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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Two Decades in the Trenches -- May 3, 2013

Twenty years ago on April 28th, my cousin and I were rehabbing a large older home in Chicago. For lunch we took a break from our work and decided to eat at our grandparents' house which was not too far away. On the same city block lived my cousin's friend and he just happened to be outside. I stopped the car and he asked if we would give him a ride. Scott had poor timing and soon after my cousin let him in the car I noticed an odd white van parked further down the block. It was obviously a stakeout vehicle and I was not surprised it followed us. For the last week there had been continuous news reporting of my former friend's arrest for a murder along with speculation of his involvement in the infamous Browns Chicken Massacre. I was living with my friend at the time of the mass murder and assumed police would want to question me. However, what I did not know was that he and his wife had accused me of those murders and a few others.

I kept an eye on the van through my rear view mirror. Another vehicle seemed also to join in tailing my car, but I was not concerned. I assumed they were just conducting surveillance particularly when I drove from a quiet residential neighborhood into a busy commercial part of Chicago. I was rather shocked when I stopped at a traffic light and saw unmarked squad cars had boxed me in and numerous gun wielding police jumped out. They shouted at us to put our hands in the air and then to exit the vehicle. With a swarm of laser scope dots focused on our bodies, I was not certain what to do: take my hands down to shift my car into park and open the door, or keep my hands up in the air. These cops acted as if they were going to shoot me from multiple directions and reaching for the gear shift knob did not seem like a wise idea. I compromised and opened the door without changing gears. Immediately, I was grabbed and yanked out of my car, thrown face down on the asphalt and handcuffed behind my back. Later, in the back of an unmarked police car, an FBI agent told me I was lucky to be alive. After enduring 20 years in captivity, however, I know now I was not lucky at all.

Two police officers drove me to a secret location in the northwest suburbs to be interrogated. Sergeant John Koziol was a central figure in the Palatine Task Force which had been assembled to capture the perpetrator or perpetrators of the Palatine murders. The last I heard he was Palatine's chief of police, but he has probably retired now. The other man was deputy John Robertson and he was an investigator from the Cook County State's Attorneys Office. He had been involved in other high profile murder cases including the Dowaliby case where a mother and father were wrongfully prosecuted for the killing of their daughter.

I did not know anything about the police driving me out of the city at the time. All I knew was two large sized plain clothes cops were pretending to be my friends and acting like everything was cool. Koziol turned around and addressed me as "Vik," short for Viktor, a name most of my friends called me. He tried engaging me in small talk mentioning things like the Arlington Race Track where my friend Bob loved to gamble. I was also asked where I wanted to stop for lunch. I considered saying, "Yeah, stop at the Brown's Chicken Restaurant. Extra crispy, all white meat m-f-er."

At the Rolling Meadows Police Department, I was put in a small white cinder block interrogation room. It was about the size of my cell and on one wall it had what was obviously a 2-way mirror. I told John Koziol immediately when he was arresting me that I wanted a lawyer, and on the trip out of the city I largely ignored both of them. Their attempts to establish rapport was in vain. I may have autism, but I was not stupid. I knew my constitutional rights and there was no way I was going to waive them. It was apparent by the way I was arrested that they sought much more than background information on my former roommate. These men were not my friends and I had no intention of speaking with them. When they came back in the room with a sandwich and a drink, I told them they could keep it. I was not talking to them and again insisted I wanted a lawyer. The amiable facade quickly went away and I was told frankly by John Robertson in a case of this magnitude I would never see an attorney until they were done questioning me. It was the beginning of a distressing two day interrogation, a long trial, and two decades of incarceration.

For hours upon hours, the two police investigators attempted to question me in tandem and separately. My refusal to speak and at times to even acknowledge their presence frustrated Koziol and Robertson. They began to use various tactics to coerce me to talk. At times they would tell me it was in my best interests to cooperate. Koziol in one instance entered the interrogation room with a clip board of all my former roommate's changing statements. He did not believe him, but if I did not refute them, authorities would run with it. I was skeptical that Faraci had made such outrageous accusations against me but Koziol let me briefly look at the pages. Still in disbelief, he pointed out his signatures. When such overtures to persuade me to answer their questions failed, they resorted to threats, intimidation, and violence.

A blue sheet was placed over the 2-way mirror to prevent anyone from looking inside the interrogation room. I was asked if I did not care about myself, or my family. I was told my elderly grandfather was going to have his home ransacked and he would be roughed up during interrogation. Furthermore, he said my mother would be arrested for lying to the FBI. However, if I would cooperate, phone calls would be made and none of this would occur. I stared at a wall, refusing to say anything and Koziol sought my attention. He sat right next to me and when I continued to be unresponsive he'd kick me in the shins. At one point, I repeated my request for a lawyer and he told me this was the wrong answer. After making a snide remark about my Miranda rights being violated, Robertson gave me a good shot to the jaw. It was not the only time he struck me when I failed to answer questions. Over the years, I am not so angry about the abuse as I am with Robertson's lies. After failing to gain an incriminating statement from me, he simply fabricated one.

In his testimony to my jury two years later, he manipulated the vast majority of what little and disjointed things I said. The most damaging claim he made was that my roommate armed with a gun told me he was going to kill the victim and I permitted him to use my car after he asked for the keys. I had let my cousin and both of the Faraci's use my car while staying with them. However, never did I loan Bob my car after he expressed an intent to kill someone. This was preposterous and a blatant lie by the detective. Unfortunately, my defense attorney refused to contest Robertson's testimony or put on any witnesses who would discredit him, including those who could place both me and my car about 50 miles away from the crime scene the day in question. Instead, Bill Von Hoene chose to spar with the prosecutors over the law of accountability in closing arguments. With an unscrupulous assistant states attorney willing to lie about the law and a jury believing I let the victim go to his death, I was not surprised by the guilty verdict.

I spent two years in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial and then I was transferred to the IDOC after being sentenced to natural life without the possibility of parole. It was a sentence worse than death and I have regularly regretted not reaching down in my car on the day of my arrest to give police a justification to kill me.  I have spent the past 20 years in the most violent, oppressive, and miserable maximum security facilities in the state. At the jail and the first years I spent in the penitentiary, I faced continuous hostilities. Regularly, I was in danger as a white "neutron" in the concrete jungle where black and Mexican gangs dominated. I lived without fear, however, and welcomed death. As years passed by, the prison system has become less violent, but increasingly more oppressive, austere, and miserable. There are extensively more rules, regulations, restrictions, guards, and security precautions which go beyond absurd.

I was 18 years old at the time of my arrest and now I am an old man. All the best years of my life are gone and I struggle to find a reason to carry on. Even if one day I were to win my freedom, what have I really won? There is less appeal for me to live out the remnants of my life outside these walls and there has never been any meaning to live within them. I have contemplated ending this blog because it also seems to serve no function other than make me brood more about my miserable existence. This week, I spotted my first grey hair and I plucked it out as if this would stop the steady march of time. However, nothing will stop my decline and I will never get to be 18 years old again.

While in the penitentiary, I have sought to have my conviction overturned. However, I have been thwarted by the most incompetent attorneys. My direct appeal was done by a recovering alcoholic with serious personal problems. He failed to raise numerous issues of trial error. After losing, without my knowledge he then filed a post conviction appeal on my behalf. This appeal was deficient in not enclosing the mandatory affidavits and was summarily dismissed. A new lawyer was hired to fight off a wrongful death civil suit by the victim's mother. Although he bungled this and I now owe the plaintiff $5 million, he was permitted to work on my federal appeal. The lawyer filed the appeal without addressing any constitutional violations, but most catastrophically he filed it one day past the one year deadline date. In Modrowski vs. Mote, the district court judge ruled she could not even review the case or allow it to be amended due to the appeal being filed one day late. The judge scolded my attorney and the Illinois Bar Association revoked his law license, but that was the end of my regular set of appeals. The only remaining legal recourse I now have is filing a successive post conviction appeal.

This week I received a letter from my current attorney who has been working here and there on my case for 4 years. All criminal appeals have a minute chance of succeeding, but a second collateral appeal faces even more hurdles. Despite this, I have found numerous case law to permit me to have my case reheard in the courts. A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Martinez vs. Ryan) gives even more support to my contention my successive post conviction appeal meets criteria to be heard on its merits, at least in regards to defense attorneys mistakes at trial and on appeal. The letter I received said she was already aware of the ruling and enclosed another lower court ruling based on it. Despite this, my appeal is not ready to be filed due to lack of progress on investigative matters. By contract, she is not responsible for the costs of any investigation and I am currently seeking out these funds. Private investigators are not cheap and finding Tom Selleck's 1980's character in the TV show "Magnum P.I." is like looking for a needle in a hay stack.

My father refuses to pay for the investigative services I want and it seems as if I am on my own. Despite having little to no knowledge about my case, he has deemed my need for another P.I. as unnecessary and a wasteful use of money. He would rather blame me for my predicament. When I was a teenager, he scolded me for associating with the likes of my co-defendant. Had I listened to him, I would have never been arrested. My father, however, did not like me reminding him that he was the main reason I left home.

Earlier in the week while sick with the flu, I had plenty of time to brood about my arrest, interrogation, and 20 years of incarceration battling for my life. It has been a long, grueling, and miserable struggle. I happened to catch some old black and white World War I footage on TV. The men on the Western front went into battle thinking the war was going to be quick and decisive. They were quickly disillusioned when armies dug in and spent years trying to break the deadlock. Millions died fighting over sometimes nothing more than a few feet of dirt in no man's land. The men lived in an extensive network of trenches filled with mud, the rotting dead, rats, and disease. In fact, more soldiers died of influenza than from exchanges with the enemy. Fighting for your freedom is a lot like trench warfare. I have spent two decades in wretched conditions trying to win a battle in court to no avail. I may spend years more or I may never make it out alive. Even if I make it out, I may not have a life worth living.