WOODSTOCK – Gary Gauger’s wife said she noticed his body weight drop and his skin grow sallow when she visited him behind bars.
“The longer he was there, the sadder and more confused [he was],” said Sue Rekenthaler, who visited Gauger in jail and began dating him in 1997 after his release. “It was almost like watching the lights go out of a house.”
Rekenthaler testified Wednesday morning about the toll Gauger’s wrongful conviction for his parents’ gruesome 1993 murders has taken on him. She was the last witness called in a civil trial in which Gauger is trying to prove that three McHenry County Sheriff’s detectives conspired to maliciously prosecute him for crimes he didn’t commit. The lawsuit names Undersheriff Gene Lowery and retired Detectives Beverly Hendle and Chris Pandre.
Attorneys will give their closing statements this morning, almost two weeks after the trial began. The 11 jurors are expected to begin deliberating this afternoon.
Gauger, 57, is seeking millions in damages from the sheriff’s office for the 3.5 years he spent in prison and for post traumatic stress disorder.
Gauger was sentenced to die by lethal injection after a McHenry County jury convicted him of the murders in 1993. Ultimately that conviction was overturned, former Gov. George Ryan pardoned him, and two motorcycle gang members were convicted of the murders as part of a federal racketeering case.
But Gauger has had a long row to hoe since his release, Rekenthaler said.
His family farm largely was unused, other than his brother-in-law growing pumpkins there as Gauger’s case was pending. Gauger had to restore the soil quality and repair the farm equipment before he could return to organic farming.
His twin sister, Ginger Blossom, said Gauger once was a gregarious man who played Bob Dylan songs on a piano in his greenhouse before the murders.
Now, his wife said, he has a few close friends but tries to avoid social situations.
Rekenthaler said she handled farming matters that required interacting with people, such as handling the three farmers’ markets they attend and getting supplies. Gauger does the field work, works with equipment, and picks produce.
“Gary is very uncomfortable and uneasy when he’s around people,” Rekenthaler said.
He speaks publicly about his wrongful conviction, although it makes him nervous and distracted for days afterward, Rekenthaler said.
Since his release, Gauger has maintained that officers refused to let him leave or sleep during 18 hours of questioning shortly after his parents were discovered dead, with their throats slit, on the Richmond-area farm where the three lived. He testified that he presented a hypothetical account of how he might have committed the crimes as officers lied to him about finding his bloodied clothes, sheets and knife on the farm.
But detectives denied Gauger presented a hypothetical situation. Rather, they said Gauger described, step-by-step, how he committed the murders. His account didn’t fully match the injuries the two victims suffered, but police did not learn of the additional injuries until the autopsy – which was after the alleged confession and after they arrested Gauger.