RICHMOND – Gary Gauger begins his book with information he wouldn’t learn until years after he had been sentenced to die by lethal injection for his parents’ 1993 double murder.
Without sparing some chilling details, Gauger tells readers how he dozed on and off, unaware that two motorcycle gang members had slit his parents throats and gathered about $15 off the floor of his dad’s motorcycle-shop floor. They had hoped to walk away with at least $30,000, but instead used the meager proceeds to buy breakfast in Lake Geneva.
Gauger, 56, recently self-published his story of wrongful conviction with help from Lake Geneva-based reporter Julie Von Bergen. He is beginning a round of book-signings to promote the book and the dangers of lifting the death-penalty moratorium.
“I just want [readers] to see what happens and hopefully put more pressure on the police and prosecutors to do the job right,” Gauger said, sitting at the kitchen table in a farmhouse where he lives next to the Richmond area farm where the murders occurred.
His story is told over 190 pages, including his memories of a long interrogation that ended with police considering his hypothetical account of how he might have committed the murders in an alcoholic blackout a confession. Then, there’s his disbelief that a McHenry County jury would convict him without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime, letters he wrote from death row, and details on how a law professor and his students exonerated him.
He tried to commit his story to writing a few times while in prison, but the emotions were too raw. Instead, he tried to pass his 20 months in Stateville Correctional Center making cheese and sewing with a contraband needle left by another inmate and thread from unraveled clothing and sheets.
About half of Gauger’s cellmates were convicted murderers, and nine inmates died while he was there – five by execution and four at the hands of other inmates. Prison officials dealt with the pall that executions brought by locking prisoners down early and passing out boxes of cookies.
Rival gang members fought each other and the guards, which meant other prisoners on their way to the “chow hall” sometimes walked past gang members beating their enemies in the stairwell, Gauger said. But some prisoners struggled to build a life beyond monotony and television.
“They’re just like other people,” Gauger said. “It reminded me of a large apartment complex where the doors don’t open.”
The doors opened for Gauger through law professor Larry Marshall and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Sixty students signed up to work on his appeal after Marshall agreed to take on the case.
After Gauger's release, federal authorities charged and later secured convictions against Outlaw gang members Randall Miller and James Schneider for the murders of Ruth and Morris Gauger.
Gauger hypothesized in his book that Marshall was drawn to his case partially because he’s a white Midwestern guy who illustrates that “these things didn’t just happen in the ghetto.” But Marshall said recently that he was impressed with how Gauger’s twin sister, Ginger, stood by him so steadfastly.
“When I read about the case, it had all the earmarks of a wrongful conviction in that it was a case where there was no physical evidence that supported the guilty [finding],” Marshall said. “It all boiled down to what was said during an unrecorded conversation.”
Marshall said Gauger ultimately became “one of the poster children” for why officers should tape entire interviews, not just confessions made toward the end of long interrogations.
All that remains of the legal ordeal is a malicious prosecution lawsuit pending against the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, which is next due in court Friday.
Gauger returned to farming full-time – before the murders he also spent part of his time helping his dad in his motorcycle shop – but the work serves a new purpose.
“I like the work because it’s hard enough and dangerous enough that I have to focus on what I’m doing,” Gauger said. “It keeps my mind off what happened to me.”
Get “In Spite of the System: A Personal Story of Wrongful Conviction & Exoneration”
• Online at www.garygauger.com.
• At Ginger Blossom, 3016 Route 173, near Richmond.
• At Read Between the Lynes, 129 Van Buren St., Woodstock, which will host a book-signing from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26.
• At Von Bergen’s Country Market, 9805 Route 173, near Hebron.