Friday, November 20, 2009


Ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was murdered by serial killer Brian Dugan in 1983. Last week, a Chicago area jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

By Shane Gericke

If I were a tree, what kind of tree would I be . . .

Ah. Right. I should get onto The Topic. Which is, "If I wrote nonfiction, what kind of nonfiction would I write?"

Nonfiction. Right. Um, let's see ...

Well, it's a good question. I was a newspaperman for twenty five years, primarily at the Chicago Sun-Times, before I drank the Kool-Aid that is thriller writing. (What color would that be, wild cherry?) I was good at journalism and I liked it a lot, with its hustle and drama and show-tune-singing crazy people. (And that was just the reporters.) So yes, this is a darn good question, what would I write if not fiction, I’m sure glad we decided to pose it . . .

Hmm. Have I tap-danced long enough to figure out an answer? No? All righty then: I wish the Apple MacBook I'm writing this on came with a real delete key, not just a backspace button labeled "delete." It's a pain in the ass not having a real delete that kills letters in front of the cursor, not just behind it . . .

Sigh. Even I'm getting annoyed with myself for not getting to the point. Which is, what would I write if I were limited to nonfiction?

Easy: I'd write about serial killers.

Precisely like the one I'm going to write about today, in fact. His name is Brian Dugan. He killed the young lady in the photo at the top of this blog, strangled her after kidnapping her from her house, raping her, and beating her. She was found a few days later, by herself, on a lonely walking trail just a few miles from her two-story home in unincorporated Naperville, Illinois—the city I’ve lived in most of my adult life. The young lady’s name is Jeanine Nicarico. She was 10 when she died in 1983, with brown hair, break-your-heart eyes, and a love of horses and reading . . .

But I can’t tell you about it now, because I promised to write about nonfiction. I’ll get back to Dugan, I promise. Now, what would I write if it wasn’t serial killer and limited to nonfiction …

I’d blind you with science.

No, not that that icky high-school stuff with equations and titrations and endless filmstrips about Our Natural World Around Us. I want to write about


Capitalized with exclamation marks, please. The swashbuckling derring-do that hunts terrorists, smashes infectious disease, unearths water on the moon and life on other planets, even if those planets aren't Pluto, which was recently downgraded to, uh, other than a planet, the bastards. I'd write about explorers and poison hemlock, the Science!!! That fires imagination every bit as much as thriller novels.

Like the kind James Rollins writes.

Jim writes adventure fiction based in science. (Think: Indiana Jones, archeologist, scholar and treasure hunter.) He took us to the dark heart of the Amazon forest in AMAZONIA. He dug out an arctic ice station full of macabre WWII secrets in ICE HUNT. He tackled bioengineering and the Oracle of the Delphi in THE LAST ORACLE, and introduced us to a real Russian lake, Lake Karachay, which is so saturated with Cold War radiation it’s considered the single deadliest place on the planet.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about, Bucky: Science!!! Life with a felt hat and bullwhip. But me, I'd write the real stories behind them. In high school I entertained serious notion of becoming a virus hunter, chasing those tiny microbes that made people bleed from all their openings—ebola, anthrax, plague. But I stunk in math, and you had to be a mathematician to be a scientist, even a Lantern-Jawed Germ Warrior. Fortunately for me, writing was a compelling second choice, so I became a newspaper reporter and editor, then a Writer of Crime Fiction, Available In Fine Bookstores Everywhere.

But still, now and again, I itch to dive into the natural artesian well at Pilcher Park in Joliet, Illinois. I heard some magical stories about the well growing up, like if you jumped inside you'd plunge into a rushing underground river that dumped out in China, or at least Detroit. It fascinated me so much I told my father we should jump in together, swim the river and map and photograph so we’d know exactly where it came from and how it worked.

But Dad just smiled and said:

“Some things should remain mysteries, I think. If you know it works, it doesn’t enchant you any more."

Well said, and true. Still, I'd rather take apart a freezer then wonder if gerbils really did run on treadmills to provide the electricity. (They don't, and I can prove it. I took apart the family freezer one lazy afternoon, with a screwdriver and Crescent wrench. I was still at it when Dad got home from work. He didn't yell as I'd expected, seeing those flanges and screws and metal panels strewn across the floor. He liked that I was curious about innards. We did put it back together right away, though. Spoil the Easter ham and all.)

Another time I took apart a vacuum cleaner. I had the whole thing in pieces, nozzle to exhaust, but couldn’t get into the housing protecting the motor. No screws, access panel or seam. A hammer took care of that, though, bang crash. The noise brought Mom running, and when she spied my mess, she asked, Where’d you get that vacuum? It’s from school, I said. A teacher knew I love taking things apart, and said I could have her broken-down old canister vac, cause she was throwing it out anyway. Mom said all right, went back to her ironing.

How were we to know what I’d just whammo’d my grade school’s brand spanking new commercial upright vacuum? And did I mention, brand-new and expensive? (Our district was rural and poor, so this was a Really Big Deal purchase by the school board.

Well, that’s when the principal drove up. He saw the mess I was pounding out and shrieked. Maybe it was a whimper. Either way, he put his head in both hands and rocked.

I’d taken home the wrong vacuum, he told Mom. The janitor had put the expensive new upright in one corner of the building. Meantime, the teacher had put her shot-to-hell canister in another corner … one the same exact day. What are the odds, right? She said to grab the vacuum and haul it home, do what I wanted with it. So, I did …

They didn't make my parents pay, which is good. Dad was a small-town police and Mom a homemaker, and together they made so little money every dime went into mortgage and food. But they wanted to do the right thing, and offered the principal five dollars a week till the thing got paid off in, oh, 2037.

But the school board said, aw, hell, shit happens, we'll charge it off to insurance. (These days, they’d file suit, call SWAT, and send me to an alternative school. But that’s a different story.) It probably didn’t hurt that the principal saw the humor in the whole thing.

So now it’s time for the second part of today’s story …


Brian Dugan didn't say kee-an-tee. But he should have--he killed so many people you'd think he was the embodiment of Hannibal Lecter, the Frankenstein of American serial killdom.

Mostly, he looked like a librarian.

That's not a slam against librarians. As the saying goes, some of my best friends are librarians. But librarians just look so ... regular.

As did Brian Dugan, killer of children.

I sat in a courtroom the other day to hear the defense argue that Dugan should live out his life in prison, as opposed to being injected with heart, lung and nerve poison in the close quarters of Death Row. I took notes as the day wore on, and here’s my report:

Dugan was quiet and bookish, and extraordinary in his ordinariness: gray shirt, dark slacks, glasses, and brown hair with a graying wing over each ear. The hair was carefully slicked back, a la Mike Ditka in his glory years with the Bears. The glasses were not round but round-ish, and reflected the overhead lights of DuPage County Courtroom 4000, where the death penalty hearings were being held. His lawyers wore expensive suits and nicely polished shoes. So did the prosecutors. The reporters looked scruffy, as reporters do. The jury wore denim, fuzzy pink sweaters, and Dockers with pleats.

The spacious courtroom contained four guards: two in front with Dugan, one in the gallery with us, and one outside the door, looking over visitors as they arrived. They were sheriff's deputies, armed to the hilt, and forearms the size of Popeye's. Circuit Court Judge George Bakalis presided, leaning Larry King-like over his elevated judge's desk. Pat Nicarico, Jeanine's mom, wore a dark turtleneck under a jacket, muted checked slacks, short heels without backs, and expertly applied makeup. Tom Nicarico, Jeanine's dad, had on brown pants and a green checked sportcoat. He had no makeup. Tom and Pat attended every single trial and hearing in the twenty-five-year-old case, and today's was no exception--if it involved their daughter, they were there. When the verdict was announced, they cried. They said it was tears of joy.

The only one-one-one moment I had with Dugan was when I entered the room. He'd noticed the movement, and we locked eyes. Predators try to stare you down to establish they’re the king of that particular jungle. I stared back. Eventually he made an expression of slight amusement, and turned away, diving into the paperwork his defense lawyers had in abundance. The judge came in, we all rose and sat, the lawyers did The Legal Dance without shouting, objections or hurling objects. ("Thrilling courtroom drama” is found only in novels.) Then the bailiff turned down the lights, and Dugan watched himself explain himself on the DVD his psychiatrist played for the jury, to explain what it was like Growing Up Brian.

I sat in the gallery with Tom and Pat, whom I know, if not well, than more than in passing. I raise funds for the Jeanine Nicarico Memorial Literacy Foundation, and they went out of their way to say thanks when they found out. It's a lovely thing, that foundation: When Jeanine died they and the Naperville school district thought it would be nice to have a foundation in her name, to remember her for the reading she adored, not for the Brian Dugan Freak Show. I raised money for it when I published my debut thriller, BLOWN AWAY, in 2006, and will do so again when my next book, TORN APART, comes out next July.

Brian James Dugan, killer of children.

Dugan sat in a hardback chair in the front of the courtroom, conferring with his lawyers and forensic psychiatrist while watched by the Popeyes. I studied him as the DVD got under way, and saw he had a roundish face, lightly tanned, as if he saw the sun a lot, which he didn't, being in maximum security,. His hair was thin in front, showing lots of forehead. The hair was squared off in the back, the length a shade longer than Regular Guy. His lips were thin, and he smiled subtly, as if laughing at some private joke.

Perhaps he was. The psychiatrist with the DVD was arguing that Dugan is a stone-cold psychopath with the brain scans to prove it, and that's why the jury should vote prison instead of death: his brain was damaged from childhood abuse by Mummy and Daddy, and he therefore is missing brain cells for Empathy, Sympathy and Caring. Lenience is deserved, the psychiatrist argued, it's not Brian's fault that he raped and beat and strangled Jeanine Nicarico, 10, brown hair, doe eyes, on a deserted hiking trail after kidnapping her from the family home; raped and drowned Melissa Ackerman, 7, after snatching her off her bicycle and trying and failing to grab up her equally young playmate; kidnapped, raped and drowned Donna Schnorr, 27, in a quarry after running her car off the road; kidnapped and raped another woman, 21; tried for force yet another a woman, 19, into his car, though she escaped; forced a girl, 16, into his car after threatening her with a tire iron, wrapped a belt around her neck, raped her, then inexplicably took her home; attacked and snapped the arm of a woman, 20; and is suspected of four other unsolved murders. The psychiatrist made his lenience argument with a straight face.

Hell, I'd laugh too, I was Brian.

Fortunately, the jury wasn’t buying it, and voted unanimously for The Needle. I'm glad. I shouldn’t be, as I believe capital punishment should be stricken from The American Experience. Not because it's immoral; some people simply need to die, nothing immoral about that. It should be stricken because politicians put election spins on everything they touch, particularly death penalty law, which leads to such aonishments as blacks composing 17% of the American population and 90% of Death Row; the State of Illinois exonerating more than half its Death Row prisoners on grounds of actual innocence; and the Republic of Texas almost certainly having executed an innocent man. But I freely admit I’m happy Dugan’s going to die, and yes it’s hypocritical; sue me.

This isn't a death penalty debate, though, it's about Brian Dugan and his doomed victims. So, I wouldn't have minded if the jury had voted life without parole, because then maybe Dugan would get what he really deserves: general population. In maximum-security prisons, even the hardest convicts despise those who do children. Dugan would be raped until he died, then have sharpened toothbrushes jammed into all his orifices. Surely that would represent justice for a man who raped and killed so many innocents.

Which makes me think about the lethal injection system Dugan will experience when his appeals run out, the chemicals and pumps and gurneys and straps, and how Dugan's body will slowly turn to Malt-O-Meal in the grave, which reminds me of the microbes I wanted to hunt as a kid, and of the freezer and the vacuum cleaner I took apart, and that if I didn't love writing crime fiction so much, I'd latch onto science like a starving man craves a hamburger.

But I dig my fictional cops and killers and psychos and feebs. I love the magic that happens when I spin them rich lives out of whole cloth, infuse them with the flesh and blood and brains and hearts and motivations of real people.

Maybe I should combine them, my serial killers and my science. After all, Dugan is a Certified Serial Killer with a Brain Without Pity, and he's going to die from chemistry. Maybe we could sit in a room, he and I, discuss death and physics till we're so exhausted we can't say another word . . .

Nah. The "sit in a room" part is the deal-breaker. I'd be throwing up so much I'd never take the notes I'd need to write the book. So, Brian Dugan will have to remain a mystery to me.

Meaning my father was right, after all.

Some mysteries don't need to be explored.


Shane's take: The world's largest bookseller has adopted a “poison pill” self-defense plan after an investment firm upped its stake to 16.8 percent. Swallowing poison was a common tactic in the mergers-and-acquisitions craze of the Reagan years, in order to stop corporate raiders like Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens from taking control through stock purchases, then breaking the company into itty-bitty pieces ready for fire sale. Thus, adopting this “shareholder rights plan," as BN euphemistically calls it, practically guarantees the bookseller will remain in current, friendly, hands. I was a business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980s, and watched all sorts of rape and plunderage of well-regarded but vastly unprotected corporations by these raiders. Here's the details from Publishers Weekly reporter Jim Milliot:

A few days after it was revealed that investor Ron Burkle’s investment firm, Yucaipa Companies, had upped its stake in Barnes & Noble to 16.8%, the nation’s largest bookseller adopted a shareholder rights plan that will make it extremely difficult for any outsider to get control of the retailer. Under the plan, which B&N said was approved “in response to the recent rapid accumulation of a significant portion” of B&N stock, shareholders will receive rights to purchase shares of a new series of preferred stock in certain circumstances.

The rights plan will kick in if “a person or group,” without board approval, acquires 20 % or more of B&N’s stock or announces a tender offer that would give that party at least a 20% stake. The plan will also go into effect if a person or group already owning 20% or more of B&N stock acquires additional shares without board approval. The rights plan gives existing shareholders--except the person triggering the rights--to acquire B&N common stock at a 50% discount. The rights plan, B&N said, “is intended to protect the Company and its stockholders from efforts to obtain control of the Company that are inconsistent with the best interests of the Company and its stockholders.” It added that “consistent with Barnes & Noble's commitment to good corporate governance, the rights will expire in three years and the Company intends to submit the Rights Plan for stockholder ratification within 12 months.”

When Burkle made his SEC filing disclosing his new B&N holdings, he said he was “concerned with the adequacy and enforcement of the company’s corporate governance policies,” particularly as it pertained to the company’s purchase of B&N College Booksellers. In the filing, Burkle said his group intended to monitor B&N and communicate its views to the board as well as to potential strategic or financial partners. In approving the rights plan, Burkle received a clear message from the company whose largest shareholder remains founder Len Riggio.

National bestselling thrillerist--Like that? I made it up!--Shane Gericke writes the Emily Thompson/Marty Benedetti crime series, which brings serial killers to Shane's hometown of Naperville, Illinois, to cross swords with Emily, a Naperville Police detective. His debut, BLOWN AWAY, was RT Book Review's Debut Mystery of the Year back in '06, and has been translated into Slavic, Turkish, Chinese, and German. CUT TO THE BONE, his followup, won no awards but has picked up a German translation deal, which is very cool. The third in the series, TORN APART, will hit the shelves July 6, 2010, just in time for ThrillerFest V, the New York-based literary festival of which Shane is the proud chairman.


PK the Bookeemonster said...

Your post -- both stories -- were fabulous. Thank you.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

The only problem with satisfying our urge for vengeance is that we don't learn a damn thing about how to find the next serial killer *before* he has a body count that would put Rambo to shame. We don't learn why JoeBob survives a childhood compared to Auschwitz and lives a life of complete peace while BobbyJoe takes the compartmentalization he learned to survive predatory parents and turns it on innocent children. Science is a slow and frustrating process, especially behavior science. Much less satisfying than the nuclear option...

Most humans are capable of learning the kind of compartmentalization required to survive long term traumas, the same kind of compartmentalization that serial killers use (and a few lucky victims have had the instincts to breach, saving themselves). Finding out why (what is it, 1 in a million? 1 in ten million? 50 million?) of us become serial killers when the rest of us don't could pay off in a lot of different arenas.

That said, in our neck of the woods a convicted child killer was released and promptly killed another child and her mother to cover it up. He killed himself during the attempt to arrest him. And everyone wants to know how it was he did such a short stretch for the first murder. I'm not really sorry he's gone, either...

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Shane. And I feel exactly the same way. I recognize the fallacy of allowing the state to kill people--and the dangers it has and does represent to society and the innocent people the act claims to protect .... and at the same time, am relieved that one more walking case of evil is going to die.

The whole "missing brain cells" thing just infuriates me. Evil is evil ... and for some things there is no scientific explanation.

[Like you, I wanted to be a scientist for most of my childhood and adolescence ... actually was accepted as a chem major at UC San Diego, and thought about becoming a cosmochemist.]

Thanks for a profound read today, my friend.


Jen Forbus said...

I feel the same way Kelli does. I see all the problems with Capital Punishment and understand that right now - and maybe forever - those outweigh the benefits. But I also don't believe in this idea that because he's a pyschopath and "supposedly" doesn't know better he should be pardoned for his crimes. That's like saying cancer cells don't know any better than to attack the body, so they should be left to do their damage. Sometimes it just needs to be annihilated for the good of the whole.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, PK. They took awhile to write, being so involved, but I was glad to have done it.

Mysti, I couldn't agree more about vengeance getting in the way of research. It's one of the other reasons (besides the politicians always screwing things up) I'm against capital punishment--if the killers are dead, we can't figure out how these folks tick.

That said, in my experience, serial killer are easy to understand. They kill because they like it, period. Their brains aren't damaged, they don't hear voices; they drown little girls because they get a kick out of it, and they keep doing it because it's fun.

I once heard a great way to separate truly insane killers from the rest: if they would butcher someone in front of an armed police officer, then they are insane and should be treated as such, with compassion and hospitalization. If they wouldn't kill their victim in front of a cop, then they're not insane, they're doing it for fun, and should be locked in a steel house with three hots and a cot.

Shane Gericke said...

Thank you, Kelli, for the "profound read" and other nice thoughts. Tis appreciated. And a chem major? Kewl!

Shane Gericke said...

And a hearty thank-you to you too, Jen :-) Seems we have a consensus: the death penalty is wrong for a bunch of reasons, but some viruses just need exterminating so we really don't mind too much. Though the Illinois experience--letting more than half of Death Row out because they were not just wrongly convicted but innocent, as proved by DNA and other means--does convince me we've surely executed innocent men throughout our history, and will do it again. So, the kill madness must stop on both sides, predator and state.

Though that conviction won't keep me from being hypocritical about the whole thing :-)

Kaye Barley said...

Terrific post, Shane. Sorry I'm late getting here!!!

The very fact of such evil in the guise of someone "human" is, frankly, more than my brain is able to wrap itself around.

I find myself retreating from the news more and more - for a wealth of reason; stories like the Nicarico family being one of them. By the time I'm really old and really grey, I'll be the consummate "ignorance is bliss" woman.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Kaye, for your as-always-eloquent commentary. It IS difficult to wrap your head around such evil. I saw Dugan in court, and he's just so damn ordinary looking, he could be a work colleague, or a neighbor. How does one jump from "regular guy-ness" to killing all those women? There really is evil in the world, and they don't all look like gang-bangers with tattoos of guns on their faces.