Twenty years ago, while families were preparing for Christmas celebrations, a 17-year-old Johnsburg boy walked into a grocery store across the street from his home and was never seen again.
The mystery surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of Brian Carrick left the small town with more questions than answers.
It catapulted two murder trials followed by an overturned conviction, hundreds of newspaper articles, national attention and even a podcast.
Still, his parents went to their graves not knowing for certain what happened to their son and without a chance to give him a proper burial.
One of 14 siblings from an Irish Catholic family, Carrick, a junior at Johnsburg High School, worked as a stock boy at Val’s Finer Foods for about three years at the time he was last seen there the evening of Friday, Dec. 20, 2002.
It was the last day of school, kicking off the Christmas break and he was excited, his parents said in past interviews.
His family, including his father William Carrick, who saw him leave the house that night, said he had gone to the store that evening at 6:45.
Those inside the store who saw him enter at about 6:45 p.m. said he was looking for another co-worker to switch work hours with him that following Saturday.
But there is where people close to the story stop knowing or agreeing about his whereabouts.
The body of Brian Carrick, the 11th of 14 Carrick children and the eighth Carrick kid to work in the store, has never been found.
However, his blood was found in and around the produce cooler and on boxes in a compactor behind the grocery store.
His mother, Terry Carrick, who died in 2009, said in an interview with Northwest Herald about two months after he was missing that she wanted him to come home but no longer believed he would.
“I’d love to see him come home, but the chances of that are slim, and I’d like the opportunity to bury him properly,” she had said through tears. “I think somebody’s scared to death to come forward, or they’re not scared and they don’t have a conscience and the devil’s in their grips. No matter what it was, it wasn’t worth his life.”
In that interview, Terry Carrick said Brian is the first thing she and her husband thought about when they woke up in the morning and the last thing they thought about before falling asleep at night.
She also said she did not believe her son was alive.
“It’s too long,” Terry Carrick said. “We know something happened whether accidentally or something. You don’t vanish into thin air. Somebody’s got to start talking. We’d like to have him before decomposition.”
On the morning of Dec. 21, 2002, Terry Carrick was alerted that something was wrong when she checked Brian’s bedroom to find he wasn’t there. Then a phone call came in from Val’s and the caller said he did not show up for work.
That afternoon she went to Johnsburg police and reported her son was missing.
That Sunday, investigators went to the grocery store and learned some sort of fight occurred inside the produce cooler Friday night and concluded that a crime had been committed there, according to the Carricks, police and McHenry County court documents.
They also found the blood that later proved to be Brian Carrick’s, according to his family, police and trial testimony.
In the days and weeks that followed his disappearance, the Carricks had many visitors at their home, including the owners of the grocery store who brought them food; missing person posters were hung; and hundreds of volunteers and various police agencies searched the wooded areas around his home and the grocery store as well as the Fox River.
On New Year’s Day 2003, a prayer vigil of more than 1,000 people was held in the parking lot of Val’s, which today is renamed Angelo’s.
On the one-year anniversary, a standing-room-only memorial service was held in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Johnsburg.
Terry Carrick said the memorial service was not an “acceptance” but an “acknowledgement” that her son was dead.
“In God’s time, we’ll have the answers, even if we don’t get them here,” Terry Carrick said at the time.
In the earlier months of the investigation, then-Johnsburg Police Chief Ken Rydberg said he felt they were making progress, interviewing several people, checking 100 pages of phone records and exploring as many as 300 tips.
But he also told reporters that he felt the police needed the town’s residents and the students from Johnsburg High School to help solve the case.
Rydberg said at the time, he believed some of the people he had interviewed knew something about what happened and just had not been forthcoming.
“We’re slowly putting together all the pieces of the puzzle,” Rydberg said in a news report in 2003.
Yet, it wasn’t until 2010 when Mario Casciaro, whose family were part owners of the grocery store, was arrested and charged with the rare charge of murder by intimidation.
A large part of the case against him hung on the testimony of Shane Lamb, another employee at the grocery store, who said at Casciaro’s trials that drug dealing had been taking place at the grocery store and Brian Carrick had allegedly gotten mixed up in it.
He also claimed to have thrown a fatal punch in an attempt to collect money owed to Casciaro at Casciaro’s direction. He later recanted his story.
A mistrial was declared after Casciaro’s first trial in 2012, but he was convicted after a second trial a year later and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
That conviction, however, has since been overturned. In September 2015, the Second District Appellate Court unanimously overturned Casciaro’s conviction and set him free. The Illinois Supreme Court denied the request from the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office to hear an appeal.
Casciaro has continued to maintain his innocence and works today as an attorney.
In a recent interview, Casciaro said he and his family were among those who helped look for Carrick and brought food to his family “multiple times during [the] holidays.”
He said prior to Brian Carrick’s disappearance, his family was close with the Carricks. When he went missing, Casciaro said he often sat with the family and “brainstorm[ed]” to try and figure out where he might have gone.
“Initially, the thought was not foul play, but that Brian had run away or gone to a friend’s house,” Casciaro said Wednesday.
However, while they were alive, the Carricks said they never believed their son had run away.
Former Assistant State’s Attorney Michael “Mick” Combs said this week that he stands behind his case against Casciaro and he wouldn’t do anything different if given another chance.
“We did multiple grand jury investigations. We went out to the store with FBI investigators, my investigators, interviewed a lot of people over the course of a few years, just trying to get answers, to bring peace to the family,” said Combs, who today works in private practice as a defense attorney.
“I wanted to find Brian for that family,” he said. “I was ultimately never able to get the answers I wanted to get for the family, which was to find the body of Brian Carrick.”
He scoffs at allegations made during Casciaro’s appeal pointing at another stock boy as the killer. That man died of an overdose between the two murder trials and was never charged nor did he testify at either trial.
Combs, who joined the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2008, said he came to know William Carrick quite well over the years, though Terry Carrick died in 2009, early in his involvement in the case.
In 2010, the Carrick patriarch told the Northwest Herald when Casciaro was charged with murder that he wanted “justice to be served, but that’s not what life’s about. Life’s not about revenge. I believe in heaven and hell, and you’re going to earn one or the other.”
Combs said the Carricks and their family had a strong Catholic faith and finding Brian’s body and being able to bury him was “very important,” so they would have a place to properly grieve him.
In an interview on Dec. 20, 2005, three years after last seeing her son alive, Terry Carrick said she had accepted he was dead but she just wanted his body back so she could “start the grieving progress.”
Never mentioning any names, she said she could not believe “they” disposed of her son’s body in a way that he will never be found.
“It’s an empty hole in your heart that will never be filled,” she said.
If he has any regrets, Combs said, it is that he was unable to get the information needed to lead the Carricks to Brian’s remains.
Retired McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather, who presided over both of Casciaro’s murder trials as well as his perjury trial in 2008 in which he was acquitted, shared Combs’ sentiments.
“Everybody wanted to bring some kind of closure to the Carrick family,” Prather said.
“Everybody that I know was just so saddened by the case,” she said. “The young man, 17 years old, turns up missing and is never found, and everybody is heartbroken. The fact it happened around Christmas time, [it’s] that much more sad. It was a highly publicized case, and everybody was watching.”
Prather, who retired in 2019, said the case affected a lot of lives “for a long time,” including investigators, lawyers and witnesses, as well as herself.
“It was just a really difficult, sad case,” Prather said. “I put a lot of hours into that case.”
Johnsburg Village President Ed Hettermann this week described Brian Carrick and his family as “members and family to the Johnsburg community.”
To this day, 20 years later, he said the community’s “hearts and thoughts are with the Carrick family, especially during this time of year.“
“We hope that justice is served so that the family can obtain answers, which may bring a small amount of solace to them,” Hettermann said in an email.