It took nearly an hour Tuesday for the DuPage County prosecutor to tell the heartbreaking, 26-year-old story.
Some in the audience wiped away tears as State's Atty. Joseph Birkett solemnly described the fingernail scratches 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico left on the wall that showed how she tried to fight off a would-be burglar.
How Brian Dugan promised to take the girl home but instead killed her.
The murder "went as perfectly as the others, but something was wrong," Brian Dugan told an Illinois State Police psychologist, Birkett recounted. "I felt like I was going to get caught."
And he did. Dugan, already serving life sentences for two other murders, formally admitted in court Tuesday that he and he alone kidnapped, raped and killed the girl on Feb. 25, 1983.
His admission, first made in 1985, had long been rejected by DuPage officials. But on Tuesday Birkett said Dugan has been telling the truth.
Birkett's 55-minute recitation of the facts was a dramatic turn in a case with 26 years' worth of twists, including the false convictions and Death Row sentences of two other men and the acquittals of seven DuPage County law-enforcement officials on malfeasance charges. The drama will kick into high gear again in September, when Birkett pursues his long-stated goal of having Dugan sentenced to death.
The bespectacled Dugan began Tuesday by standing before DuPage Judge George Bakalis and admitting his guilt. "No one aided, abetted or helped me," Dugan said simply after asserting that he understood Bakalis' pointed questions.
Then Birkett took his place at the courtroom lectern, launching into the first complete version of what prosecutors believe Dugan inflicted on Nicarico one winter afternoon.
Birkett said Dugan broke into the girl's Naperville Township home in an attempted burglary but took only Jeanine, who left fingernail scratches on a wall.
Birkett's description of Nicarico's final hours were brutal and difficult to listen to, as were his descriptions of the autopsy results. Some in the audience wiped away tears as they heard how Dugan brutalized the girl on a sleeping bag in the woods, leaving her bloody and disoriented, then promised to wash her up and take her home, but instead crushed her skull with either a baseball bat or a tire iron.
Birkett also described in detail the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman of Somonauk, one of two murders for which Dugan already is serving concurrent life sentences. Bakalis has previously approved allowing the details of the Ackerman case at a trial, ruling that the similarities with the Nicarico murder showed a legal pattern of behavior.
Dugan sat quietly during Birkett's grim reading of a 14-page statement. Melissa's father stonily stared off into space.
When it was over, the judge denied Dugan's request to read aloud a letter that he carried with him, a letter his attorneys contended was an apology.
Birkett's presentation included the complete exoneration of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, two Aurora man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the same crime. The statement set the stage for the Sept. 22 sentencing hearing, when a jury is expected to be chosen to decide if Dugan will be sentenced to death or another life prison term.
Birkett described how Cruz and Hernandez were arrested and tried based on statements they and others made about the crime, but concluded that there was "no physical evidence" ever found against the pair. Birkett said he wanted to put that issue to rest so it has no further effect on Dugan's sentencing hearing.
Dugan's attorneys have told Bakalis that they plan on using the wrongful convictions of the two men to their client's benefit, claiming that by admitting his role in the murder, he helped get innocent men off Death Row.
Relatives of Donna Schnorr, a 27-year-old Kane County nurse for whose 1984 murder Dugan is serving his second life sentence, also were present during the plea and would not comment when leaving the courthouse.
Although Birkett's statement Tuesday was long, detailed and gruesome, it was but a taste of what onlookers are likely to hear at the sentencing hearing, in which Birkett is expected to introduce details of crimes against as many as a dozen girls and women.
After Tuesday's plea, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would elaborate on any of the day's events, citing Bakalis' warning that they not make any public statements that could have an effect on potential jurors.
"I do my talking in the courtroom and I'll talk after it is all done," Birkett said before an array of television cameras.
"Everything we can say we already said in court," said Steven Greenberg, a defense attorney.
The plea was a rare moment of clarity in a case that has been mired in ambiguity from the start.
After Cruz and Hernandez were convicted of Nicarico's death in 1985, Dugan told investigators he was prepared to take sole responsibility for Nicarico's killing as well -- but only if he were spared the death penalty.
Prosecutors refused, saying he was a liar whose account of the crime contained inaccuracies. But some in law enforcement were convinced that Dugan was telling the truth. That led to the odd spectacle of seasoned investigators decrying the county's case from the witness stand and through the media.
The evidence against the original suspects eventually fell apart. Cruz and Hernandez were set free in 1995, when DNA tests and recanted testimony undermined the prosecution.
Then, in yet another bizarre turn, three former DuPage prosecutors and four sheriff's officers were indicted in 1996 on charges of lying and concealing evidence to convict Cruz.
They were acquitted, but in 2000, the DuPage County Board paid $3.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by Cruz, Hernandez and third former defendant Stephen Buckley. Charges against Buckley were dropped in 1987.
All the while, though, Dugan's informal confession colored the case. He was occasionally called to testify, but always asserted his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
In 2002, a new round of DNA testing established with certainty that Dugan was involved in Nicarico's rape and murder. Pressure mounted anew on Birkett, and some residents unsuccessfully tried to have a special prosecutor take over the case.
Finally, in late 2005, more than 22 years after Nicarico was killed, a grand jury charged Dugan with her murder.