Just before 3 a.m. on March 2, 2010, Jacob Nodarse used a hammer to shatter a window at a home in an upscale Darien neighborhood. He crept inside with a .40-caliber Glock firearm.
The killings didn't take long. Police arrived minutes later to find the bullet-riddled bodies of Jeffrey Kramer, his wife, Lori, and their adult son, Michael. Nodarse was gone, headed to his parents' home in Florida, where he would be nabbed a day later after a frantic manhunt.
What emerged in the ensuing investigation was a bizarre narrative. Nodarse told police he shot the Kramers at the behest of a friend, Johnny Borizov, in an elaborate plot with ties to organized crime and the clandestine drug trade. The mentally disturbed gunman said he believed he and his own family would be slain if he didn't follow Borizov's orders.
"He told his interrogators that he should be killed for what he did," according to an April 2011 psychological report. "He (said) he understood that what he did was against the law at the time of the homicides, but he felt that he had no choice."
Borizov, 31, of Willow Springs, has denied any involvement in the triple-slaying. But starting this week, prosecutors will try to convict him of the murders, based partly on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of Nodarse, who is described in court records as "suggestible and easily manipulated" with a history of paranoid delusions, hallucinations and borderline personality traits.
"Credibility is going to be a serious issue in this case," said Richard Kling, one of three attorneys representing Borizov. "Jacob Nodarse has an extensive psychiatric and drug history, and the jury is going to have to decide if they want to believe him."
DuPage County authorities say Borizov solicited the murders to end a bitter court battle with Jeffrey and Lori Kramer's daughter, Angela, over custody of their then-13-month-old son.
Nodarse was merely a "tool" to accomplish the killings, with Borizov feeding the shooter lies that would excite his paranoid tendencies while also plying him with drugs, according to prosecutors.
At a recent court hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Joe Ruggiero said Borizov falsely portrayed himself as a "kingpin" drug dealer and mobster -- "a wiseguy, if you will." He said Nodarse, in his fragile state, bought into it.
"(Borizov) used repetition to the point Jacob Nodarse believed what he was saying," Ruggiero said.
Nodarse said he was told the Kramers were in the Mafia and would kill him if they weren't taken out first.
He said Borizov provided official-looking documentation showing Nodarse would be called to testify against the family at an approaching child-custody proceeding, authorities said.
Borizov also indicated that he and a third, unidentified person would be committing other, unspecified murders around the same time, according to Nodarse's account.
The slayings followed months of hostility fueled by Borizov's open hatred of the Kramer family, authorities said.
Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses who say Borizov tried to isolate Angela Kramer and their son while making repeated threats against several Kramer family members, including one statement in which he allegedly said he wanted to see them in "body bags."
Judge Daniel Guerin also is allowing hearsay testimony from prosecution witnesses who will tell jurors the Kramers expressed fears for their safety and relayed threats made against them by Borizov shortly before they were slain.
Another possible witness is a jailhouse informant who allegedly heard Borizov make incriminating statements.
'Kill them all'
Borizov timed the murders to happen while he was gambling at a Joliet casino and visible on surveillance video, authorities said.
Speaking of the Kramers, he told Nodarse to "kill them all but especially Angela and Michael," according to prosecutors.
The son of Borizov and Angela Kramer was with Borizov's family at the time of the ambush.
Angela survived by hiding in a closet and calling 911 while her older brother and his girlfriend managed to escape -- one of them through a window.
Authorities said Borizov, who has no prior criminal record, planned the killings with Nodarse on at least four occasions and recommended kicking in a door or breaking into the Kramer home through a window.
At least once, they parked outside and surveilled the home, according to prosecutors, who say they will present cellphone records putting Borizov in that area.
Nodarse, 26, formerly of Countryside, pleaded guilty but mentally ill in September 2011 to the first-degree murder of Jeffrey Kramer.
The plea deal requires him to testify "fully and truthfully" in the Borizov case.
In exchange, Nodarse could be sentenced to 45 years to life but does not face the mandatory life term he would have received if convicted of killing two or more people.
Legal experts say the Borizov case is far from a slam dunk for prosecutors because their star witness has a history of severe mental illness, and there's apparently no scientific evidence directly tying Borizov to the crime.
"If Nodarse has a history of psychotic behavior and delusions -- in other words, detachment from reality -- he has probably minimal credibility as a witness, and he could be destroyed by the defense," said Jack Donahue, a former prosecutor and Naperville defense attorney since 1973.
"Assuming the defense can eliminate him as a credible witness, it's a tough case for the state just having someone who is motivated to commit the offense," Donahue said. "That's quite a burden."
Glen Ellyn attorney Brian Telander, a retired judge and former prosecutor now in private practice, said one key to the prosecution will be establishing a relationship between Borizov and Nodarse.
"If the main witness has a legitimate mental illness, and there's no confession or anything like that, I think it's going to be an uphill battle for the prosecution," Telander said.
"Even if the jury comes to the conclusion there was something going on here, how does that rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt?"
State's Attorney Bob Berlin declined to comment on any aspect of the case because of the upcoming trial.
"We're going to try our case in the courtroom and not the media," he said.
Paul DeLuca, another of Borizov's attorneys, said the trial all boils down to Nodarse.
"There's no one that's going to corroborate his claims that Johnny suggested to him that he kill the family, and I don't think there's a single witness they'll be able to find who says Johnny portrayed himself as a mob guy or drug kingpin," DeLuca said.
"I think the state's evidence will be lacking."
Borizov is charged with first-degree murder, solicitation of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and home invasion.
He's been in custody without bail since his arrest three years ago.
The attorneys have estimated as many as 50 witnesses could take the stand during the roughly monthlong trial, which will be the first in the Chicago area to be documented by news cameras.
Kling said there's been no decision yet whether Borizov will testify.
"There's always a chance," he said.
Jury selection begins Tuesday.