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NAPERVILLE - Every time she sees a photograph of her friend Jeanine Nicarico in the newspaper or on the news, with her long, thick hair parted neatly in the middle, Michele Michael gets mad - because it's the wrong picture.

Jeanine didn't look like that when they sat near each other in Ms. Elkin's fifth-grade class. That picture was taken before she got her hair cut.

It's the kind of thing that would occur to a child, that would have her wondering why the grown-ups can't find the right photograph.

That Michael is now 34 years old illustrates that in some ways those who knew the 10-year-old girl are still locked in the day she was grabbed from what they thought was the safest of places - her home - and murdered.

"It was like their childhood was sort of punctured," said the Terry Elkin Pocius, the girl's teacher. "Their whole world was shaken."

This month marks the 23rd anniversary of the death of Jeanine Nicarico. Like so many years before that included trial after trial of the girl's suspected killers, convictions, reversals and lawsuits, this one begins with lawyers preparing for another legal battle and another suspect waiting to stand trial.

But for those who lived in this Chicago suburb in February of 1983, the story is not Brian Dugan, a convicted killer who authorities say is linked to the crime by DNA evidence and his own words.

It is a girl home from school with the flu in her pink "I'm Sleepy" nightshirt telling the stranger on the other side of the front door that he couldn't come in, just as her mother had told her to say. It is a splintered door frame, the fingernail marks made on a wall by a desperate child, the raped and beaten body a few miles away in a nature preserve.

And it is their own childhoods and lives irrevocably altered. Like the little next door neighbor who now hates being alone and fears her own children might be snatched. Or the friend who didn't cry at death again until her mother passed away two decades later. Or Jeanine's boyfriend who now laments his inability to comfort those closest to him when they need him most.

"With Jeanine's death, very clearly something died in me that day," said Mark Givens, who days before had gone to the girl's house with his mom to deliver a box of chocolates and a Valentine's Day card for his "sweetheart."

What happened here happens whenever a small, close-knit community is hit with something as incomprehensible as a child's murder. Assumptions about human nature and personal safety were shattered - in large part because there was no way those who knew Jeanine Nicarico could distance themselves from her. In her life they saw their own and in her death they saw a child and parents who did nothing wrong - what they would have done themselves.

But the pain might be different here because the story is different. Unlike so many other similar cases that made headlines but faded from memory after suspects were caught and convicted, this one routinely finds its way onto the front page.

Two men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death in 1985, but appeals courts over the following decade twice reversed the convictions. Both men eventually were exonerated and charges were dropped against a third. The case, which had become a national symbol of death-penalty flaws, was reopened and late last year charges were brought against Dugan.

"You just feel like it's never going to end," said Michael, who owns a pub in Naperville, where news stories, chance meetings with classmates or members of the Nicarico family, or events in Jeanine's honor are regular reminders of the slaying.

Melissa Starr moved out of state shortly after her friend was killed, but the story continues to find her as well.

"I was driving to work one day listening to NPR and Scott Turow was on (talking about the case) and you kind of have to pull over to the side of the road and say, 'Oh my gosh,"' said Starr, 33, who lives in suburban Kansas City. "You think it's going to get easier and it never really does."

There are reminders in their own lives as well that the crime is still with them.

"One of the things that I have come to realize, it was a very, very long time after Jeanine's death before I ever cried about somebody dying," Starr said. "I do not remember another death affecting me in a deep way until my mom died three years ago."

From Givens, a vice president of a high-tech firm in Massachusetts, there is this: "When my wife needs a tender moment I can get very cold very quickly, and when every logical part of my body says reach out, touch her, hold her, do the natural things that a person would do, I have a tremendous struggle with that. I trace that to Jeanine."

For Sonya Shuey, the death of her neighbor and friend has also left its mark. From the little girl who went to countless sleep-overs at friends' houses so none of them had to be by themselves she grew into a high schooler who threw herself into sports "to drown out any alone time that I had." Today, a 33-year-old nurse, Shuey lives in Bloomington with her husband and three small children - and still hates the idea of being by herself.

"Even with a 70-pound lab, if my husband is out of town, I hate it," Shuey said.

In some ways, becoming a parent has made her fears even more pronounced.

"She said, 'Mom, it's worse. Now I'm petrified (of) someone coming into the house and taking one of the kids,"' said Shuey's mother, Shirley Steck.

Starr, too, fears for the lives of her two small children, and the scenes she plays in her head of what her friend must have gone through are more haunting now than ever before.

"Like the scratch fingernail trail out the door, that fact hits me so much harder now than it did 23 years ago because I think of my own daughter when I think of that image," she said.

But Starr said that while she is afraid for her children, she recognizes that there is only so much she can do to protect them.

"I can't keep them from climbing a tree and falling out or having the wrong person knock on my front door," she said. "I can educate them just like the Nicaricos did and it didn't make a difference."

With the charges filed against Dugan, and prosecutors vowing to seek the death penalty, the case promises to stay in the news for months, if not years. Those who knew Jeanine Nicarico say they are hopeful the case will shed light on the afternoon of Feb. 25, 1983, when Jeanine Nicarico was kidnapped from her home.

"I want to know the full truth and who did it and why they did it," Michael said.

But they're also bracing for what they are about to go through yet again, something Jeanine's father, Thomas Nicarico, over the years has compared to having a scab torn open.

Shuey agrees. "Now it's almost like I have to start over again," she said. "Because, if Dugan had a part in this, it's like Mr. Nicarico has said, it's like reopening an old wound."

For her part, Patricia Nicarico does not want to say too much, fearing her words could somehow harm the case. But she said that while she is not looking forward to watching her daughter's slaying unfold in yet another trial, "Maybe we can get some of the truth, maybe. And maybe get some justice for Jeanine."


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