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State begins case in Mernack murder trial

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD – Emotional testimony and bloody photographs were part of the murder trial of Michael Mernack Tuesday as the Winnebago County State’s Attorney Office began arguing its case.

Mernack, 37, is charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and home invasion. Prosecutors allege that on Dec. 28, 2016, he killed 16-year-old Rebecca A. Finkenhofer and shot her grandmother, 63-year-old Cheryl Puckett.

Puckett survived the attack and testified Tuesday, sobbing as she listened to the 911 call she made and prosecutors showed her a picture of Rebecca. Puckett had been staying with her daughter, Megan Cabay, who worked nights as a CNA at OSF St. Anthony. She said she was asleep on the couch around midnight on Dec. 28, when she awoke to the sound of a crash and someone running up the stairs.

“I was trying to wake up,” Puckett said. “All of the sudden this guy popped into the room, said my name, then shot me in the face.”

Puckett identified Mernack as the gunman.

In and out of consciousness and bleeding, Puckett made a frantic 911 call, telling the dispatcher she and her granddaughter had been shot. Puckett grimaced on the stand as she heard herself yell, “I can’t find her!” referring to Rebecca, who prosecutors say fought with the attacker, pushing him out of the apartment before she was shot and stabbed near the front door that had been kicked in just moments before.

The horror reached the jury from the onset of Tuesday’s proceedings. Some bowed their heads during Puckett’s testimony. Two looked away when prosecutors showed graphic photos of a lifeless Rebecca Finkenhofer face down in pool of her own blood.

Assistant Public Defender Margie O’Connor objected to a host of crime-scene and autopsy photos, arguing they were gruesome and duplicative. Judge Joe McGraw disallowed some, but ruled the others, although graphic, were necessary to present the case.

Assistant State’s Attorney Alison Meason told the jury during opening statements Cabay’s relationship with the defendant had a history of abuse and that a jilted Mernack returned to the Minns Drive apartment to avenge a recent breakup. He had lived with Cabay until she ended things in November 2016.

“He battered her,” Meason said. “She didn’t want him in her house after that. And he was angry.”

Meason said Mernack also intended to shoot Cabay’s 6-year-old daughter, Alyssa. She said after killing Rebecca, Mernack stood in her bedroom doorway trying to re-cock his .380 caliber handgun as the little girl cowered under the covers.  The gun jammed, Meason said, and Mernack fled the apartment, leaving a bloody shoe print on Rebecca’s leg.

Alyssa, now 8, took the witness stand Tuesday. She said she couldn’t sleep the night of the attacks because she was afraid of the dark. And while she could not identify Mernack in the courtroom, she said she saw her mother’s boyfriend, “Michael,” standing in her doorway.

“When I looked at him, he ran,” Alyssa said.

Mernack was out on bond in a domestic violence case involving Cabay when Rebecca was killed. Orders of protection barred him from the apartment and from two other women.  There was a total of four orders against him at the time, but the jury won’t hear all the details. They also won’t hear about assault charges brought against Mernack by Rebecca’s father in connection with an incident on Oct. 27, 2016. That’s the day Tim Finkenhofer says Rebecca tried to introduce the men. Finkenhofer said during the exchange, Mernack pulled a knife, put it to his throat and threatened to “end him.”

McGraw ruled last week that he would not allow the case to be about prior domestic violence cases and that Tim Finkenhofer’s testimony regarding the alleged assault is not probative to the current charges. A phone call between Mernack and his mother while he was in jail on the domestic charge is inadmissible, too. Prosecutors alleged that during that recorded call, Mernack indicated that he planned to break into Cabay’s apartment and “make her face like hamburger.”

McGraw said he may allow some questioning about in the domestic charge involving Megan Cabay if she testifies.

Cabay’s neighbor, Kindra King, also called 911 after she said she saw a man fighting with a young girl just outside her bedroom window. She said she heard arguing and a gunshot and that the man “took the girl down” near the doorway of the apartment.

O’Connor attacked King’s testimony, asking McGraw to grant a mistrial because the witness named Mernack as the assailant and referred to Rebecca by name when she did not know their names when the crime occurred.

“It’s extremely misleading and prejudicial,” O’Connor told the judge. “This was not an identification witness. It was grossly unfair. What we have left is a jury thinking she knew it was Michael.”

Meason argued that trial should continue because she warned King to not use Mernack and Rebecca’s name. King, who said she had a hearing problem and was visibly nervous, eventually complied. McGraw denied the motion for mistrial.

Cabay was expected to take the stand Tuesday but was not called. The jury has heard from a total of nine witnesses.

Mernack is being tried in Courtroom A of the Justice Center. He remains lodged in the Winnebago County Jail on a $4 million bond.  R.

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