By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – The man accused in the brutal slaying of 16-year-old Rebecca Finkenhofer nearly two years ago is guilty as charged.
Michael E. Mernack, 37, was found guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder, home invasion and aggravated battery Thursday after a three-day trial in front of Chief Judge Joe McGraw.
The jury returned the verdict 7:30 p.m. They were sent out of the courtroom to deliberate at 5:24 p.m.
Mernack killed Finkenhofer, a Harlem High School sophomore, on Dec. 28, 2016. He also wounded her grandmother.
Jury selection began Monday. The state began its case Tuesday morning by calling 63-year-old Cheryl Puckett to the stand. Puckett recounted how she was barely conscious after taking Mernack’s first bullet to the chin. She sat in horror as the prosecution played the 911 call she made as the bloody scene unfolded inside the Minns Drive apartment.
Rebecca Finkenhofer’s mother, Megan Cabay, who was at work during the attack, nearly lost her composure but regained herself to tell the jury about a violent incident prosecutors said set the stage for the deadly rampage.
Cabay dated Mernack for four months but ended things on Nov. 22, 2016. She said they argued the night before via text message after she told Mernack she dated a man named Demarcus before him. The exchange continued the next morning when Mernack picked her up at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center where she worked as a certified nursing assistant.
“He called me whore and a black lover,” she told the jury. “He said, ‘I should knock your f–king teeth out of your mouth, you f–king whore.'”
Moments later, Mernack tried to make good on the threat, Cabay said. She said he punched her, bouncing her face off the passenger-side window. Cabay called police, took Mernack’s belongings to his mother’s house and ended the relationship. Mernack was arrested and charged with domestic violence; Cabay obtained an order of protection that barred him from the residence.
Mernack posted bond and obeyed the restraining order until he broke down the door of Cabay’s apartment and opened fire, hitting Puckett. A struggle then ensued between Mernack and Rebecca and he fired two more shots. One hit a wall near the apartment door. The other entered the teen’s back, went through her right lung and exited through her chest.
A knife was obtained from the kitchen by either Mernack or Rebecca as the fight rumbled down the stairs into the entryway. Kindra King, who lived in a lower unit and was looking out her bedroom window, told a 911 dispatcher she saw a man “beating the crap out of someone.” She then saw two lifeless feet on the ground, protruding from the doorway. Mernack had stabbed Rebecca multiple times in the head, face and neck, cutting her jugular vein and carotid artery.
The terror didn’t stop there, prosecutors said. As Rebecca lay face down in a massive pool of blood, Mernack sought another victim.
“He splashed through the victim’s blood and went back upstairs and down the hallway, bringing the artifacts of the murder he just committed,” Assistant State’s Attorney Wendy Larson told the jury during closing arguments.
Prosecutors said Mernack entered the bedroom Rebecca shared with her 6-year-old sister, Alyssa, and attempted to reload his .380 caliber semiautomatic handgun because it jammed but he dropped the live round on the floor near her bed.
“When I looked at him, he ran,” Alyssa, now 8, said.
Mernack retreated down the stairs and stepped on Rebecca’s body as he lumbered to the parking lot and drew his gun on Winnebago County Sheriff’s deputies. He was shot after disobeying several commands to drop the weapon. Police recovered the gun and knife at the scene.
Blake Aper, a DNA expert with the Illinois State Police Crime Lab, testified that blood found on the weapons, Mernack’s shoes and his left hand belonged to Rebecca Finkenhofer. There was so much of her blood on the defendant’s hand that it washed out any trace of his DNA, Aper said.
Although he has prior domestic battery convictions, including a felony for which he spent time in prison, Mernack was able to post a $250 bond on Dec. 2, 2016 in the case involving Cabay.
“If the judge would have done his job and looked into his record before giving him bail of only $250, my daughter would still be alive,” Tim Finkenhofer said. “He shouldn’t have been bailed out, period. He’s a savage monster that the devil used to stop the Gospel Rebecca was spreading.”
Rebecca was active in the youth program at Harvest Bible Chapel and was anything but shy about sharing her faith, Tim said.
“She was not afraid to tell people about God,” he said. “I’m sure she is right where she belongs – with her heavenly father.”
There was a total of four orders of protection against Mernack at the time of the killing, including the one granted to a woman he dated before Cabay. However, McGraw did not allow the jury to hear about them. The judge did not allow Tim Finkenhofer to testify about an incident on Oct. 27, 2016. That’s the day he said Rebecca tried to introduce him to Mernack at Cabay’s apartment. Finkenhofer said out of nowhere, Mernack threatened to “break his jaw,” before things nearly spun violently out of control.
“It escalated very fast,” Finkenhofer said. “On my way down the stairs, he came at me with a knife, saying he would ‘end me.’ Another inch and he would have hit my throat.”
McGraw ruled before trial that he would not allow the proceedings to center on prior domestic violence cases and that Tim Finkenhofer’s testimony about the alleged assault was not probative to the current charges. A phone call between Mernack and his mother while he was in jail on the domestic charge was inadmissible, too.
McGraw allowed Cabay to testify about the Nov. 22 incident because it showed intent.
Assistant Public Defender Margie O’Connor didn’t present any evidence after the state rested Thursday. She argued that prosecutors failed to prove Mernack was the perpetrator. She based most of the argument on witness testimony, noting that not one witness positively identified her client.
Kindra King, O’Connor said, only heard noises and saw two people fighting but did not know who was involved at the time. And although Alyssa Cabay told the jury she saw “Michael” standing in the doorway, she didn’t say he entered the room, nor could she place him in court.
O’Connor said Puckett only assumed the attacker was Mernack because of his past relationship with Cabay, but never identified him.
“She wasn’t wearing her prescription glasses and gave no description,” O’Connor said.
There were investigative mistakes, too, O’Connor said. The gun was improperly tagged by detectives, indicating the shootings happened on Oct. 26, 2016. There was no blood spatter analysis, gunshot residue testing or fingerprints taken to determine if Mernack fired a gun, O’Connor argued.
“There were things that were not done that should have been done in this case,” she said.
Mernack faces life in prison. He’s due back in court Oct. 16