As the cold cases went, this Aurora murder had practically frozen in time.
June 2, 1965, to be exact.
It was then that a 14-year-old girl named Nanette Hartman, who was finishing her last days at Simmons Junior High School, was stabbed to death in the living room of the Aurora duplex she shared with her mother and sister.
It was a brutal killing. Foolish. Unresolved. And almost forgotten in her hometown.
Except by her family, including Nanette’s now 94-year-old mother, Shirley Fitzgerald, who remained convinced for all these decades that she knew who was behind a crime so unthinkable it made national headlines. and immediately created a blanket of fear that swept through this peaceful Pigeon. Hill Neighborhood Like a Menacing Fog by Stephen King.
Suddenly, the parents started locking up their children. There were no more long summer days to run free until dark, recalls Rick Dickens, who was just 10 at the time and lived just two blocks from the duplex. in the 600 block of Pine Avenue where Nanette was stabbed 62 times with two butcher knives taken from the kitchen. , police said.
It was her 15-year-old sister, Joyce, who was returning home from her sophomore classes at East Aurora High School about half an hour later, who discovered Nanette’s mutilated body – the shirt almost in tatters from the repeated blows of the blades – lying on the braided living room rug.
Although 57 years have passed, those who were children in the neighborhood at the time remember the impact, including Dickens’ wife, Patti, a fifth-grade student at St. Joseph’s, who remembers that months later, she had become “physically ill” from fear if her parents were not home and the night was advancing.
Gradually, over time, the terror of that afternoon dissipated. Just like memories.
And the police lead.
What has advanced over the decades, however, is DNA technology, which we have seen time and time again add new life to these coldest cases.
Could that be true again in the murder of Nanette Hartman, the city’s fourth longest-running cold case?
“Absolutely,” insists the Aurora police detective. Benjamin Grabowski, who recently pulled Nanette’s file out of the APD’s Cold Case Room, which is dedicated to storing the files of those dusty crime mysteries.
Unfortunately, due to staffing issues, there are no dedicated agents to deal solely with them. That job instead falls to a pair of detectives, who work a lot of active cases and can only investigate those long-ago murders when they find the time.
Or whenever a curious reporter calls.
Grabowski counted 19 open cases he has on his plate, including sex crimes and a broad daylight shooting on Aug. 26. But this cold case piqued his interest, especially after discovering that on the rare occasions when the murder case had been reopened, no DNA test was ever carried out on the items that were locked in the evidence room of the ODA.
These include Nanette’s bloodied clothes, as well as the two knives used in the attack – one twisted and found under her body, the second, according to the family, still buried in her heart.
“She was slaughtered,” Grabowski says, referring to the autopsy report which revealed stab wounds to Nanette’s heart, neck, lungs, liver and colon.
Even all these years later, it’s hard to imagine who could do something so vicious to a kid described by his cousin Dwight King as “sweet” and “quiet”, who had lots of friends and loved animals, especially the little Chihuahua that she’ used to carry around all the time.
The relatives of the victim are convinced they know this answer. And after Grabowski recently met with King and Nanette’s mother, the detective confirmed that the person the family has long suspected and who has since passed away, “is the person who is also our primary focus.”
That means a lot of hard work and a lot of luck will have to be invested in this resurrected investigation, which began a few weeks ago with Detective Aurora delving into the gruesome details contained in the old APD file.
After walking a classmate home from school that early June afternoon in 1965, Nanette walked through a friend’s yard on Jungles Avenue, as she did every day, and entered his duplex by the back door that had been left unlocked because the girl had lost it. key.
Normally she and her friend would stop at Fenske’s Food Shop on Church Road for a snack. But the store was closed on Wednesday. Which could explain why Nanette grabbed a tuna sandwich from the fridge and ate it, a fact confirmed by the autopsy.
It wasn’t much later, around 3:45 p.m., that a neighbor two houses away heard a cry.
Numerous people were interviewed at the time of Nanette’s murder, including three witnesses who said they saw a man fleeing the duplex with blood on his hands around the same time, shortly before Joyce returned from work. school and discovers his sister’s body. .
As far as Grabowski can tell from the sometimes clumsily worded police report, a male suspect was interviewed, but nothing came of those leads, or the many other theories people offered as the survey was rapidly shrinking.
According to reports, a criminologist was brought in to examine the evidence taken from under the fingernails of the victim. But Grabowski told me the records indicated Nanette’s fingernails were too short to get a good sample.
As far as the detective knows, no DNA testing has been done on anything taken from the crime scene. The last time something was sent to the lab in 2001, he adds, “it was just tested for fingerprints.”
After contacting the Illinois State Police, where a forensics specialist assured him that “there is so much more to do,” Grabowski sent five items to the lab a few days ago – two drinking glasses, the two knives and Nanette’s blood-soaked blouse.
Grabowski and the family agree that from the start, this investigation suffered from shoddy police work. King, who was home from college for the summer, received a frantic call from his aunt, who was at work as the Hermes school secretary, about the stabbings in her home.
King rushed to the duplex, arriving as neighbors began to gather on the lawn, his cousin’s body now in an ambulance and with 15 or 20 police officers walking all over the “unsecured crime scene.”
Entering the duplex through the back door, he was “surprised” at how he was allowed to wander around the living room, where the bloody attack took place, for three to four minutes.
Noting other major missteps in this investigation, Grabowski was “appalled” by the number of details released to the press at the time of the murder, including the contents of the victim’s stomach and the number of times Nanette was stabbed.
And he showed me an old Beacon-News story immediately after the murder which featured a large illustration mapping the girl’s way home from Simmons on that fateful day, as well as a large black and white photograph of the scene. of the crime, with the teenager’s body shadowed so that only the outline remained.
“Who would do that now?” asks Grabowski, shaking his head at the many changes in police procedures over nearly six decades.
Nanette Hartman would be 71 today, a fact not lost on Grabowski, whose own mother is only a year older. Yet the detective only sees a small dark-haired child as he immerses himself in what he describes as a “compelling story”. He sees a young girl who never even had the chance to go to high school, let alone become a mother or a grandmother, who could be retired these days, probably posting photos of family and friends. friends on Facebook or Instagram.
This murder rocked Aurora at a time when the town was much smaller and more innocent. And it devastated those who loved Nanette, especially her mother and late father Frank, who lived in Crystal Lake at the time, as well as the sister, who discovered the body, now living out of state.
Not only did they have to live on after such horror, King tells me, but the family was meeting the person they insist was the killer, who remained in Aurora.
So is this a case of justice delayed/justice denied, I ask King.
“Absolutely, 100%,” he replies quickly.
Although expectations that the crime lab can extract viable DNA are “moderated by blood age,” Grabowski insists, “it’s still worth it.”
“Any case that is solved, no matter how cold, deserves to be excited,” he adds, “especially when the victim was a child and was so brutally killed… during the day and in such a quiet neighborhood. .”
And now that the family has been brought on board, the detective is more motivated than ever to get to the bottom of this murder, a mystery he’s sure has much more to reveal.
“Meeting Nanette’s mom and cousin in person, putting names to faces…I told them I was the guy who would hopefully bring a solution to this,” Grabowski said.
“It became a lot more personal.”
. brutal murder of Aurora of the years a chance to be solved