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)

Mario Casciaro seeking a new trial

As Mario Casciaro walked out of lock up and into a McHenry County courtroom wearing county issued orange garb, he blew a kiss to family members who were in court in the hopes of having his murder conviction overturned.

But they all will need to wait until Sept. 24 for Judge Sharon Prather to make her ruling.

Casciaro, 30, appeared in court on a motion to appeal his conviction. He has been in jail since being found guilty in April of first-degree murder with intimidation, in the murder of 17-year-old Brian Carrick.

Carrick worked as a stockboy with Casciaro at Val’s Foods in Johnsburg. The grocery store was partly owned by the Casciaro family at the time.

Carrick was last seen alive with Casciaro and Shane Lamb on the evening of Dec. 20, 2002.

Casciaro has long been accused of calling in Lamb to collect a $500 drug debt from Carrick.

This was Casciaro’s second first-degree murder trial. The first trial ended last year in a hung jury.

During both trials, Lamb, who has received immunity in the case in exchange for his testimony, testified that Casciaro asked him to come to the grocery store and help collect his money. Lamb further testified that he became angry with Carrick and punched him and Carrick fell to the ground inside the cooler unconscious. Blood was coming from his nose. Lamb said he then left and doesn’t know what happened to Carrick after that. Lamb said he never saw Carrick again.

Prosecutors have long said that Casciaro knowingly used Lamb as an “enforcer,” “intimidator” and “thug” to get the money from Carrick.

Brian Telander, Casciaro’s attorney, argued that even Lamb himself testified in both trials that he was never told by Casciaro to hurt or intimidate Carrick.

“At no time did (Casciaro) tell Shane Lamb to threaten (Carrick) to get the money,” Telander said adding that at no time did Casciaro tell Lamb to “intimidate,” or “kick his butt,” or “scare him to get the money.”

“He told Lamb ‘come and talk to (Brian),’” Telander insisted. “Come talk to him about the money.”

Telander said that the jury’s conviction was wrong and not based on evidence that was “believable beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“The jury got it wrong,” he said during the hearing.  “Lamb said he got there, got in an argument … ‘I lost my temper and I hit him.’” At no time did he say he threatened Brian Carrick. … “At no time did (Mario) say anything or do anything or make a threat. Shane Lamb only acted out of anger.”

Investigators have said that Carrick’s blood was found in and around the produce cooler where witnesses testified to last seeing him with Casciaro and Lamb.  His blood also was found on boxes in an outside garbage dumpster behind the store.

His body has never been found.

Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally strongly disagreed with Telander’s claims.

“If Shane Lamb wasn’t there to intimidate Brian Carrick, then exactly what was he there to do?” Kenneally said. “Why couldn’t (Casciaro) just ask Brian Carrick for the money? Shane Lamb had a reputation for violence. Shane Lamb was known as a person who was violent, he was known as the person to collect the money for Mario Casciaro.”

Kenneally pointed out that Lamb was a big guy in comparison to Carrick’s small frame.

“Shane Lamb is intimidating,” Kenneally said. “Shane Lamb will engage in violence. It’s just that simple. The defendant was well aware of what he was doing when he brought Shane Lamb in.”

Outside the courtroom, Telander said he was “encouraged” that (Prather) is taking this seriously.  I’m thrilled she’s doing this.”

Along side Telander stood Kathleen Zellner, a high-profile attorney known on a national level for representing people whose civil rights have been violated, according to her website.

Telander said should his motion to overturn the conviction not be successful in Prather’s courtroom, Zellner will take the case on to the appellate court.

Zellner said  Casciaro was wrongfully convicted of intimidation in a case where there was “no threat at all and no weapons.”

“No court in the U.S. would support this conviction,” Zellner said adding that she is “confident” his conviction will be reversed.

In an earlier emailed statement, Mario’s sister, Joanne Casciaro, wrote that prosecutors used her brother as a “scapegoat, so they can say they solved the case.”

The family declined to comment further after the hearing.

But before parting ways after the hearing Jerry Casciaro, Mario’s father, approached William Carrick, Brian’s father. Both, broken hearted men who love their sons. The father of the accused and the father of the victim shook hands.

A sign of healing, forgiveness in a tragedy that has overshadowed one small town and hurt many lives over the last decade?  Maybe.

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