In 1981, Dawn Niles was 15 and pregnant and fighting with her boyfriend, Gary Albert.
On March 17, friends from the special program for deaf students they all were a part of at Hinsdale South High School listened to her cry about the baby she was expecting and about the boy who didn’t want anything to do with it. Then they watched her get into his car.
In 1981, Gary Albert was 18, behind the wheel of a beat-up 1971 brown Chevy, and unhappy about becoming a father.
Albert, now 49 and living in Sugar Grove, faces two counts of murder, accused of stabbing Niles 34 times in her chest and back. The LaGrange Park teen was found on March 22, 1981, in a Cook County Forest Preserve in Palos Township, and was about three months pregnant.
On Tuesday, three of her friends – barely recognizable from their old yearbook drama club photo — tried to recall for the jurors hearing Albert’s murder trial what happened that fateful Tuesday more than 30 years ago when they last saw Niles.
For Mary Augustyn, testifying through a sign language interpreter, it was P.E. class, where Niles cried and confessed she’d missed her period three times.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you tell your mother you were raped or you were dating another guy?’” Augustyn remembered Niles telling her. “Dawn was very upset with that.”
Those were the “cold, calculating words” of Albert, “desperate to avoid responsibility for his 15-year-old girlfriend who was ready to tell her mother she was pregnant,” Assistant State’s Attorney Kathleen Lanahan told jurors.
The case lay cold until 2006, when investigators re-opened it at the urging of Niles’ sister. Albert was charged after DNA indicated he had sex with Niles shortly before she died.
His attorneys contend that police ignored other leads and never questioned other possible suspects.
“They made a decision the day after her body was found that the boyfriend must have done this,” Todd Pugh told jurors. “They got it wrong in this case in 1981 and (Cook County Sheriff’s Det. Larry) Rafferty picked this up as a cold case in 2006, and he got it wrong, too.”
Augustyn and two other deaf witnesses testified not from the usual witness stand but from a chair placed in front of the judge to accommodate pairs of American Sign Language interpreters.
The extra screens and live feed of the court reporter’s transcript that were set up to aid deaf spectators proved a novelty for Bridgeview courthouse employees and judges, who stopped regularly outside Judge Joan M. O’Brien’s courtroom door to read the testimony through the glass doors.
That testimony frequently showed the impact of the three decades that have passed since the crime occurred, with witnesses in several instances struggling to recall the finer points of what happened that day, something Pugh sought to emphasize.
Robert Krueger, for instance, testified he talked to Niles as she waited that day by school doors, then watched her walk outside toward Albert’s brown Chevy.
He didn’t see her get in because he was headed to class, only he couldn’t remember, he told Pugh on cross-examination, which class he was headed to himself.