Aurora attorney’s true-crime memoir reviews his work on Nicarico case
It was Nov. 12, 1986, and attorney Gary Johnson was locked up in the DuPage County jail, shackles around his ankles.
Johnson and his co-counsel had been held in contempt of court for pushing a judge too hard in trying to get a second trial scheduled for their client, Stephen Buckley, one of three men charged with the February 1983 kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.
The judge, Johnson thought to himself, had “badgered and bullied us long enough. We had to stand up to him somewhere along the line.”
But Johnson also wondered if his actions jeopardized his client’s freedom and torpedoed his future aspirations for Kane County state’s attorney. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked himself.
The scene of Johnson in a jail cell — lobbying guards for a cup of coffee and a book — is the first chapter of his upcoming book “Luck is a Talent.”
Johnson, an Aurora defense attorney and Kane County state’s attorney from 1988 to 1992, said about 75 percent of the true-crime memoir is his courtroom and personal experiences defending Buckley, with some other anecdotes sprinkled in.
“Over the years, funny things happen. I’d tell my wife (Amy) and she’d say, ‘You’ve got to write a book,'” Johnson said. “What I did is throw back the curtain a little bit on the life of a criminal defense attorney.”
Johnson’s crime memoir is from his point of view and doesn’t contain any bombshells or revelations about the Jeanine Nicarico murder case — one of the most notorious slayings and subsequent courtroom battles in suburban history. He leaves that to other authors and investigative journalists.
“It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation, trial and aftermath,” said Johnson, who will donate proceeds from the book to Collens’s Dream Foundation, an organization named after family friend Colleen Drury, who died in 2013 from ovarian cancer. The group raises money for cancer research.
In his preface, Johnson stresses he is not trying to detract from or make light of the tragic circumstances regarding the Nicarico case and court trials.
Jeanine was abducted from her parents’ house while home sick from school. She was raped and murdered, and her body was found two days later on the Illinois Prairie Path, a crime that shocked and terrified the community.
Three men were charged with her abduction, rape and murder. A jury in 1985 convicted Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez but was split on Buckley, who was Johnson’s client.
Charges against Buckley were dismissed in 1987, and Cruz and Hernandez eventually were cleared. In 2009, Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to Jeanine’s murder and was sentenced to death.
“I’m pretty open about the things I didn’t do so well and pretty open about the things I did well. I am always willing to admit my mistakes,” said Johnson, who noted a cross examination he did on a shoeprint expert in Buckley’s trial was a disaster. “It was just horrible. He came out better after the cross-examination than before.”
Johnson said he did well in his closing argument, as well as locating his own shoeprint experts in the case.
Clifford Lund, who was Johnson’s co-counsel and has read the book, said it shows the sacrifices Johnson made, personally and politically, in the case, as well as his hard work.
“He was tireless in defending them. I could tell he had real talent,” Lund recalled.
Johnson also tries to explain legal concepts in everyday terms and is critical of prosecutors in the Nicarico case because he believes they weren’t true to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct.
Seven law enforcement officers and prosecutors, known as the “DuPage 7,” were charged with conspiracy and misconduct in framing Cruz but later found not guilty after a trial in the late 1990s.
The book will be published by Can’t Miss Press/State Street Publishing of Elgin, available on Amazon and its own website. In addition to his personal recollections, Johnson re-creates scenes using official courtroom transcripts.
“It’s about my experience in that (Buckley) case and various other experiences that are connected to it,” said Johnson, who added that the book’s title was inspired by a quote from W. Somerset Maugham. “I’ve been lucky, there’s no question about it. By the same token, you make your own luck.”