Rivera files federal suit against Lake County over wrongful conviction, seeks unspecified damagers

A man wrongfully committed to prison for nearly 20 years has filed a federal lawsuit against Lake County and officials in the sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices, among others.

Juan Rivera Jr. is seeking compensation for what he claims was malicious prosecution, violations of his due process, depriving him of his constitutional rights and for being coerced into making a false confession, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The suit does not specify the amount of money Rivera is seeking, but asks for compensation and punitive damages for the time he spent behind bars, as well as attorney fees.

“I need to look for justice, not just for me, but for the family of the victim,” Rivera said Tuesday, exactly two decades after he was indicted by a Lake County grand jury for murdering and raping 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan. “This lawsuit will make sure this type of thing will not occur in Lake County or any where else ever again.”

Aside from Lake County, individuals named in the lawsuit include: former Lake County Sheriff Gary Del Re; current Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran; Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller; assistant state’s attorneys Jeffrey Pavletic, Michael Mermel and Matthew Chancey; Lake County Major Crimes Task Force officers including Chuck Fagan, Lucian Tessman, and Donald Meade; the cities of Waukegan and Lake Forest; and the village of Buffalo Grove.

Curran would not comment about the suit. Lake County Administrator Barry Burton said he had not seen the lawsuit, but said “it’s not unexpected.”

Waller and Pavletic did not return phone calls seeking comment. Mermel, Fagan and Chancey no longer work for the county.

Rivera, now 40, was released from Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet in January despite being convicted on three separate occasions of murdering and raping Staker in Waukegan in 1992.

Holly Staker’s body was found stabbed, raped and strangled inside a filthy apartment where she and her twin sister, Heather, frequently baby-sat two small children.

A tip to the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force identified Rivera, then 19, as someone who might know something about the crime. Rivera, who was in prison after violating probation on a separate burglary charge, was questioned by task force detectives and gave them two confessions.

However, in the federal lawsuit, attorneys contend the interrogation was an “extreme and alarming abuse of police power,” and a “wholly illegal effort to secure a false confession from (Rivera) in violation of his constitutional rights.”

In the lawsuit, Rivera contends he suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of four straight days of interrogation by Lake County Major Crimes Task Force members. On the third day, he was diagnosed with “acute psychosis” by jail medical officials, hogtied and placed inside a padded cell.

On the fourth and final day of interrogation — after not sleeping for more than 24-hours — Rivera signed a written confession to the crimes in English, the lawsuit claims.

His attorneys claim in the federal lawsuit that because Rivera had difficulty understanding English and could not read or write the language, police wrote the confession for him and had him sign it.

The suit also notes police knew Rivera “suffered from intellectual deficits” and that he had a history of “pronounced emotional problems that would render him especially vulnerable to their coercive techniques.”

Rivera’s attorneys contend there was no physical evidence tying Rivera to the crime, and authorities were so desperate to solve it they willfully ignored evidence that showed he had nothing to do with Shaker’s death.

It is one of several wrongful prosecution and conviction cases involving the state’s attorney’s office that has sparked a firestorm of criticism in the last couple of years.

Most notably, Jerry Hobbs spent about five years in Lake County jail after he was charged with killing his 8-year-old daughter, Laura, and her 9-year-old friend Krystal Tobias in a Zion park in 2005. Hobbs, who confessed to police but hours later denied any involvement in the girls’ deaths, was freed from jail in August 2010 after DNA evidence cleared him.

Also, Bennie Starks, 52, of Chicago, was exonerated by DNA evidence in the January 1986 rape of a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine, and James Edwards was freed after he was wrongfully imprisoned in 1996 for allegedly slaying Waukegan business owner Fred Reckling, 71.

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