His family and the attorney looking to overturn Mario Casciaro’s murder conviction have been pointing the finger at another man, as they raise questions about Robert Render’s involvement in the 2002 disappearance of Brian Carrick.
The Casciaro family and their attorney Kathleen Zellner are asking how Render was cleared as a suspect in the Johnsburg teen’s death in light of what they believe is overwhelming evidence against him.
But Render isn’t around to answer those questions. He died in 2012 from an apparent drug overdose. He was 26.
Even after his death, Render has an ally in the attorney who once defended him against charges that arose out of the Carrick investigation. George Kililis said he is outraged that his former client’s name is, as he sees it, being dragged through the mud.
“They need to leave this dead kid alone,” Kililis said. “I feel for [the Casciaros], and in some ways I share their anger, but I will not let them, not let Zellner, assassinate this kid in his grave.”
Kililis, then a special public defender for the county, was appointed to represent Render in 2010 against allegations that he concealed the 17-year-old Carrick’s homicide.
A conviction for such a charge requires proof that a homicidal death occurred, and without a body, proving that is virtually impossible, Kililis said. Charges against Render eventually were dropped.
Now a private criminal defense attorney, Kililis believes prosecutors knew a conviction against Render wouldn’t stick, but charged him as a way to pressure Render to break the case.
That’s not to say Kililis backs the prosecution of Casciaro. Kililis pointed out what he said were obvious problems with the case – namely, the deal given to the man who said he likely was the killer.
Shane Lamb was offered full immunity from murder charges and a reduced drug charge sentence for testimony that implicated Casciaro in the crime. Lamb said Casciaro sent him to collect on a drug debt from Carrick. Prosecutors said because of that, Casciaro was responsible for Carrick’s presumed death.
“I think that Shane Lamb found a way to admit to a crime that he committed, get it off his chest and blame Casciaro,” Kililis said. “I think if there was a mistake that was made, it was that they gave [Lamb] immunity.”
Lamb has since recanted that testimony, saying neither he nor Casciaro had anything to do with Carrick’s death. He said lead prosecutor Michael Combs, chief of the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s criminal division, pressured him to implicate Casciaro. Combs denies those claims.
But to the Casciaros, all signs point to Render. Other than blood from Carrick, Render’s was the only other blood found inside the produce cooler at Val’s Foods where Carrick is believed to have died. Render’s bloody fingerprint was found on the cooler door.
Combs said there was no way to date Render’s blood, meaning he could have bled on the produce cooler door at any time. And that’s entirely plausible, Kililis said, given that Render worked at Val’s. At trial, prosecutors explained the blood at the crime scene by saying Render was known to bite his nails.
Casciaro’s sister, Julia Casciaro-Muell, who wrote a guest column in this newspaper, rejected the notion that they’re simply scapegoating someone who can’t defend himself.
“We’re blaming the person who all the evidence points to,” Casciaro-Muell said. “Whether he’s dead or alive is something we can’t control, obviously. It’s unfortunate. We wish he wasn’t, it would have been a lot easier to put him on the stand and question all of this. We’re not happy at all at the fact that he died.”
Render died after Casciaro’s first trial, which ended in a hung jury. He never was called as a witness by either side.
The Casciaros and Zellner also believe underwear found in the ceiling tiles at Val’s that was turned over to police shortly after Carrick disappeared would be key to exonerating Casciaro. The problem is, the underwear was never logged into evidence, never DNA-tested, and is nowhere to be found.
“We still can’t get over the fact that it was thrown away,” Casciaro-Muell said.
Johnsburg Police Chief Keith Von Allmen said the department didn’t hold on to the underwear because it wasn’t blood-soaked, as Zellner claims. It was soiled with what looked like feces, and was covered in dust when the department received it, he said.
“If there was any hint that those underwear had some relevance to this case it would have been kept,” Von Allmen said.
Both Von Allmen and Combs say the claims the Casciaro’s defense team is now making are nothing new. The fact that the underwear was missing was information available to Casciaro’s first defense attorney, Brian Telander, before Casciaro’s trials.
The first trial in 2012 ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn’t reach a unanimous decision.
“Twenty-three out of 24 [jurors] heard evidence of Robert Render as a suspect and they all rejected it,” Combs said. “Telander argued until he was blue in the face that it was Robert Render.”
Casciaro is serving 26 years in Menard prison. His case is pending an appeal. Zellner has filed a post-conviction petition in McHenry County court, and last week sought DNA testing on clothing previously recovered from Render’s garbage cans. The prosecution agreed to any DNA screens Zellner requests.