As cold cases go, this Aurora killing had all but become frozen in time.
June 2, 1965, to be exact.
That’s when a 14-year-old girl named Nanette Hartman, finishing up her final 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. Senseless. Unsolved. And nearly forgotten in her hometown.
Except by her family, including Nanette’s now 94-year-old mother Shirley Fitzgerald, who have remained convinced all these decades they know who was behind a crime so unthinkable it made national headlines and immediately created a blanket of fear that rolled across this tranquil Pigeon Hill neighborhood like an ominous Stephen King fog.
Suddenly parents began locking down their children. There were no more long summer days running freely until dark, recalls Rick Dickens, only 10 at the time and living 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, arriving home from her sophomore classes at East Aurora High School about a half hour later, who discovered Nanette’s mutilated body – the shirt nearly in shreds from the repeated thrusts of the blades – lying on the braided living room rug.
Although 57 years have passed, those who were kids in the neighborhood back then remember the impact, including Dickens’ wife Patti, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph, who recalls that months later she’d become “physically sick” with fear if her parents were not home and night was advancing.
Gradually, over time, the terror of that afternoon dissipated. As did memories.
And police leads.
What did advance over the decades, however, is DNA technology, which we’ve seen time and again adding new life to these coldest of cases.
Could that again be true in the killing of Nanette Hartman, the city’s fourth oldest cold case?
“Absolutely,” insists Aurora Police Det. Benjamin Grabowski, who recently pulled Nanette’s folder out of the APD’s Cold Case Room, which is dedicated to storing the files of these dusty crime mysteries.
Unfortunately, because of staffing issues, there are no officers dedicated to tackling only them. That job, instead, falls to a pair of detectives, who work plenty of active cases and can look into these long-ago killings only as they find some time.
Or whenever a curious reporter comes calling.
Grabowski counted 19 current cases he’s got on his plate, including sex crimes and a shooting in broad daylight on Aug. 26. But this one cold case piqued his interest, especially after he found that in the few times the file was reopened since the initial killing, no DNA testing was ever done on the items that have been under lock and key in the APD’s evidence room.
Those include Nanette’s bloody clothing, along with the two knives used in the attack – one bent and found under her body, the second, according to family, still buried in her heart.
“She was butchered,” says Grabowski, referring to the autopsy report that revealed stab wounds to Nanette’s heart, neck, lungs, liver and colon.
Even all these years later, it’s hard to imagine who could possibly do something so vicious to a child described by her cousin Dwight King as “sweet” and “quiet,” who had plenty of friends and loved animals, especially the little Chihuahua she “used to carry around all the time.”
The victim’s loved ones are convinced they know that answer. And after Grabowski met with King and Nanette’s mother recently, the detective confirmed that the person the family has long suspected, and has since died, “is the person who is also our main focus.”
That means plenty of work and a lot of luck will have to go into this resurrected investigation, which started a couple weeks ago with the Aurora detective diving into the horrific details contained in the old APD file.
After walking a classmate home from school that early June afternoon in 1965, Nanette cut through a friend’s yard on Jungles Avenue, as she did every day, and entered her duplex through the back door that had been left unlocked because the young girl had lost her key.
Normally she and her friend would stop by Fenske’s Food Shop on Church Road for a snack. But the store was closed on Wednesdays. Which could be 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., when a neighbor, two houses away, heard a scream.
Plenty of people were interviewed at the time of Nanette’s killing, including three witnesses who said they saw a man running from the duplex with blood on his hands around that same time, which was not long before Joyce arrived home from school and discovered her sister’s body.
As far as Grabowski could tell from the sometimes awkwardly written police report, a male suspect was interviewed but nothing came of those leads, or from the many other theories people offered as the investigation quickly narrowed.
According to news accounts, a criminologist was brought in to examine evidence taken under the fingernails of the victim. But Grabowski told me the files indicate Nanette’s nails 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 making contact with the Illinois State Police, where a forensics specialist assured him “so much more can be done,” Grabowski a few days ago sent five items to the lab – two drinking glasses, both knives and Nanette’s blood-soaked blouse.
Grabowski and the family agree that from the very beginning this investigation suffered from shoddy police work. King, who was home from college for the summer, got a frantic call from his aunt, who was at her job as the Hermes School secretary, about the stabbing in her home.
King rushed to the duplex, arriving as neighbors began congregating on the front 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 walk around the living room, where the bloody attack took place, for three to four minutes.
Noting other major missteps with this investigation, Grabowski was “appalled” at how many details were released to the press at the time of the killing, 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 killing that featured a large illustration mapping out the young girl’s walk home from Simmons on that fateful day, as well as a large black and white photograph of the crime scene, with the teen’s body shaded so only the outline remained.
“Who would do that now?” Grabowski asks, 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 mom is just a year older. Still, the detective sees only a petite, dark-haired child as he delves into what he describes as a “fascinating story.” He sees a young girl who never got a chance to even go to high school, much less become a mother or a grandma, who might be retired these days, likely posting pictures of family and friends on Facebook or Instagram.
This killing rocked Aurora at a time when the town was far 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 go on with life in the aftermath of such horror, King tells me, the family would run into 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 quickly replies.
Although expectations that the crime lab can pull viable DNA is “tempered by how old the blood is,” Grabowski insists “it’s still worth a shot.”
“Any case that gets solved, no matter how cold, is worth getting excited about,” he adds, “especially where the victim was a child and so brutally killed … in daytime 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 killing, a mystery he’s certain has far more to reveal.
“Meeting Nanette’s mother and cousin in person, putting names to faces … I told them I am the guy who will hopefully bring resolution to this,” Grabowski says.
“It has gotten a lot more personal.”