(Chicago Tribune images)

(Chicago Tribune images)

(WGN-AM) - It took nearly an hour Tuesday for the DuPage County prosecutor to tell the heartbreaking, 26-year-old story.

Some in the audience wiped away tears as State's Atty. Joseph Birkett solemnly described the fingernail scratches 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico left on the wall that showed how she tried to fight off a would-be burglar.

How Brian Dugan promised to take the girl home but instead killed her.

The murder "went as perfectly as the others, but something was wrong," Brian Dugan told an Illinois State Police psychologist, Birkett recounted. "I felt like I was going to get caught."

And he did. Dugan, already serving life sentences for two other murders, formally admitted in court Tuesday that he and he alone kidnapped, raped and killed the girl on Feb. 25, 1983.

His admission, first made in 1985, had long been rejected by DuPage officials. But on Tuesday Birkett said Dugan has been telling the truth.

Birkett's 55-minute recitation of the facts was a dramatic turn in a case with 26 years' worth of twists, including the false convictions and Death Row sentences of two other men and the acquittals of seven DuPage County law-enforcement officials on malfeasance charges. The drama will kick into high gear again in September, when Birkett pursues his long-stated goal of having Dugan sentenced to death.

The bespectacled Dugan began Tuesday by standing before DuPage Judge George Bakalis and admitting his guilt. "No one aided, abetted or helped me," Dugan said simply after asserting that he understood Bakalis' pointed questions.

Then Birkett took his place at the courtroom lectern, launching into the first complete version of what prosecutors believe Dugan inflicted on Nicarico one winter afternoon.

Birkett said Dugan broke into the girl's Naperville Township home in an attempted burglary but took only Jeanine, who left fingernail scratches on a wall.

Birkett's description of Nicarico's final hours were brutal and difficult to listen to, as were his descriptions of the autopsy results. Some in the audience wiped away tears as they heard how Dugan brutalized the girl on a sleeping bag in the woods, leaving her bloody and disoriented, then promised to wash her up and take her home, but instead crushed her skull with either a baseball bat or a tire iron.

Birkett also described in detail the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman of Somonauk, one of two murders for which Dugan already is serving concurrent life sentences. Bakalis has previously approved allowing the details of the Ackerman case at a trial, ruling that the similarities with the Nicarico murder showed a legal pattern of behavior.

Dugan sat quietly during Birkett's grim reading of a 14-page statement. Melissa's father stonily stared off into space.

When it was over, the judge denied Dugan's request to read aloud a letter that he carried with him, a letter his attorneys contended was an apology.

Birkett's presentation included the complete exoneration of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, two Aurora man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the same crime. The statement set the stage for the Sept. 22 sentencing hearing, when a jury is expected to be chosen to decide if Dugan will be sentenced to death or another life prison term.

Birkett described how Cruz and Hernandez were arrested and tried based on statements they and others made about the crime, but concluded that there was "no physical evidence" ever found against the pair. Birkett said he wanted to put that issue to rest so it has no further effect on Dugan's sentencing hearing.

Dugan's attorneys have told Bakalis that they plan on using the wrongful convictions of the two men to their client's benefit, claiming that by admitting his role in the murder, he helped get innocent men off Death Row.

Relatives of Donna Schnorr, a 27-year-old Kane County nurse for whose 1984 murder Dugan is serving his second life sentence, also were present during the plea and would not comment when leaving the courthouse.

Jeanine's family was not in the courtroom but made some comment after.