Investigators long suspected Robert Rocco Serritella in the 1992 strangulation of Skokie teenager David Chereck, but they said they never had enough evidence to prove he did it — until now.
Authorities arrested Serritella, 71, at his home in Los Angeles Monday on a murder warrant, and he appeared in a California courtroom Thursday on those charges.
The case of the 15-year-old boy who disappeared while walking home from a Skokie bowling alley was cracked not by a single breakthrough — and not by physical evidence — but by detective interviews that found Serritella made incriminating statements to people he knew, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.
“We’re happy he’s in custody and will be back on his way here to answer for this,” Dart said.
Serritella, handcuffed to crutches and dressed in blue and gray prison garb, hobbled Thursday into a Los Angeles County courtroom, where a judge issued a warrant for his extradition to Illinois. Serritella, through his public defender, waived his right to an arraignment and was held in jail without bail.
Reached by phone Thursday at her north suburban home, David’s mother confirmed she had been notified about the arrest. Dart said Esther Chereck was relieved that charges had finally been filed after 22 years, a torturous delay that tested David’s parents’ will to live and cast a cloud over his class at Niles West High School.
David’s father, Allan Chereck, died many years ago, never to see an arrest in his son’s murder.
Authorities said the crime occurred on the night of New Year’s Day in 1992, after David had gone with friends to play arcade games at the bowling alley. They then stopped at a convenience store, where David parted ways with the group at about 10 p.m. for the two-block walk home, Dart said.
That was the last time friends saw him alive. He was found the next day in a forest preserve nearby, strangled with his scarf and stripped of his jacket and shoes.
Police were onto Serritella early on, they said, because he made an anonymous call about the case and left his beeper number. Cook County Forest Preserve police led a task force to investigate with authorities from Morton Grove, Skokie, the state and county, but the group disbanded in less than a year.
Three sheriff’s detectives reopened the case a few years ago and began interviewing witnesses and people who knew Serritella in California and Utah. In addition to incriminating statements, he made contradictory remarks that showed inconsistencies in his story, Dart said.
“We always thought we had a lot of good information,” the sheriff said. “His name had a lot of different connections to the case, and a lot of circumstantial evidence pointed to his involvement. The thing that probably broke it more than anything else was information he gave to other individuals about his involvement.”
Early in the investigation, Gerald Palacios, chief of detectives for the forest preserve police, said his prime suspect had at one point been under house arrest in California on a sexual assault conviction, and had been seen in Skokie around the time of the slaying — possibly at the bowling alley — and was driving a white four-door sedan.
A prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said in 1993 that investigators had looked at the suspect and found “nothing there” to link him to the Chereck case.
In a 1998 interview with ABC7, Serritella claimed to have seen David waving from the roadside and stopped his car to see why, but then saw another a white car pick up the boy and drive away.
The teen’s parents and some police had previously criticized the early handling of the case, including the focus on Serritella. But Dart said anyone who worked on the case should feel vindicated by the charges.
In previous interviews with the Tribune, David’s parents had said the killing made them question whether life was worth living, and that the pain grew worse as time went on with no charges.
As news of the charges spread, David’s former classmates exchanged messages of happiness and relief on Facebook.
One commenter wrote that his murder was “the worst part of high school.”
Vicki Aronson’s daughter Whitney Shanahan was a classmate of David’s who helped start a scholarship to honor his humor, compassion and love of art, before she died of an illness in 2009. Aronson said she hoped justice would finally be served.
“His death hit all the kids in his class extremely hard,” she said. “Everybody has continued thinking about David through the years.”
Lani Rosenstock Inlander said she and fellow classmates will remember David at their 20th anniversary reunion this fall.
“People are relieved,” she said, “but I’m not jumping up and down yet, because this guy has gotten away with this for many years, until there’s a verdict and he goes to jail.”
In Skokie, Police Chief Anthony Scarpelli, who was a detective on the force when the killing happened, said there was a sense of urgency to find a suspect.
“You want the community to feel safe and secure,” he said. “Obviously we’re pleased an arrest has been made after all these years. When you lose a loved one, they’re gone but never, ever forgotten. I think it will help the family with closure.”
Tribune Newspapers reporter Debbie Truong, Tribune reporters Steve Schmadeke and Peter Nickeas and freelance reporters Brian L. Cox and Susan Berger contributed.
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