Dawn Niles was born deaf and mute in 1965. By 1981, she had grown into a beautiful, happy, and feisty 15-year-old.
She resided with her family at 1012 Newberry Avenue in La Grange Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
Dawn attended the hearing impaired program at Hinsdale High School in nearby Darien, a member of the school’s Deaf Drama Club.
She had been in a relationship with a fellow deaf student, Gary Albert, 18, for several months before they broke up in February 1981.
Soon after, she discovered she was three months pregnant with his child. Gary was not happy about the pregnancy and was already in a relationship with another girl.
On March 17, 1981, Dawn Niles left school at 3 pm and got into Gary Albert’s car.
When she did not return home that night, her mother reported her missing to the police on March 18.
Several days later, fishermen found Dawn’s fully-clothed body lying in the underbrush just off the bridle path in the Horsetail Lake Forest Preserve at 123rd Street and McCarthy Road in Palos Township.
Dawn’s stepfather, Charles McCullagh, identified her body.
An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed 34 times and did not bear any defense wounds.
Police never found the murder weapon.
Investigators interviewed family, friends, students, etc., but the case soon went cold. For decades, the murder remained a mystery.
One Sister’s Fight for Justice
On the 15th anniversary of Dawn’s murder, her sister, Heather Hunziker, and a childhood friend began a campaign to reopen the case.
They pulled reports, obtained the death certificate, and periodically visited law enforcement officials.
The friend emailed DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett after seeing a news story about the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville and pleaded with authorities to reopen the case.
Birkett forwarded the email to then-Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who reopened the case. Detective Larry Rafferty took over the investigation.
In 2006, Tom Dart became the new Cook County sheriff, and he and Rafferty re-interviewed past witnesses and interviewed new witnesses.
They spent two years investigating Dawn’s murder.
Sheriff Dart said in 2008:
“It was numerous leads and witnesses that collectively put the puzzle together.”
Many of Dawn’s friends told investigators that Gary knew of the pregnancy, and they had fought over it. Gary did not want to take responsibility for the baby and told Dawn to tell her parents someone had raped her or that the father was someone else.
Dr. Robert Kirschner, now deceased, was a Cook County deputy medical examiner who performed Dawn Niles’ autopsy. He had preserved a semen sample on a vaginal swab, according to court records.
Investigators had the semen tested, and it matched to Gary Albert.
In March 2008, authorities arrested Gary, then 44 years old, for the murder of Dawn Niles in 1981 and charged him with one count of murder.
At the time, he was working at a General Mills plant in West Chicago.
Investigators questioned him for seven hours at Cook County Sheriff’s Office, assisted by a Chicago police officer trained in American Sign Language (ASL).
On March 15, 2008, Jim Albert, Gary’s father, posted a $100,000 bond to get his son out of jail.
R. Steven Polachek, who represented Gary Albert in his divorce, was one of Gary’s defense attorneys at trial.
On April 14, 2008, Gary Albert pleaded innocent before a judge.
At pre-trial motions, one of Gary’s defense attorneys called the friends’ statements “improper hearsay” and claimed they “infuse undue prejudice.
He also held that it could not be proven Gary knew about the pregnancy and had no motive to kill Dawn.
Gary Albert’s defense attorneys also contended that the Chicago police officer was not proficient enough to be deemed legally qualified in ASL to ensure Gary understood his Miranda rights and assist in the interrogation.
The attorney further argued that investigators should not have talked to Gary because his “invocation” (of remaining silent) was clear and unambiguous for 27 years (Barnum 2011).
The trial began on November 15, 2008.
Witnesses testified that they saw either Dawn walking toward Gary’s brown Chevrolet car or leaving school with him in his car.
Assistant State’s Attorney Kathaleen Lanahan said that soil samples found in Gary’s car matched sample soils taken from Horsetail Lake Forest Reserve near where Dawn’s body was found.
Robert Krueger, one of Gary Albert’s high school friends, testified.
“I saw Gary and Dawn arguing and somehow Dawn was grabbing his arm and Gary was screaming and grabbed and slapped her and then Dawn slapped him and he slapped her back,” he said (Schmadeke 2011).
One of Dawn’s high school friends, Mary Augustyn, testified that Dawn was feeling sick in P.E. class one day and told Mary she was pregnant, but she had not told her mother or seen a doctor. Dawn said Gary wanted nothing to do with the baby.
Todd Pugh, another defense attorney, argued that investigators did not focus on any other suspect except Gary Albert and accused investigators of a dishonest and lazy investigation.
During defense attorney Tom Breen’s closing arguments, he portrayed Dawn Niles as a “scared runaway who could have fallen prey to a dangerous stranger” (Fitzpatrick 2011).
However, there was zero evidence pointing to Dawn running away as she took no belongings or money with her when she left home that morning.
Breen, straight out of a Law and Order episode, shouted: “They want you to believe that semen proves he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — bull! Just bull. It doesn’t prove anything other than they had consensual sex.”
The trial lasted only five days. Jurors deliberated for less than one hour before finding Gary Albert not guilty of murder.
It was a massive blow to Dawn’s loved ones, who quietly left the courtroom heartbroken.
About Gary Albert
In April 2005, Gary pleaded guilty to unlawful videotaping of his stepdaughter after setting up a hidden video camera in her bedroom and bathroom. Susan Albert, the girl’s mother, discovered the camera and moved out shortly after.
Susan alerted the police and filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.
Under terms of the divorce, Gary gave up his claim to the family’s St. Charles home and kept his Ford truck.
Susan Albert filed a lawsuit seeking over $150,000 in Kane County, but the outcome is unclear.
Gary was convicted and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and pay for the girl’s counseling.
Soon after his divorce, Gary’s other former high school girlfriend, Marie Innocentini, moved back to Illinois from Ohio to live with Gary.
Marie, who is also deaf, went to the same high school as Gary and Dawn. In a yearbook group photo, she is sitting three seats away from them as they hold hands.
The photo was taken for the school’s deaf drama club and its chapter of the Junior Illinois Association for the Deaf.
Gary and Marie eventually married in 2018 and currently reside in Sugar Grove, Illinois.
Bowean, Lolly and Ted Gregory. “Arrest in ’81 Slaying Reopens Wounds.” Chicago Tribune. March 7, 2008. Accessed on September 18, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.
Fitzpatrick, Lauren. “Deaf Man Found Innocent of Killing Deaf 15-year-old girlfriend in 1981.” Chicago Sun-Times. November 22, 2011. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from https://abilitychicagoinfo.blogspot.com.
Herman, Eric and Kim Janssen. “Arrest is ‘Bittersweet.’” Southtown Star (Tinley Park, IL). March 6, 2008. Accessed on September 18, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.
Schmadeke, Steve. “Grisly ’81 Slaying Goes to Trial.” Chicago Tribune. November 16, 2011. Accessed on September 18, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.
Originally published at https://truecrimediva.com on October 2, 2020.