeas’ response was: “You don’t understand them, It’s not what it seems, I’ll lose my (law) license … he never says ‘I didn’t do it,’ “ Lenhard said.

However, Barry Lewis, Zeas’ defense attorney, argued that when the videos were turned over to authorities in 2015 the couple was in a “contentious” divorce and custody battle.

Lewis charged that Zeas’ ex-wife, who works with mainframes in the banking industry, somehow manufactured the videos herself. He also said that the girl did not look underage in the videos and that the images do not rise to the level of pornography because they are not sexually provocative, not recorded in a sexually suggestive setting and do not show the girl’s lower genitals.

“There is nothing sexually suggestive about the way she was in the video,” he said.

The lawyer also argued that in 2009 iPhones did not have the capability of video recording, however the state has said in previous court proceedings that they never specified what device actually made the recordings.

You “have to believe someone else created this video,” Lewis said.

A representative from LifeTime Fitness said in an email that Zeas’ actions “clearly were not in line with our policies or expectations.”

The company cooperated with the investigation and will remain “vigilant” in enforcing their policies, said Natalie Bushaw, director public relations

There is “no tolerance for unacceptable behaviors or actions,” she wrote.

Zeas is set for sentencing March 29.

Man sentenced to prison after violating probation for delivering heroin that ended his young girlfriend’s life

After violating the “gift” of probation received last year for delivering the heroin that led to his 21-year-old girlfriend’s death, a McHenry County Illinois man was again scolded by the presiding judge then sentenced to three years in prison.

Though with time served and day-for-day credit authorities say Cody Hillier, 25, will likely spend just days in an Illinois Department of Corrections facility.

Hillier admitted to using drugs in October which violated terms of his two year probation he received in July. After his arrest he was remanded back to McHenry County jail to await his sentencing.

“What is it going to take to get you off drugs and turn your life around,” asked Judge Sharon Prather, the same judge who sentenced him to probation in July and told him he must testify against anyone related to his girlfriend’s death.

Last month Hillier, dressed in orange jail issued clothing, testified against James Linder, 36, of Zion. He said on Jan. 30, 2015 he bought 1 1/2 grams of heroin from Linder. He testified that he ingested the heroin throughout the day with his girlfriend who died hours later in the early morning hours of Jan. 31.

When help arrived Hillier lied and said his girlfriend was having an asthma attack delaying the use of naloxone, a substance used to reverse the deadly affects of opioids. By the time he told first responders she had ingested drugs it was too late for the substance to work. Soon after she was pronounced dead at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin.

Linder was found guilty of drug induced homicide and is set to be sentenced Feb. 24.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-drug-induced-homicide-all-white-jury-met-20170113-story.html

Since being back in the county jail where Linder also is being held, Hillier has been in protective custody. During the trial Hillier said he had been threatened by Linder and another man not to testify.

Hillier told Prather at this week’s sentencing hearing he relapsed on drugs at a time when he was under a lot of pressure knowing he was going to testify against Linder.

He said now that the trial is over that pressure has been lifted.

Prather asked what his plans are and he said that he has a union job waiting for him in Wisconsin.

In asking for a prison term of seven years Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Freese said Hillier’s “repeated selfish … criminal behavior” has carried “tragic and fatal consequences.”

In referring to the night of his girlfriend’s fatal overdose she said Hillier lied to those who could have saved her life.

“He knew he had the chance to do the right thing and he didn’t do it,” Freese said.

Then, just roughly three months into his probation, what she referred to as “the gift of a lifetime” Hillier violates his probation.

Freese asked for a sentence that would send a message to the community.

“He watched his girlfriend take her last breath from a drug he gave her,” she said adding that she does not know what else it will take for Hillier to turn his life around.

“(Hillier) is going to wind up dead or in IDOC,” she said.

In asking for probation so he could get the treatment he needs for his drug addiction, assistant public defender Rick Behof said Hillier “has a good heart” but he “made bad choices.”

“He has a substance abuse problem,” Behof said. “No matter what this court does to him he’s gonna have to address that.”

As his late girlfriend’s father silently looked on in the courtroom, as he has done for most court events for Hillier and Linder, Hillier told the judge he is “sorry for what happened.”

Prather, like the first time she sentenced him, gave Hillier a stern warning.

“I don’t think you are a bad person … I think you are a heroin addict. If you don’t get off the drugs you are gonna have a miserable life. Your consequences will get worse and worse. You will be in and out of IDOC or wind up dead.”

Chicago Cubs Win the World Series – Grandpa Rudy Was Wrong

This is a blog written by my husband, Tony Marrazzo, reflecting on a more personal significance behind the Cubs winning the World Series. I’d say his heartfelt and kind story is perhaps a more profound take on not only how passion for a team can bring families together – but what life, love and family mean. Enjoy my first ever guest blogger.

The Cubs won the World Series. I can’t believe I just typed that. There are no words to describe how I feel. Well, maybe a few. Allow me to reflect. As I write this, I completely understand that most everyone could care less about other people’s personal attachments to the team – the stories are all basically the same. I think you might find mine interesting and parts of it familiar.

Like most kids who grew up in the 1970’s, watching Cubs games on WGN was what you did. My crew during those years – Chris Pupillo, Phil DeMichel, Donny Lazuka, Mike Solesky, Frank Becker and Mike Kenna – would spend summer mornings in Elmwood Park playing whiffle ball. We would head down the block to Tom’s Mom’s (a local bar on Harlem Ave that would serve lunch) and grab a burger and fries for a $1.10, then hurry back home to watch the game. If a good team was in town, like the Pirates or Reds, we would jump on the CTA at Harlem and Grand, take the Harlem Ave. bus north to Addison, buy a transfer and take the Addison line down to Wrigley. Ten bucks could get you into the bleachers and you would still have enough money for a hot dog and bus fare both ways. Wrigley would open the gates at 9 a.m. back then, and you could watch batting practice. After the game, hop back on the bus and you were home in time for dinner and a game of whiffle ball. Dad would come home from his job delivering Tribune Newspapers and he would always interrupt the whiffle game to take a couple of “cuts”. He would mimic his favorite player, Billy Williams, and would often hit for way too long, always to the chagrin of the 10 year old boys who wanted to finish the game.

My father loved baseball. He played on a team while serving in the Army, and he was proud of the team photo. And he loved the Cubs. Like all Cub fans his age, he suffered through the 1969 collapse. At eight years old, his father took him the 1945 World Series. As Italian immigrants, they couldn’t afford to get in the game. My dad climbed a tree to get a glimpse of his heroes. That thought makes me happy.

The 1970’s were my Cubs fandom formative years. Those teams were awful. Between 1973 and 1983, the team did not have a winning record. They averaged 1.5 million in attendance during those years – half the number that pass through the gates on Clark and Addison these days. But I watched every game.

My dad would take me to Opening Day at Wrigley every year. He would pull me out of school and we would go. Sometimes, my Grandpa Rudy, my mother’s father, would tag along. He was also a Cub fan, but a different kind of fan. He was a Polish immigrant who worked the coal mines in Southern Illinois. A big man with a mean streak who was bitter, especially when it came to the Cubs. Who could blame him, he was 70 years old and never saw the Cubs win anything. (He arrived in this country after 1908).

My Dad on the other hand was the eternal optimist, always believing it was going to happen. In the evenings, when the Cubs were on the road (no night games at Wrigley back then), we would sit together in the den and watch Cubs games together in our apartment. The Cubs would take a beating from the Dodgers or some other National League team, and Grandpa Rudy would chide my Dad to no end. “They’re bums”! “They’re never going to win anything”! “You will never see the Cubs play in a World Series, Marrazzo”! My Dad would try to argue the merits of a bad team, but then just go to bed to get some rest, because he had to get up early and deliver the newspapers, which were full of headlines about the Cubs loss. I didn’t take it as well. I shared a room with Grandpa Rudy. After Cubs losses, my Mom would give me Pepto Bismal because I was so upset. As I lay in bed next to him trying to go to sleep, I would try to understand why Grandpa Rudy was so bitter. I didn’t get it. Did he like to make my Dad upset? Did he get some joy out of all those Cubs losses? Or maybe he considered himself a realist. Fortunately, I ended up like my Dad, the eternal optimist, believing it was going to happen. And hopefully, someday, Grandpa Rudy would be wrong.

Some of my greatest memories as a kid was going to a Cubs game with my Dad. We would get in his Oldsmobile Delta 76 and make the trek down Addsion. I would always bring my baseball mitt, and he would assure me on the ride down that I would catch a ball. It never happened. In 2002, he passed away, never seeing his beloved Cubs never win the World Series. In 2003, I attended my first baseball game after his passing. Eric Young got around late on a Carlos Zambrano fastball in the first inning and hit a scorching line drive foul ball over the first base dugout, directly at me. I caught the ball. Divine intervention? If you believe in that kind of stuff, then yeah, of course. Could it be the randomness of a foul ball finding me among 40,000 spectators. Maybe. I choose to believe the former. That ball sits next to his ashes in my Mom’s bedroom and has been there for 13 years.

We came close, Dad and I. 1984 – that was the year. We had a good team. Driving back from a Cubs 7-4 victory over the Montreal Expos on June 13th, 1984 in his Oldmmobile Delta 88 (Dad upgraded his Oldsmobile), we were listening to the Cubs post game on WGN AM 720. Lou Boudreau told us that the Cubs had traded away two of their top prospects – Mel Hall and Joe Carter – for pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. I was not happy. Being a loyal fan, I knew about Hall and Carter. Hall was a rookie of the year candidate the previous season (he finished third), and looked the part. Carter was a highly touted prospect and his career speaks for itself. But I quickly got over it as Sutcliffe would win the Cy Young award going 16-1 down the stretch leading the Cubs to their first Division title in 39 years! I would move away from home to attend college that fall in Rock Island and couldn’t watch the playoff series with Dad. Going up 2-0 in the series and even though Grandpa Rudy had passed several years earlier, I had a feeling this was the year the Cubs would prove him wrong. We all know how it turned out – 2-0 lead in the series, ball under Durham’s glove, Steve Garvey, etc, etc, and the Padres were on to the World Series.

Several years ago I was at a business meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona. A co-worker, my wife and I made our way down to the bar at the Kierland resort for a late night drink. The bar had a side room designed for a shuffleboard table and nothing else. I spotted Sutcliffe playing alone with a friend. I grabbed my co-worker and wife and told them we had to play shuffleboard. I challenged Sutcliffe to a game, he accepted, and I took the side next to him. I immediately told him the story of the car ride home with my Dad. Sutcliffe let out a bellowing laugh and said let me tell you a story. He went on to tell me that after the trade, Mel Hall bad mouthed him in the media. The next year, in a Cactus league spring training game, Mel Hall came to the plate to face Sutcliffe. The catcher, Jody Davis, called for a curve ball. Sutcliffe shook him off, so Jody put down one finger for the fastball. Sutcliffe then hit Hall. Baseball revenge. The next batter was Joe Carter. Davis called for a curve ball. Once again, Sutcliffe shook him off. Davis immediately charged out to the mound and started in on Sutcliffe, “You can’t hit Joe, he’s a good guy.” I love that story.

1989. The Boys of Zimmer – Hawk, Sandberg, Grace, Maddux, The Wild Thing, Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith and Sutcliffe. Five all-stars and a rookie of the year. Three future Hall of Famers. In August 1989 I was relocated with my job to Holland, Michigan. After an exciting summer of division winning baseball, I was left to watch the division series alone. But I remained confident, we would prove Grandpa Rudy wrong. No doubt, this was the year. Then Will Clark happened and we all know how it turned out.

The Cubs would go dark for another 10 years. They had one winning season between 1990 and 1998. And it was a dark time for Major League baseball. The 1994-1995 strike cancelled the entire 1994 post season. In 1995, I moved once again, taking a job in Milwaukee.

Then, 1998. Harry Carry dies in February. Kerry Wood strikes out 20 on May 6th, as a rookie! Sammy Sosa hits home runs – 66 to be exact. I personally saw number 64 and 65 from the second row behind home plate at the old County Stadium in Milwaukee. That was the Brant Brown game. Ron Santo famously yelled “Oh no, he dropped the ball!” on WGN radio. The Cubs did not win the division, but in 1994, MLB added wild card teams, and the Cubs ended in a tie with the Giants. The Cubs would go and win a one game playoff against the Giants to make the playoffs. I couldn’t watch the NLDS with Dad because I was in Milwaukee, and the Atlanta Braves happened – a quick 3 and done sweep at the hands of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. I was beginning to think Grandpa Rudy might be right after all.

The Cubs would go to miss the playoffs for the next four years. 2001 was close. I was living in St. Louis, relocated once again. The Cubs were 13 games over .500 and 1 game behind the Cardinals and 1.5 games behind the Giants for a Wild Card spot. Then 9/11 happened. Baseball took a week off and when they returned, the Cubs went 10-11 and missed the playoffs.

The following year we learned Dad had cancer. I lost him on October 3rd, 2002 and moved back home to Chicago. He was gone way too early. When you lose someone you love, you are left with memories. And my memories of my Dad were all about baseball. Coaching my little league teams, interrupting my whiffle ball games and most of all, our passion for the Cubs. Then 2003 happened.

I really thought 2003 would be the year. I remember celebrating the Cubs clinching the Division, watching the game in my garage with neighbors on a small 19″ color TV, opening a bottle of champagne after the game. It was meant to be, right? Dad in heaven, getting the last laugh over Grandpa Rudy. Telling the old man “you haven’t seen me in 25 years and I came here just to watch the look on your face when the Cubs win the World Series”. Oh, and I caught that foul ball earlier in that season. I wanted the Cubs to win for so many reasons – but mostly for the memory of Dad. Game 6, 8th inning, five more outs. Five more outs! We all know what happened – Bartman, Gonzalez, Marlins rally, game 7…… my belief that it was going to happen and my Cubs optimism was beginning to feel silly…. and Dad was gone. Grandpa Rudy was probably right.

Then 2007 and 2008 happened. Lou Pinella, Ramirez, Lee, Soriano, Soto, Dempster, Zambrano. Those were good teams. My brother Danny’s favorite singer Eddie Vedder wrote the song “Someday we’ll go all the way”. I could totally relate to that eternal optimistic piece of song writing. It was like trying to will it to happen through lyrics. But back to back sweeps at the hands of the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in the NLDS and the Cubs were quickly dismissed.

By now we know the rest of the story. Ricketts buys the team. He hires Theo. Theo tells us to have patience. Trades everybody. Drafts hope. Hires Maddon. A shot, a beer and a promise. I feel like a kid again. Checking minor league box scores like I used to read the back of a baseball card (For the record – I have an awesome baseball card collection – much better than Brian Hooker). I installed a 120″ HD projector TV in the garage to watch the games – hope had returned!

2015 didn’t end with a World Series appearance, and I’m sure Grandpa Rudy thought, like the rest of us, that this doesn’t look like any Cubs team we have ever seen before. Young talent. Really good young talent. A Manager who seemed to know what he was doing. A front office you could believe in, a stacked minor league system, improvements to the infra structure (Domincan Republic facility, a new minor league complex, improvements to the stadium, a new club house). This felt different. Disappointment over not proving Grandpa Rudy wrong was replaced by a feeling of confidence.

Then 2016 happened. The year started interestingly enough back in Scottsdale, Arizona at a resort, again, there for a business meeting. I was sitting in a hot tub with a co-worker and Jake Arrietta appeared with his son and John Lackey and joined us. We went on to talk about the 2015 season and our mutual anticipation for what was to come (I found Lackey to be a bit surly – go figure. Jake was Jake, serious and focused). It was the day before pitchers and catchers were to report. I made my treks down to Wrigley during the season….memories. There was the game I attended with my wife on our anniversary, the rooftop game in September, the Lincoln Park game with my brother in law where I met Tom Ricketts and personally thanked him, (My brother, Danny, Phil DeMichel and Joe Greskoviak ended up riding Divy bikes from Wrigleyville back to Joe’s house in Lincoln Park after the game – we were in no condition to be on Divy bikes), and the game where I took relatives from Florida to see their first game at Wrigley. (I love seeing the reaction of friends or family when they first walk up the stairs at Wrigley – it reminds me of being a 5 year old boy, holding Dad’s hand, Cubs hat, baseball glove). I was also fortunate enough to attend the second game of the World Series in Cleveland (Thank you Joe!). All of the games I attended resulted in a W. As usual, I watched every game on TV, with a feeling that something good was going to happen. But were Cubs fans, right? Conditioned for disappointment.

Then Wednesday night happened. I was a wreck, couldn’t focus, couldn’t think about anything except the game. My anxiety was torturing me. I kept telling myself, don’t reach for the Xanax, you don’t need it, not now, this game is too important. When it was time to leave work to head home to get the garage ready for the game, I reached for my keys, where I always put them, side pocket, back pack. Grab them and go, time for game 7. But they weren’t there! I emptied the bag over and over – no car keys! I tore through the office – every garbage can, every desk, every person I had come in contact with throughout the day. Nothing. We had an extra car at the office, so at 4:45, I was given a key to the spare vehicle and drove home.

14 years earlier, after Dad had passed away, my Mom called and said the kids could come to the house and take any of his belongings. I showed up not really intending on taking anything. I went for Mom, I knew it would be good for her if I came and showed interest. When I arrived, the first thing I saw was my Dad’s key chain. He had a buffalo nickel that was inserted into a round piece of metal on a circular metal ring. It was worn from years of use. I never knew the significance of it, other than for as long as I could remember, that was his key chain. If you saw the buffalo nickel on the key chain on the counter, you knew Dad was home. I scooped it up and exclaimed “I’ll take this”!

As I drove home from work, all I could think about was losing that key chain. Dad’s key chain. I was overcome with a feeling of guilt and sadness – why now? Why was this happening? Bad timing.

Game time. I couldn’t think straight. My daughter Abby was working on a school project that was due the next day, a report on the Godfather movie. My wife was stressed because Abby had procrastinated. My neighbors edgy because the garage wasn’t set up (This isn’t like Tony – what’s wrong?). The stress of game seven looming – and the keys, what happened to the keys?

My friends who watch big Cubs games with me in the garage know I can’t sit still. I set up the best chair for myself in front of the TV and rarely use it. Pacing nervously, anxiety ridden, hopeful. 15 minutes before the game started, my neighbor Chris Kalscheur approached me and simply said “I know how much this game means to you” with a warm look in his eye. Suddenly, a feeling of calmness overcame me. I sat in the chair. The whole game. No anxiety. The Cubs go up 5-1, then blow the lead with two outs in the eighth, been there before. Rain delay. A feeling of impending doom as another Cubs torturous loss seems imminent, angst among my 30 or so guests in the garage. But not me – I’m in my chair, in the den, second floor apartment. Grandpa Rudy on my left, Dad on my right. Then the 10th inning happens. Cubs win the World Series. Dad smiles, hugs me, goes to bed, important papers to deliver in the morning. Mom puts the Pepto Bismal away. Grandpa Rudy gives me one of his expected mean glares and says “I guess I was wrong.”

The next morning, I woke up. Got to return the extra car back to work. I grabbed the spare set of keys. Then, for no explainable reason, I decide to check the back pack one more time. I pull everything out, laptop, notebook, power cord, etc. Nothing. The notebook looks a little thick. I open it up ….. buffalo nickel key chain.

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. She noted that this man’s blood was found near the crime scene and that he had motive.  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.