Man freed from prison after reversal of murder conviction of Johnsburg Ill. teen suing for “millions”

Mario Casciaro – convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison for the 2002 murder of a Johnsburg Ill. teen and later released – is suing those who brought on his conviction for “millions” of dollars.

After two murder trials, the first ending in a hung jury, Casciaro, 33,
was convicted in 2013 for the murder of 17-year-old Brian Carrick in a mysterious case that has rattled the quiet far northwest town.

The jury found Casciaro guilty of the rarely used charge of murder with intimidation, meaning he set into motion the events that led to Carrick’s death.

Carrick worked as a stock boy at a grocery store across the street from his home on Johnsburg Road. He was a well-liked boy who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with 13 siblings.

The store, at the time named “Val’s Finer Foods” was partially owned by the Casciaro family. Authorities have long said that Casciaro sold pot from the grocery store and used Carrick as one of his dealers.

During both trials, a third co-worker, Shane Lamb the alleged “muscle” of the operation according to prosecutors, said Casciaro summoned him to the store on the night of Dec. 20 2002 to “talk” to Carrick about a drug dealing debt.

The confrontation turned violent and Lamb testified that he punched Carrick knocking him unconscious on the floor inside a produce cooler. He said Casciaro told him to leave the store and he would take care of the body.

Lamb said he never saw Carrick again.

Carrick’s blood was located in an around the cooler area and on boxes in a dumpster outside the store – but his body has never been found.

Rumors of his disappearance and presumed murder swirled around the small town nestled near the Wisconsin border for nearly a decade before Casciaro’s arrest.

In 2010, while facing a lengthy prison term in an unrelated drug case, Lamb — with a growing rap sheet who gave varying accounts to authorities over the years of what happened to Carrick — was given a deal to testify against Casciaro in exchange for immunity.

But, in a nationalized television program, while in jail facing weapons charges, Lamb recanted the tale he told on the stand twice and accused prosecutors of telling him what to say to convict Casciaro — accusations prosecutors vehemently deny.

About a year later, Casciaro was released from prison after an appellate court ruled that the state’s case was improbable and Lamb’s testimony did not match the physical evidence found at the scene.

The appellate judges also believed Casciaro’s lawyer Kathleen Zellner who asserted there was blood evidence and testimony that the jury never heard that did not match up with Lamb’s story. She claims blood evidence shows Carrick died not by a punch and fall to the cold, concrete floor, but by a knife wound to the neck.

Zellner pointed the finger at another store employee, whose blood also was found in and around the cooler. In earlier police interviews this man was asked why his blood would be found in the cooler and he said he often bit his nails low and he would bleed. This man was never charged with the murder and had died of a drug overdose while staying in a halfway house sometime between the two trials. In 2008, he was charged with concealment in the case but those charges were later dropped.

In the lawsuit, Casciaro is seeking monetary damages from Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs, McHenry County and the entire McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office, as well as Johnsburg Police Chief Keith Von Allmen, the city of Johnsburg and the entire Johnsburg Police Department.

In the lawsuit, Zellner accuses authorities of “deliberately withholding” exculpatory evidence including this other co-workers behavior in the days after Carrick went missing and his alleged absence during his work shift. She wrote that evidence was not shown to jurors that would have shone light on this man as the “actual culprit.”

The lawsuit also accuses Von Allmen of being biased in the investigation because he was friends with this man’s father. The motion further claims interviews were not reported or presented to jurors regarding witnesses where it was supposedly said that this man had “hostility” toward Carrick.

Zellner, who requested a jury trial in the civil matter, also made strong claims that Combs out of his “sheer dislike” of Casciaro “fabricated” and “concocted” the story that jurors heard Lamb testify to. She claims that authorities knew Casciaro was innocent and ignored evidence that could have been presented to jurors to show his innocence.

Zellner claims that Casciaro’s ”unjust conviction” was done “intentionally” and was a violation of his rights resulting in a loss of his freedom, emotional distress, great mental anguish … humiliation, indignities, and embarrassment … natural psychological development … personal contact .. personal fulfillment … .”

The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office firmly stands by its prosecution of Casciaro and zealously denies any wrongdoing or fabrication of any type.

Prosecutors have argued their case was not based solely on Lamb’s account of what happened that night -as Zellner asserts- but also by testimony of several other witnesses who testified that Casciaro was selling marijuana out of the store and Carrick owed him money. During the trials they identified one man who claimed he saw the two allegedly arguing that night. Prosecutors also stand by one witness who testified that Casciaro allegedly claimed that he can “make people disappear.” They also note to another  witness who testified that Casciaro allegedly told him a similar account of what happened the night Carrick went missing. They further point to Casciaro’s own alleged unaccounted for whereabouts for a period of time that night and his own inconsistent stories and behavior during police interviews as disinterested and arrogant.

Authorities in the case say they are not surprised by the latest motion.

“We knew this was coming,” said McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally who along with Combs prosecuted Casciaro. “This is an opportunistic lawsuit filed on behalf of a defendant convicted of felony murder by a McHenry County jury. The allegations in the lawsuit, while imaginative, are entirely without merit. We are eager for our day in court to prove where the real injustice lies and, once again, the sad truth about what happened to Brian Carrick in 2002.”

Casciaro’s release was held up by the Illinois Supreme Court which denied the state’s objection.

Casciaro, who is currently attending law school, also is seeking a certificate of innocence from the county. In an earlier court hearing Kenneally passionately argued that just because the appellate court ruled there was not sufficient evidence to convict Casciaro “beyond a reasonable doubt” that  is a “far cry from declaring him innocent.”  This matter will be back in court May 11.

Carrick’s parents, William and Terry, both have died not knowing what happened to their son or allowed the opportunity to properly bury or grieve him.

Neither Von Allmen nor Carrick’s family could be reached for comment.

In past statements, a family member of the co-worker on whom Zellner places the blame for Carrick’s death, has strongly defended his innocence. He was not identified by name in this story because he was not charged with murder, never testified in the Casciaro case and has since died.  The relative and the man’s former lawyer have voiced strong opposition and disgust with this man being used as a “scapegoat” in Carrick’s death, and have asked that his name not continue to be tarnished.  The female relative has described this man as a son, brother and father and proclaimed he had nothing to do with Carrick’s murder.

Johnsburg Illinois missing boy’s mystery continues: 12 years later no real answers, plenty of theories, peace for no one

While one attorney prepares a new trial for Shane Lamb, a key witness in the notorious 12-year-old Johnsburg missing person’s case, another attorney works to free the man she says was wrongfully convicted based on Lamb’s testimony.

Last week, a private attorney out of DuPage County working pro bono for Lamb who is being held in the McHenry County jail on $300,000 bond, filed motions before Judge Sharon Prather in preparation for Lamb’s January trial. De Luca is asking for a change in venue, disqualification the state’s attorney’s office from prosecuting Lamb and suppression of the line up in which Lamb was identified by a witness.

Lamb, charged with residential burglary, possession of stolen firearms and being an  “armed habitual criminal,” is facing upwards of about 40 years in prison if found guilty.  He is accused of stealing a safe from the McHenry  home of an acquaintance.  The safe, which has not yet been recovered, contained a number of guns and rounds of ammunition.

But Lamb’s story in the McHenry County courtroom began years earlier.

Besides his first felony conviction for attempted murder at the age of 14, and multiple convictions for drugs and battery charges — Lamb is best known locally as the star witness whose testimony landed Mario Casciaro, of  Fox Lake, in prison for 26 years for the 2002 murder of Brian Carrick, 17.

Lamb has recently recanted his story and claims to have been coached on what to say on camera in exchange for full immunity in Carrick’s disappearance and presumed death by chief of the criminal division for McHenry County Michael Combs.

Casciaro, 31, who sits in Menard Correctional Center, stood trial twice for the murder of Brian Carrick who worked with him in his family’s Johnsburg grocery store.

The first trial in 2012 ended in mistrial. In 2013 Casciaro was found guilty of first-degree murder by intimidation, what legal experts say is a rare conviction.

In both trials the case weighed predominately on Lamb’s testimony. Lamb, 30, said under oath that Casciaro was selling drugs in the small town by using kids like himself and Carrick.

When Carrick owed Casciaro a drug debt of nearly $500, Lamb said on Friday night Dec. 20, 2002, Casciaro called him to the store as the “enforcer” of the drug operation to help collect the money.

Lamb told two juries he argued with Carrick inside a produce cooler at the store and became violent when the boy argued back. Lamb testified he punched Carrick out cold. He said Carrick, who had a known heart condition for which he had open heart surgery when he was 10, “fell out.”

Lamb said he went down backward into the cooler bleeding and unconscious. Casciaro then told him to leave, which he did, and he never saw Carrick again. Lamb said that over the years he would ask Casciaro what happened to Carrick to which Casciaro would respond “don’t worry about it,” or “keep your mouth shut.”

Carrick’s body has never been found.

Lamb, who said he never meant to kill or hurt Carrick, maintained throughout both trials that he would not have been at the store that night had Casciaro not called him.

But today, Lamb, facing serious prison time on his new theft charges, said he lied on the stand in both trials.

He now claims he was never at the store that night and Casciaro also has no knowledge of what happened to Carrick. He further claims that Combs coached him on what to say in order to convict Casciaro.

Jonathan Masur,  law professor at the University of Chicago law school, said in order for Casciaro to be granted a new trial or be released from prison the judge first must believe Lamb’s new tale, but it’s likely she won’t.

“I have pages of law books littered with key witnesses who have later recanted their testimony and courts that have refused to believe the new information,” Masur said.

“If the judge is convinced that what (Lamb) is saying right now is correct … this is momentous this is enormously important,” Masur said.  “(Casciaro) could very well be released and get a new trial at which he might very well be acquitted. “If what (Lamb) is saying is truthful, then the police and prosecutors involved have committed crimes.”

But Masur added it is a “very big if” whether Prather will believe Lamb’s recantation. Prather, the presiding judge in both trials and other court matters related to this case, knows the history and the evidence.

Over the years, Lamb has been on record telling different stories about Carrick’s disappearance. In 2004 and 2006 he is documented as saying he knew nothing about the night Carrick disappeared. In 2007, Lamb told a Grand Jury he knew nothing about Carrick’s disappearance. In 2010, facing unrelated drug charges, he received his immunity deal, and under oath, gave the story that resulted in Casciaro’s conviction.

Additionally, Masur said, Lamb could lose his immunity and be indicted for murder.

“This sort of thing happens (frequently) and the judge might very well believe (Lamb) is now lying because he has very little to lose by lying,” Masur said citing Lamb’s latest case for which he is facing a decades-long prison sentence.  “The judge could think he is lying (now) trying to do (Casciaro) a favor.”

Combs rebuked Lamb’s accusations saying they are “illogical.” He vehemently denies ever being alone with Lamb. He equally discounts the assertion he ever coached him in anyway. “That is not plausible.” Combs said he has a sworn affidavit from Lamb’s former lawyer supporting his truthfulness.

In August, Lamb calling Combs a “bully” rejected a plea deal in his current case.

Lamb’s attorney, De Luca said Lamb is now telling the truth.

“He’s got nothing to gain. … He’s got everything to lose, everything, he’s (facing) a murder indictment,” De Luca said.

De Luca said Lamb never believed that his testimony would convict Casciaro and now feels responsible for him being in prison and wants to help get him freed. De Luca said Lamb has told him that on the night Carrick disappeared he was “at a party all night” and that, Casciaro never called him and that he never went back to the store. However, during both trials Lamb’s sworn testimony was corroborated by witnesses. One man said that after a night of drinking in 2006, he asked Casciaro what happened to Carrick. The man testified at both trials that Casciaro told him the very story that Lamb told on the stand in both trials. Another man said he argued with Casciaro in a bar one night and Casciaro told him he’d better watch it because he “makes people disappear.”

Kathleen Zellner, Casciaro’s appellate attorney, discounts these witnesses’ testimony alleging they had deals with prosecutors to tell their stories. Zellner also claims Casciaro’s attorneys were not given all the evidence or names of witnesses in the case.

Calling the allegations “ridiculous” Combs said Casciaro’s defense attorneys had knowledge of all evidence and witnesses since 2007 when he was charged with perjury in connection with Carrick’s disappearance. Casciaro was acquitted of those charges.

Zellner theorizes that another employee, Rob Render, attacked Carrick with a box cutter, shoved his body into a garbage can and rolled the can out back of the store. She said someone later would have come to pick up the garbage can and dispose of the boy’s body.

But Combs, who said Render is being used by the Casciaros as a “scapegoat” counters Zellner’s theory as “idiotic, to say a 17-year-old kid without a car could dispose of a body.”

An attorney who represented Render in 2008 when he was charged with concealment of a homicide in Carrick’s disappearance– charges that later were dropped — said Zellner’s accusations are “unconscionable.”

“He was a junky, he was a stoner … he had a difficult childhood,” said George Kililis. “Otherwise he was a very gentle kid, he was kind … there was not a bad bone in his body. This is the kind of kid who would never hurt anyone.”

Kililis completely discounts Zellner’s theory and said he will always defend Render’s innocence. He said her theory is implausible pointing out that there is no way Render, a small framed boy at the time, could have secretly disposed of Carrick’s body and cleaned up all the blood that would have spilled from Carrick had he been sliced with a knife.

He said the shadow of Carrick’s death followed Render throughout his life and likely led to his heroin overdose in 2012.

“He told me privately part of the reason he turned to heroin was because he could never get away from this as much as he tired,” Kililis said. “Everybody thought he knew something about this, they tortured this kid. … I want them to leave my guy alone in his grave … I want them to leave him alone.”

Zellner and Combs recently entered an “agreed order” to have clothing items tested for DNA that had been retrieved from Render’s garbage can by a surveillance team six days after Carrick went missing.

“I have nothing to hide so I will not oppose testing,” Combs said.

Zellner had hoped to have a pair of “soiled” underwear also tested for DNA. She believed that the underwear would link authorities to whoever murdered Carrick. Authorities said the underwear were found above a ceiling tile in the bathroom of the grocery store.

However, the underwear won’t be tested because they no longer exist, authorities have said.

“We are outraged that the (Johnsburg Police Department) threw out the most crucial piece of evidence in this case so far, the bloody underwear,” Casciaro’s sister Julia Casciaro-Mulle wrote in a letter. “We strongly believe that the DNA testing of this underwear could clear Mario. We want to know what happened to it.”

Combs said this should have come as no surprise to the Casciaros.

“The Casciaro family has known that underwear has been gone for seven years because their attorney was provided that information in discovery in 2007 when (Cassciaro) was charged with perjury,” Comb said.

Zellner said she and Combs have met and discussed the case.

“The more cooperation there is the more likely we are to get to the truth of what happened,” Zellner said.

At a later date Zellner said she will file an amended petition for post conviction relief in McHenry County based, in part on Lamb’s new story. She also is appealing Casciaro’s conviction in the Second District Appellate Court based. This appeal is, in part, based on forensic evidence from the 2013 trial. She claims, among other allegations, that the blood patterns found do not match what experts say would have happened had Carrick been punched. Zellner believes the murder did not happen in the cooler as authorities have maintained for more than a decade, but that it happened in the hallway leading to a back exit door.

Rob Render Senior testified at trial that his son came home that night right after work and never went back out. A fellow co-worker who drove Render home that night said he did not notice blood or cuts on Render.  Though defense attorneys pointed to him throughout the first trial, Render Jr. had never been called to testify. He died of a heroin overdose before the second trial.

Zellner says Casciaro was accounted for throughout the evening, while Render was missing for two hours, and Render’s blood was found inside the cooler.

Combs said there were a couple “very, very” tiny drops of Render’s blood found and that there is no way of knowing how old that blood was. Combs also said that no one ever claimed to have seen Render bleeding that night. In fact, Combs said, Casciaro under sworn testimony before a Grand Jury, said he never saw any blood or cuts on Render that night.

Masur described what Combs did in this case, as “extraordinary and completely within legal bounds.”

“It is rare for a crime like intimidation to be used as the underlying felony,” he said.
The charge is a way to “rope in people who were peripheral pieces to this murder.”
He said likely Combs believed Casciaro “was a really bad guy.”

After Lamb recanted his story the Carrick family was contacted. A sibling said the family has no comment. Bill Carrick, Brian’s father, still lives in the family home across the road from the grocery store where his son was last seen alive.

Lamb’s next court date is Dec. 12. Casciaro’s attorneys are expected back in the McHenry Courtroom in January.

To learn more on the case visit link (below) to ABC 2020 feature “Mystery on Johnsburg Road.”;_ylt=AwrBT8dGAWxUbb0AcwJXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTB0bjAxNjdrBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2JmMQR2dGlkA1ZJUDIyN18x?p=abc+mystery+on+johnsburg+road