The little girl who got away is 32 now, with two teenage sons. She likes to camp and fish with her family, and she helps her husband remodel their vintage house.
But she rarely goes out alone, and hates getting into her car after it’s been parked outside overnight. She is haunted by guilt -- guilt that dates from when she was 8.
On June 2, 1985, Opal Horton and her friend Melissa Ackerman were riding bicycles on a gravel road in Somonauk, Ill., when a man stepped out of a blue AMC Gremlin and asked for directions.
He grabbed Opal, tossed her in the front seat and chased Melissa, according to court documents.
In those frantic seconds, Opal scrambled to unlock the passenger door, but the lock had been disabled. She lunged over to the driver’s-side window, jumped out and fell to the gravel, tripping the man, who had returned with Melissa pinned under his arm.
Opal ran. Melissa could not.
Fifteen days later, a deputy sheriff found Melissa’s body in a ditch -- five days after her eighth birthday.
Brian Dugan was apprehended and pleaded guilty.
Dugan took something from Opal Horton that day, and has never really left her, even as she tries to deny his presence. But today, Horton is a powerful symbol. For parents whose children could not escape, she is the wrenching image of what might have been. For others, she is a chilling reminder of danger and an example of fragile perseverance.
“When Mike Ackerman hugs me,” Horton said of Melissa’s father, “it’s not just a normal hug. It’s like he’s hugging Melissa too. I still don’t talk to the Ackermans as much as I should because I always feel like, ‘Do they look at me and feel awkward or sad?’ I just don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
Two years before Dugan grabbed Opal and Melissa, he had abducted, raped and killed 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, Ill. His sentencing for the Nicarico crime is underway, with a death penalty hearing continuing Tuesday.
Last week, Horton told her story in court for the first time.
She broke down in tears as she walked to the witness stand and struggled to regain her composure. Assistant State’s Atty. Michael Wolfe, who was questioning her, paused twice to keep his emotions in check.
When Dugan got out of his car, “he walked closer, saying he couldn’t hear us,” Horton testified. She took deep breaths between questions.
“I whispered to Melissa that we had to go.” But Dugan “grabbed me by the neck,” she said, “and threw me through a window into the car, like a ball through the window.”
After she ran, she testified, she hid in a tractor tire at a nearby John Deere dealership until she heard a car take off. She poked her head out and saw Melissa through the car window.
“I waited until I couldn’t see the car anymore. I took off running, ducking so he couldn’t see me,” she testified.
She ran several blocks to the house of someone she knew, a teacher.
“Someone took my friend,” Horton said. The teacher called police.
For the next two weeks, the police questioned Horton.
On June 17, a female FBI agent who had befriended the girl took her to a park and told her Melissa had been found.
“I was happy -- then she told me something else,” said Horton, again breaking into tears.
Later, Michael Ackerman took the stand. Wolfe asked him what his biggest concern was today.
“My biggest concern is Opal,” Ackerman said.
In an interview before she testified, Horton said the days and weeks after her escape were jumbled in her mind now.
She slept with her parents for months and could not go to the bathroom alone.
She saw counselors two or three times, but they were men and she was deathly afraid of men. She refused to talk to strangers about what happened.
Horton used to dream about Melissa. In her dream, the two of them were in Dugan’s parked car. He was asleep.
“It’s very vivid to me that we are together,” she said. “She’s alive and we’re sleeping and we would wake up, sneak out and get away while he was sleeping in his car.”
Horton was a single mom of two boys and working as a real estate agent when she met Brad Wernsman, a custom home builder, in 2005. They married this year.
Over the years, the shock of her ordeal subsided, but her everyday anxiety persists. She had the backyard fenced and the basketball hoop placed inside so her boys could practice with protection. For years, she refused to let her sons ride their bikes or go outside unless she was with them.
Once, alone at home with one of her sons, she heard a noise that frightened her. Creating a game of the situation, she crawled with her son to the garage and drove with him to her parents’ home.
Six months ago in her car, she panicked and banged her head when she started the engine and heard a voice from the radio.
“I always think people are out to get me,” she said. “I’m notorious for hearing things.”
Horton’s parents told the boys about her experience, which Horton said she couldn’t do, when they were about 6 and 4. They asked a few questions but have not pressed her for details, she said. The boys are now 15 and 13.
Horton put her fear of Dugan to rest in July, when she forced herself to watch him plead guilty to the Nicarico crime, she said. She hadn’t seen him since June 2, 1985.
“It was very empowering, actually. Seeing him, he was nothing. I would not say my life is ruined because of him, absolutely not. I don’t know how to say it. He took a part of me, but I feel like that person’s not here. She’s gone.”
But the guilt is powerful and hard to shake. It goes beyond thoughts of why Melissa was lost and she wasn’t. Horton often wonders how she might have helped if she had stayed in the car.
“You always feel like maybe you could have steered the car off the road,” she said, “or gotten someone’s attention, just so she wouldn’t have to be alone.”
As torturous as it was to testify, she said she was adamant about doing it.
“As a parent, how can you not do as much as you can to get justice for your child?” Horton said. “Jeanine, she deserves justice. I’ve never met the Nicaricos, but would love to have a relationship, knowing that, I guess, somebody lived and can speak for her as a child.”
As for Dugan, she has “no trouble saying he deserves the death penalty.”
After talking with her pastor, she said, she needs to “change my idea of forgiveness.”
“Not that I don’t have to forgive him,” Horton said. “I just don’t have to say, ‘Oh, give me a hug.’ I have to say I’m OK with it and move on and know that God has a place for him, as he does for me. It’s not me forgiving him; it’s God forgiving him. I’m not the one making this call.”