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updated: 1/8/2012 6:24 PM

Parents cherish memories of murder victim

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  • Nancy Kalinowski wipes a tear after talking about her daughter, Holly Staker, who was murdered in 1992.

      Nancy Kalinowski wipes a tear after talking about her daughter, Holly Staker, who was murdered in 1992.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Kalinowski, stepfather of Holly Staker, speaks about the release of Juan Rivera on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder and has spent 19 years in prison until his conviction was overturned by the state appellate court last month.

      Mike Kalinowski, stepfather of Holly Staker, speaks about the release of Juan Rivera on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder and has spent 19 years in prison until his conviction was overturned by the state appellate court last month.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Nancy Kalinowski on Friday shows albums filled with photographs of her daughter, Holly Staker, who was murdered in 1992.

      Nancy Kalinowski on Friday shows albums filled with photographs of her daughter, Holly Staker, who was murdered in 1992.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker, and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about their daughter at their home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., as a news station broadcasts video of the release of Juan Rivera from Stateville State Prison on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder, and spent 19 years in prison before his conviction was overturned by the state appellate court last month.

      Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker, and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about their daughter at their home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., as a news station broadcasts video of the release of Juan Rivera from Stateville State Prison on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder, and spent 19 years in prison before his conviction was overturned by the state appellate court last month.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker, and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about the release of Juan Rivera, who was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder.

      Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker, and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about the release of Juan Rivera, who was convicted of Holly's 1992 rape and murder.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about the release of Juan Rivera, at their home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 murder and spent 19 years in prison before his conviction was overturned last month.

      Nancy Kalinowski, mother of Holly Staker and Mike Kalinowski, stepfather, talk about the release of Juan Rivera, at their home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., on Friday. Rivera was convicted of Holly's 1992 murder and spent 19 years in prison before his conviction was overturned last month.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Holly Staker

      Holly Staker

 
 

People hold on to their memories because their memories hold on to them.

When reality pushes the breaking point with an onslaught of tragedy, heartbreak and frustration, memories provide the warm comfort of a hug and the strength to go on.

In Mike and Nancy Kalinowski's memories, an 11-year-old girl scampers up the stairs at home after school, laughing and singing Mariah Carey songs.

"Holly was a little girl, an innocent little girl," Nancy says of her daughter, Holly Staker. "She loved to be around her friends, she loved to cook and she loved children."

Holly was savagely murdered Aug. 17, 1992, and in the years that have followed, the Kalinowskis have been unwilling passengers on a bizarre roller coaster ride through the criminal justice system.

Juan Rivera, now 39, was arrested four months after the crime and later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A second trial followed, accompanied by another conviction, and that was followed by a third that also resulted in conviction.

On Friday, Rivera walked out of prison with the assurance he will not be tried again, and the Kalinowskis were left once again to confront the pain of what happened to Holly.

"Sometimes you think about it, even after all this time, and your knees just buckle," Mike said Friday night at their home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. "I mean, how many times do you have to bury your child?"

The couple dismiss claims of Rivera's innocence and, despite the withering criticism leveled from some circles, have nothing but praise for the police and prosecutors who they said stood by them throughout the years.

They said they met with Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller last week, and he informed them he would not pursue further legal action against Rivera.

"We could tell it was hard on Mr. Waller, but that he was doing what he had to do," Mike said. "At one point, he said, 'This is our job, but it is your lives,' and he became very emotional."

Nancy said she still feels the sting of Rivera's statement to the court at his first sentencing hearing on Dec. 21, 1993, when he said "Holly was no angel" in the course of a long speech.

"She was no angel? What kind of an innocent man says something like that," Nancy asked angrily. "He claims he didn't know her, says he never met her, and then comes out with a statement like that."

The Kalinoskis said they joined a support group for the parents of murdered children in the immediate aftermath of the crime, but found most relief in those closest to them.

"We had our friends and family and our faith," Nancy said. "The outpouring of love was remarkable and really helped us survive, and those things will continue to get us through this."

She said Holly excelled at school and even helped a younger sister, who Nancy declined to identify in order to protect her privacy, learn how to write.

"They would take lipstick and write on the mirrors, then clean it off with Windex when the mirror was full and do it all over again," Nancy said. "I finally wound up getting a chalkboard for them in order to save the mirrors."

Mike married Nancy six years before Holly's death and said that Holly and her identical twin, Heather, were quite skilled at giving him the twin treatment.

"Oh, they used to mess with me," Mike said. "I'd ask one a question and would get the 'No, Mike, that was Heather' routine all the time, and they would sit there and giggle."

Nancy said Heather has struggled mightily with the loss of her sibling and has suffered though bouts of substance abuse and scrapes with the law.

"Heather has been through so much," Nancy said. "I don't think she will ever get over this."

Mike and Nancy concede that they will never get over this themselves, but they say their faith and dedication to their other children will keep them going.

"We will always have our memories," Nancy said. "Holly lives in our hearts, and that is something no one can take away from us."

And in those memories, the 11-year-old girl will be scampering up the stairs at home after school, laughing and singing Mariah Carey songs forever.

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