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.

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)

Algonquin man charged with murdering parents to face a jury this month

A McHenry County judge Wednesday denied the dismissal of a grand jury indictment against a former Algonquin man set to stand trial later this month for the 2006 murders of his parents.

Angelo Mourelatos, public defender representing Michael Romano, 56, argued that a murder indictment against his client should be dismissed because prosecutors provided a grand jury with “false or misleading” evidence on Jan. 8, 2014 which led to an indictment charging Romano for the murders of his father Nick Romano, 71, and his stepmother Gloria, 65.

In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Sharon Prather explained that the court is “limited in its ability to dismiss an indictment.” She said that the issues the defense raised did not prove the grand jury had been deliberately misled and that she did not find that Romano’s “due process” had been violated.

Romano told police he found his parents shot to death in their home located in the unincorporated Crystal Lake neighborhood of Killarney Acres at about 3 a.m. Nov. 20, 2006, authorities have said.

Romano said that he had gone to check on his parents that morning because he could not reach them by phone.

Romano cooperated with police in the days following the murders but later moved to Las Vegas where in early January 2014 he was arrested, then extradited to McHenry County jail where he has remained on $3 million bond.

Mourelatos argued that Romano was indicted only after the grand jury had been “misled” by false or inaccurate details regarding time of death, Romano’s presence on surveillance videos, and FBI laboratory ballistic results.

In particular, the defense took issue with testimony of McHenry County Sheriff’s Detective Thomas Jonites.

The defense argued that Jonites testified the couple was killed between 10:40 a.m. and noon on Nov. 19, 2006, even though the coroner never determined the time of death.

Assistant State’s Atty. Patrick Kenneally responded that Jonites only gave his “opinion” as to time of death based on evidence, therefore was not deliberately misleading, nor was he stating that his suspected time of death was the determination of the coroner’s.

The defense also took issue with the detective’s testimony that Romano was not on surveillance videotapes from two local businesses at 10:30 a.m. the day his parents were killed. In early interviews with police Romano told police he had been at these two locations during that timeframe, which the state alleges was when the couple was murdered.

Mourelatos said that his client can be seen on the videos from both locations at just before and after 11 a.m. still within the couples’ supposed time of death.

“Det. Jonites’s testimony was designed to disprove the alibi of the defendant and to portray defendant as a liar to the Grand Jury,” Mourelatos wrote in the motion. “Det. Jonites’s testimony to the Grand Jury was misleading.”

Prosecutors denied any allegations they misled the grand jury and say it is the opinion of Jonites that Romano is not on those tapes, and that the state maintains “the accuracy” of Jonites’s opinion.

In her ruling, Prather said what is seen on the tapes is a matter of fact to be determined by the trial jury.

Mourelatos also said Jonites stated that bullets found in an ammunition box in the home of friend who authorities say provided bullets to Romano “matched” bullet shell casings found at the murder scene. When in fact, Mourelatos said, that the FBI lab report- available to the state- concluded the bullets “were consistent with the casings found on scene but there is no reliable method to determine if they match.”

“The prosecution emphasized that these “bullets matched exactly” despite the FBI findings in the prosecutions possession,” he wrote.

Kenneally maintained there was no intention to mislead the grand jury.

“The state appropriately and consistently qualified its statements to the Grand Jury by pointing out that the match was only in regard to “observable features” and not that there were some type of scientific testing that established some type of definitive correspondence.”

Prather said the meaning found in a dictionary of “matched” and “consistent” were similar and therefore did not find this testimony to the grand jury false or misleading.

Mourelatos also argued that prosecutors “mischaracterized” two cigarette butts found at the scene and mislead jurors to believe they were both Romanos. One found next to Gloria Romano’s body had no DNA attached to it and one found outside the home had Michael Romano’s DNA. Mourelatos said there is no way of knowing if they both were the same brand. He said the state was “trying to draw the comparison both were Camel and one contained (Romano’s) DNA.” That, he said “was false and misleading.”

The trial is set to begin Sept. 21.