February 25, 2022
Excerpt - Luck Is A Talent - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Indie Non-Fiction
By Gary Johnson
Chapter 1 Contempt of Court
November 12, 1986
I was alone in one of those old-fashioned jail cells. Unlike the more modern lockups, this one had bars from floor to ceiling. I could hear the correctional officers going about their work around the corner. The only place to sit was on a bunk bed. My suit jacket, shirt, belt and tie had been taken from me, so when I climbed onto the top bunk to lie down, I wasn’t able to keep warm.
“If I was you, I wouldn’t put my head directly on that mattress,” warned an only slightly sympathetic jail guard. I sat up and scratched my head. There I was, a 33-year-old, never-been-arrested-before criminal defense lawyer, cooling my heels in the old DuPage County, Illinois jail.
I, along with my co-counsel, Carol Anfinson, had just been held in contempt of court by Judge Robert Nolan. It occurred during our defense of Steve Buckley who, along with Rolando Cruz and Alex Hernandez, had been falsely accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, Illinois. It was one of the most publicized cases in Illinois history. Steve’s first trial had ended in a hung jury over a year-and-a-half earlier, and the events which led up to our being jailed happened as we were attempting to schedule a retrial date.
I paced back and forth in my cell. Have we just irretrievably screwed up Steve’s case? I wondered. No, Judge Nolan has badgered and bullied us long enough. We had to stand up to him somewhere along the line, and this was as good a place as any to dig our heels in. But how are we going to get a fair trial from that jackass now that he’s tossed us in jail?
Then I heard Carol’s voice from her cell around the corner, out of sight.
“Who’s Vasco da Gama?” “What’s the Amazon River?” I listened as she kept rattling off questions.
“Hey, what’s Carol doing over there?” I asked one of the guards.
“She’s having coffee and watching Jeopardy!”
“What the …? I want to watch Jeopardy!, too. And how about a cup of coffee for me?”
“Sorry. There’s only one TV, and we can’t let you share a cell with a female.” As if I would try to do something untoward with my co-counsel. “You can have a book,” the guard continued. There was no response to the coffee request.
He accompanied me to the lockup’s extensive library—of about seven books. I chose The Winds of War and returned to my cell. Sitting on my bunk, I tried reading, but other thoughts—selfish thoughts—began to creep in. I had hopes of someday running for state’s attorney in neighboring Kane County, and the consequences of the day’s events began to sink in.
Fantastic, I thought. I’m sure that mug shot they just took of me will make a great campaign ad for someone.
My mind eventually went back to Steve’s defense. I mostly thought about the pros and cons of trying to get Nolan off the case. The pros won.
After a little over an hour, a guard escorted me out of my cell. “We’re taking you to the new jail, where you’ll stay ’til you can post bond.” DuPage County had just built a new sheriff’s office and corrections facility a mile or so away, and that was where we were headed, but not before one more act of humiliation. I felt someone messing with my ankles and I looked down. I was being shackled.
How the hell did this happen?
Chapter 2 Boy, Have I Got a Case for You
July 1984 (28 Months Earlier)
The line of lawyers standing in front of the jury box railing, waiting their turn to have their cases called in Judge Richard Weiler’s courtroom, was already long when I walked through the courtroom door. It had been about nineteen months since I left my job as a prosecutor for the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office. I was now in private practice working as an associate in the law firm of Clancy, McGuirk and Hulce, where we concentrated in civil law—primarily personal injury. The judge allowed some quiet chatter among the waiting lawyers, ostensibly so we could resolve legal issues, while he was dealing with his business at the bench. In reality, most of the talk was social in nature.
Cliff Lund, a civil law attorney roughly my age whom I had known for about five years, was in line next to me. We exchanged greetings and he asked how things were going for me practicing civil law.
“It’s growing on me. I’m still getting used to the idea that discovery in civil cases is so much more extensive than in criminal cases, where the stakes are often much higher. I do miss the criminal work, though. I’d like to get some criminal clients, but I just haven’t been able to swing that yet.”
“Really?” Cliff paused and chuckled. “Boy, have I got a case for you!”
“No kidding? Tell me about it.”
“Well, you’ve read about the three guys charged with the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, haven’t you?”
Everyone in the Chicago area knew about the Nicarico case. On February 25, 1983, ten-year-old Jeanine stayed home sick from school in unincorporated Naperville, Illinois. Since her two sisters were also in school, and both her parents worked, she was home alone. In the afternoon, she was kidnapped out of her house. Her body was discovered by hikers two days later on the Illinois Prairie Path. A reward was offered and authorities pleaded for people with information to come forward.
Over a year later, on March 8, 1984, three young men—Stephen Buckley, Alejandro “Alex” Hernandez and Rolando Cruz—from the east side of Aurora, a large Chicago suburb adjoining Naperville to the west—were indicted for Jeanine’s murder, as well as for kidnapping and sexual assault related offenses. The prosecution was seeking the death penalty for all three. The press coverage was extensive, and all of it was bad.
Although I was familiar with the public accounts of the case, I had not followed it all that closely. I thought it was odd that indictments were obtained more than a year after the offense, but less than two weeks before the Republican primary—at that time, the only competitive part of the election process in Republican-rich DuPage County—in which the incumbent DuPage County State’s Attorney, J. Michael Fitzsimmons, was in the political fight of his life. As a matter of fact, Fitzsimmons went on to lose that primary to Jim Ryan, who would later also play a very significant role in the Nicarico case. I suspected politics had played a part in the indictments and I told Cliff that.
Cliff had represented one of Steve Buckley’s sisters in the past and was in touch with the family. “The Buckleys are looking for private counsel to defend Steve. If you’re interested, I definitely can get you involved. We could try the case together.”
Interested?! I could barely contain myself. It was a chance to do the case of a lifetime. Plus, I would get to work with Cliff, a lawyer I held in high esteem. We immediately planned our initial steps. Over the next few days, I ran the proposition past the partners at my firm and they were supportive. Cliff conferred with the Buckleys, also with positive results. I called Steve’s public defender, Ed Ward, and told him what was transpiring. Ed discussed the evidence with me and he didn’t seem too unhappy at the prospect of private lawyers taking over the case.
Cliff and I visited Steve at the DuPage County Jail. It wasn’t a lengthy visit, but it was enough for us to get a sense of our almost-new client. A 21-year-old high school dropout, Steve lived at home with his parents. He was the youngest of five children who had all been raised in a rough area on the east side of Aurora. He had a criminal history that included a burglary and a misdemeanor theft. His father, John, who had retired from Commonwealth Edison after spending more than 30 years there, was in poor health as the result of a couple of strokes. Steve’s mom, Marilyn, was a homemaker. Steve came from a good family but a bad neighborhood.
I liked Steve from the get-go. He was open, direct and smarter than his lack of formal education let on. And when he told us, in very blunt terms, he had absolutely nothing to do with what had occurred to Jeanine Nicarico, I tended to believe him. This initial sense of his innocence would solidify as we got further into the case.
Things were happening quickly. Everything was ready for Cliff and me to file our appearances—the formal method of a lawyer declaring representation of a party. Then reality began to set in. As I dug into the case, I got the feeling that we were about to grab a tiger by the tail. Never in my life, as it turns out, has one of my gut instincts been more spot-on.
“I have a feeling this thing is even bigger than it appears, and that it’ll go on for years to come,” I confided to my wife, Amy. She, too, supported my representing Steve. But we just had our first child six months earlier and I wanted her to be aware that any estimates of the amount of time this would consume were a little fuzzy. I had a similar conversation in a second meeting with the law firm partners. All agreed that, while the case would involve a substantial commitment, I was probably overstating its extent. Everyone was on board.
There was only one hurdle left to overcome. I was 31 years old. Although I had prosecuted some serious crimes during the latter part of my four years at the state’s attorney’s office, my defense trial experience consisted of one DUI bench trial. What qualified me, or Cliff for that matter, to represent a client in a case like this?
I was afraid.
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