By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Michael E. Mernack, the 37-year-old man charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, home invasion and aggravated battery in the brutal death of a Harlem High School student is guilty as charged.
That’s the verdict a Winnebago County jury returned Thursday at around 7:30 p.m. They were sent out of the courtroom to deliberate at 5:24 p.m.
Mernack shot and stabbed 16-year-old Rebecca Finkenhofer to death on Dec. 28, 2016. He also wounded Finkenhofer’s grandmother.
The four-day trial began Monday and wasn’t without emotional testimony. Sixty-three-year-old Cheryl Puckett took the witness stand Tuesday morning and recounted how she was barely conscious after being shot. Puckett also sat in horror as the prosecution played the 911 call she made as the bloody rampage unfolded inside the Machesney Park apartment.
Rebecca Finkenhofer’s mother, Megan Cabay, who was at work during the incident, nearly lost her composure as she testified Wednesday and was shown a picture of her daughter. She told the jury Mernack hit her on Nov. 22, 2016, the day prosecutors said set the deadly attack into motion.
Cabay dated Mernack for four months but ended things the day she was punched, she testified. She said the night before, they argued 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,” Cabay told the jury. “He said, ‘I should knock your f–king teeth out of your mouth, you f–king whore.'”
Mernack then tried to make good on that threat, Cabay said. She said he punched her, causing her face to hit 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 in the face. A struggle then ensued between Mernack and Rebecca, and he fired two bullets at the teen. One hit a wall near the apartment door. The other entered her 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, where Kindra King, who lived in a lower unit, told a 911 dispatcher she saw a man “beating the crap out of someone.” She then saw Rebecca’s lifeless feet on the ground, protruding from the doorway. Mernack had stabbed her multiple times in the neck, face and head, cutting her jugular vein and carotid artery.
The terror didn’t stop there, prosecutors said.
“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.
After killing Rebecca, Mernack entered the bedroom she shared with her 6-year-old sister, Alyssa. He attempted to reload his .380 caliber semiautomatic handgun because it jammed but he dropped the live round on the floor.
“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 the knife at the scene.
Blake Aper, a DNA expert with the Illinois State Police Crime Lab, testified that blood found on the weapons, as well as on Mernack’s shoes and left hand, belonged to Rebecca Finkenhofer. There was so much of her blood on Mernack’s hand that it washed out any trace of his DNA, Aper said.
Assistant Public Defender Margie O’Connor didn’t present any evidence. She argued that the state failed to prove that Mernack was the perpetrator. She based most of that argument on witness testimony, noting that no witnesses identified her client. Kindra King, she 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 her 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 in the case, 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. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16. R.