For the better part of a decade, Mario Casciaro found himself on the defensive against authorities who said he played a central role in the 2002 disappearance and presumed killing of a Johnsburg teen.
Now, about 18 months after he walked out of a maximum-security prison a free man, the former Fox Lake resident is on the offensive, launching a federal lawsuit claiming that a top-ranking police official and prosecutors framed him for murder.
The lawsuit contains numerous explosive allegations, including that Johnsburg Police Chief Keith Von Allmen withheld evidence that implicated a close friend's son in the killing of Brian Carrick, and claims a top McHenry County prosecutor persuaded a longtime criminal to falsely implicate Casciaro.
A quick refresher: Carrick, 17, vanished Dec. 20, 2002, after leaving home to visit Val's Foods, the Johnsburg grocery store where both he and Casciaro worked. The case went unsolved -- some say it's still unsolved -- until 2010, when Casciaro was indicted on charges of murder and concealing a homicide.
Prosecutors' case hinged on the testimony of Shane Lamb, a repeat felon who said he mistakenly killed Carrick after Casciaro asked him to scare the teen into paying a drug debt. Lamb later recanted, saying Assistant McHenry County State's Attorney Michael Combs gave him a bogus story to tell. Combs has denied this.
In 2015, an appellate court labeled Lamb's testimony "fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions" and threw out Casciaro's 2013 murder conviction and 26-year prison sentence.
Free, not innocent
While pursuing a lawsuit likely to seek millions in damages, Casciaro, now 33, also is asking a McHenry County judge to formally declare him innocent of Carrick's murder.
County prosecutors are fighting the request. A hearing in the matter is set for May 11.
McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, who was not in his current role during the Casciaro prosecution, said in a written statement that the federal lawsuit is neither unexpected nor factual.
"This is an opportunistic lawsuit filed on behalf of a defendant convicted of felony murder by a McHenry County jury," Kenneally said. "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."
Von Allmen did not return a call for comment.
Read the full 34-page lawsuit here.
Aurora honors top cop
Congrats to Aurora police investigator Alvin Soto, who recently was named his department's 2016 Employee of the Year.
Soto, an evidence technician, was chosen for his off-duty actions Nov. 28, when while driving on Forest Avenue he spotted three men armed with baseball bats beating another man in the road.
Soto turned his vehicle around, drew his gun and announced his presence. One of the men halted and was arrested, but the other two ran. One of those two was captured later.
If it weren't for Soto's actions, the victim would have been much more seriously hurt, officials said.
One conviction reversed
More than six years after a judge sentenced him to 55 years in prison for what a prosecutor called the "coldblooded assassination" of his ex-girlfriend in Hanover Park, Sergio Hernandez might soon be a free man.
That's thanks to a recent appellate court decision that not only tosses out Hernandez's 2010 conviction but damages prosecutors' ability to successfully try him again.
The 31-year-old Aurora man was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Rocio Munoz-Ramos, who was gunned down two days before Thanksgiving 2008 outside the Irving Park Road beauty shop where she worked. Hernandez's defense claimed he did not intend to kill the 26-year-old Elgin woman and blamed the shooting on "a sensitive trigger."
In a massive 81-page decision, appellate justices ruled that Hernandez was arrested illegally and then duped into making incriminating statements by investigators who put him through a phony gunshot residue test.
Although a majority of the court ruled that there is enough evidence to try Hernandez again -- including an eyewitness who says he saw the suspect's truck near the murder scene -- prosecutors will have to do it without the Aurora man's confession that he fired the fatal shot ... albeit accidentally.
Tandra Simonton, spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, said a decision has not yet been made on whether to try Hernandez again.
And one upheld
It hasn't been all bad news for local prosecutors when it comes to appellate rulings in high-profile suburban cases.
Justices on March 30 unanimously upheld the 2013 conviction and life sentence of Aurelio Montano, a former Aurora man found guilty in the slaying of his wife, whose body still hasn't been found more than 26 years after she vanished.
Montano argued he deserved a new trial because prosecutors used unreliable evidence -- the response of three dogs trained to detect dead bodies -- to convict him of allegations he murdered his 35-year-old wife, Maria Guadalupe "Lupe" Montano, wrapped her body in a rug and buried her on a Naperville horse farm. The body was never recovered, but the rug was, and in 2007 cadaver dogs indicated the presence of human remains on it, leading to his arrest.
Even if he'd won his appeal, Montano wouldn't have been a free man. He's also been sentenced to life behind bars for his role in a 1996 drug-related double homicide in Texas.
Last week, we wrote about the special enforcement campaign Illinois State Police did March 28 in memory of late Trooper James Sauter of Vernon Hills, who was killed in 2013 when a semitrailer truck hit his parked squad car on I-294. The driver of the truck had been driving too many hours that day and told police he must have fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Now we have the numbers. During the 24-hour "Operation Sauter," troopers inspected 1,437 trucks, labeled 138 of them dangerous and took them out of service. They also issued 624 warnings and 123 citations.
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