By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – The Rockford man who brutally killed a Harlem High School sophomore in 2016 was sentenced to life in prison plus 45 years Friday in a Winnebago County courtroom.
Michael Mernack, 38, was convicted in August of killing 16-year-old Rebecca Finkenhofer on Dec. 28, 2016, at her Minns Drive apartment.
Judge Joe McGraw minced no words as he handed down the sentence, reminding Mernack of the devastation he caused when he broke down the apartment door and went on a shooting and stabbing rampage that ended at the foot of the staircase where Rebecca died face down in a pool of blood.
“You brought great violence, great carnage,” McGraw said. “That scene of carnage is indelibly etched in all of our memories.”
The crime was cruel, violent and savage, McGraw said, as Rebecca’s tearful parents listened to the proceedings.
Before shooting and stabbing Rebecca, Mernack shot her grandmother, Cheryl Puckett, in the face. She survived and testified at Mernack’s trial.
Finkenhofer’s death made instant headlines as a textbook case of domestic violence. Mernack dated Rebecca’s mother, Megan Cabay, and lived with them until November 2016. That’s when Cabay says Mernack, after badgering her about an ex-boyfriend, punched her in the face. Tim Finkenhofer, Rebecca’s father, filed a police report alleging Mernack pulled knife on him.
There were four orders of protection against him when Mernack killed Rebecca, including the one Cabay sought more than a month earlier. It expires Dec. 21. An order filed by a Rockford man in February 2016 was for two years, one granted to another ex-girlfriend expired Aug. 20, 2017. Mernack was ordered to stay away from another woman until Jan. 9, 2017, and a two-week order in the alleged knife incident barred him from any contact with Tim Finkenhofer. An extension of that order was not granted.
“Teach your kids to protect themselves,” Tim said. “If you have an order of protection, it’s just a piece of paper. The bad guys don’t care about it.”
Finkenhofer expressed frustration for how Mernack’s cases seemed to fall between the cracks in the weeks leading up to the attack. Court records show that he was convicted of misdemeanor domestic battery in 1998 and again in 2003. In 2005, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for felony domestic battery, and was back behind bars in 2009 for damaging property.
Assault charges were pending against Mernack when he was arrested for allegedly hitting Cabay. However, he walked out of jail on Dec. 2, 2016, after posting a $250 bond.
“The county should be ashamed of themselves for letting him out,” he said.
Assistant Public Defender Margie O’Connor called for a sentence of 45 years plus 21 years. She said Mernack is mentally ill, partially because of an abusive childhood. She said he was hit in the head with an ax when he was 14 and now hears voices.
“So much of (Michael’s life) was out of his control,” O’Connor said. “And no one was protecting him.”
O’Connor didn’t present any evidence at trial. She argued that the state failed to prove that Mernack was the perpetrator. She noted that no witnesses identified her client at the scene. A DNA expert with the Illinois State Police Crime Lab testified that blood found on Mernack’s gun, a knife, his shoes and hand belonged to Rebecca Finkenhofer. There was so much of her blood on Mernack’s hand, it washed out his own DNA profile, the expert told the jury.
Mernack did not speak at his sentencing. R.