By SAMANTHA PIDDE
After pleading guilty to first-degree murder last week, Andrew Sucher, 26, of Rock Falls, will serve 21 years in prison for the death of DCFS worker Pamela Knight.
"Pam Knight went to work on Sept. 29. 2017, and she never came home," said her daughter, Jennifer Hollenbeck, in a victim-impact statement during the plea agreement hearing held Wednesday, July 10, in Carroll County Circuit Court.
Knight, 59, of Dixon, went to Sucher's parents’ home in Milledgeville on Sept. 29, 2017, to remove his 2-year-old son from his custody due to an order of protection, related to a pending charge against him of physically abusing a 6-year-old. Despite being unable to secure an escort to the home, Knight decided to risk picking up the child by herself for the safety of the toddler.
Sucher had been alerted by a call from a Whiteside County sheriff's deputy that the DCFS was coming and as Knight arrived at the home and began exiting her car, the 6-foot-4, 270 lb. Sucher pushed Knight backwards to the ground, cracking her head on the concrete driveway.
"The defendant then stomped on her head with his foot and fled the area," said Carroll County State's Attorney Scott Brinkmeier while presenting the facts of the case at the July 10 hearing.
Knight sustained a fractured skull and severe brain damage. After struggling for 132 days, she died Feb. 8, 2018, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The Cook County medical examiner's office said she died of "complications of blunt force head injuries due to assault."
Sucher faced five counts of first-degree murder along with charges of aggravated battery causing bodily harm and aggravated battery of a state employee. A single count of first-degree murder could have brought a sentence of 20 to 60 years in prison, up to life. A jury trial was scheduled for Aug. 19.
Instead, as part of a plea agreement, Sucher pleaded guilty July 10 to one count of murder in the first degree, with the agreement that he would serve 100 percent of 21 years in prison, with no chance for early parole. He will receive 649 days credit for time already served.
After his release, he also will serve three years of mandatory supervised release. Sucher has 30 days to file an appeal.
Judge John “Jerry” Kane took Sucher through several questions, reminding him of his right to a trial and asking him if he waived that right to enter a guilty plea. Sucher affirmed that he understood and did intend to plead guilty. He and his attorney agreed to the facts of the case, as presented by Brinkmeier.
The courtroom was filled with DCFS workers along with family and friends of Knight, all of whom were wearing blue "Pam Knight" ribbons. Her husband, Don Knight, and daughter both took the stand to give victim impact statements.
"Justice wasn't served here for her today," Don Knight said, adding that the justice system is flawed and "criminals get off with less than they deserve."
Last week he told the Sterling Gazette that Brinkmeier told him the plea deal was made because the medical examiner would not be able to testify with certainty that the fatal injuries were caused by Sucher's kicks and not the impact with the concrete. The concern was he could be convicted of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, which is punishable by two to five years in prison.
State’s Attorney Brinkmeier told the Mirror-Democrat/Times-Journal that the defense attorney had hired an examiner who agreed that while the cause of death was forced blunt trauma to the head, it could not be determined if that was from Sucher kicking Pamela Knight in the head or from the fall to the concrete.
The prosecution’s expert witness could not find fault in that medical opinion, explained Brinkmeier, and at a trial jurors would have been given instructions on the possibility of a lesser manslaughter “reckless killing” charge.
Brinkmeier said there was a risk that if all 12 jurors were not convinced, Sucher could have faced just a two-to-five-year prison sentence, and only be required to serve half of it.
“So it’s a big difference,” said Brinkmeier. “And that was a risk I was not willing to take if (Sucher) was willing to plead to first degree murder” and spend the entire 21-year sentence in prison.
Don Knight told the court that he understood his own statement would have no effect on the plea or the sentence, “but it will give me some piece of mind.”
He continued that after the attack, he promised his wife that he would spend the rest of his life getting justice for her and that no one else would be hurt like her. Since the attack, he has made it his mission to improve DCFS procedures and be an advocate for DCFS workers.
"This terrible tragedy will be with us for the rest of our lives," Knight said. “My family’s loss is permanent.”
In his emotional statement from the stand, he said that when his daughter needs advice from her mother, she will not be there. He added that some day, when his granddaughters are planning their weddings, Pam will not be there.
Knight pointed out to everyone in the courtroom that they can go home at night to their families.
"When I go home, I will be alone," he said.
With tears in her eyes, Pam Knight’s daughter Jennifer Hollenbeck spoke about her mother, who rescued her from the system.
"She became my voice. She was my moral compass," Hollenbeck said.
She said most did not know how much her mother did, because she was so humble.
"She was soft-spoken and kind. She was compassionate and caring," her daughter said.
Hollenbeck spoke about the day of the attack, regretting that she had missed a phone call from her mother. By 11 p.m., Pam Knight had slipped into a coma and Hollenbeck said that for the next 132 days "life was unbearable."
Hollenbeck spoke of the financial burden this has put on her father, due to hospital bills and other expenses. She lamented that half of her children never saw their grandmother after the attack, explaining they had been rescued from the system and she deemed the sight of Pam to be too traumatic.
"Violence and chaos were supposed to be part of their past, not their present," Hollenbeck said.
She added that the other half of her children must live with having seen their grandmother in such terrible condition. Hollenbeck's 11-year-old daughter was visiting her grandmother when she took a dramatic turn for the worse. Pam died four days later.
Hollenbeck continued that the loss of her mother is felt not only by her family and friends, but by the entire child welfare community, saying, "And she will be forever missed."
Saying little else through the whole proceeding, other than answering yes or no questions, Sucher did not to make a statement to the court.
After accepting the plea and passing sentence, Judge Kane urged Sucher to "get a hold of his anger."
The judge noted that when Sucher is released from prison, he will be in his 40s, saying that is still very young. Kane said Sucher can either change and have some sort of life after his incarceration or simply continue being in and out of prison.
"This is a waste. This woman's life was wasted and your life is wasted as a result," Judge Kane said.
He reminded Sucher that he has a son, saying, "In the end, I just hope you come out a better person. Do it for that child.”
Judge Kane added that he hopes at that time, Sucher is "ready to respect the world. I truly hope you come out a better person. I’m sure you can. I know you can.”
The judge asked him if he can do that, to which Sucher simply responded, “Yes."
Sucher also faced charges of aggravated battery of a police officer for punching former Carroll County Chief Deputy Craig Dimmick on Dec. 19, 2017, and was charged last month with aggravated battery in a public place for attacking another prisoner in the Carroll County Jail.
He also was charged in Whiteside County with aggravated battery of a child, battery, domestic battery and interfering with the reporting of a domestic battery. This is the charge that prompted the order of protection which led Pam Knight to attempt to remove his child from his custody. Sucher allegedly dragged a 6-year-old by the foot, struck the child in the face with a squirt gun and threw a woman against a wall on July 29, 2017.
As part of the plea agreement, all of these charges against Sucher were dismissed.