Becky Klein. Nicole Abusharif mug shot. Abusharif image courtesy of the Dupage Sheriff's Department
Lovers begin as strangers, and as time erodes the edifice of unfamiliarity, the partners are often confronted by surprises. If the new information affirms our faith in her suitability for us, the relationship continues and endures. If, however, it reveals duplicity, treachery and betrayal, typically the relationship ends. Usually this process follows a predictable template: accusations, followed by tears, protestations, and denials. But in the dissolution of the partnership of Nicole Abusharif and Rebecca Klein, little was typical.
Nicole Abusharif was convicted of the first-degree murder of Becky Klein on May 5, 2009. It was not an easy decision for the jury. They deliberated for 11 hours over two days before agreeing with the prosecution that Abusharif, now 28, was responsible for killing her partner of eight years. Her alleged motives were as ancient as the human race: greed and lust. Abusharif held a combined $400,000 in insurance policies on Klein, and during the year immediately preceding the murder, had fallen deeply in love with a 19-year-old bisexual woman, Rose Sodaro, whom she'd met on MySpace.
Sodaro was the prosecution's star witness. Now 22 years old, with a brown pageboy haircut and pert, turned-up nose, Sodaro described, in a marked Chicago accent, her relationship with the defendant. It began with e-mails, then progressed to telephone conversations and finally, to meeting each other. A sexual relationship ensued, with Abusharif inventing numerous false identities for herself to nourish Sodaro's interest. She claimed to be both a Villa Park and New York firefighter, told her younger lover that she was decorated for her service at Ground Zero after the 9/11 tragedy, and toward the end of the relationship, bragged about being accepted into an elite corps of Villa Park firefighters—the rescue squad. None of Abusharif's claims was true. She worked at a security company in Des Plaines and had a substantial nest egg, prosecutors claimed, composed of monies received from eight successful automobile and workman's comp insurance claims.
Abusharif wasn't above trolling for sympathy to maintain her girlfriend's attention. She claimed to have been successfully treated, via transplant, for liver cancer. She told Sodaro that she was a heavy drinker, that her inability to control her alcoholism would inevitably cause her body to reject the new liver. She even dragged Sodaro to a funeral home, where Abusharif dramatically selected the casket she wanted to be buried in. At the memory of Abusharif instructing her to ensure that a firefighting logo was inscribed on the coffin, Sodaro broke down in tears on the witness stand.
On the night Klein disappeared, Sodaro and Abusharif had a date. They went bowling in Tinley Park with Sodaro's friends, and at 3 a.m on March 16, they returned together to the Harvard Avenue home in Villa Park shared by Abusharif and Klein. Sodaro testified that she was aware of Becky Klein. She knew her as her lover's roommate and had no idea the two were actually life partners, complete with matching commitment rings.
Two days later, after an admittedly bungled missing persons investigation by Villa Park police, a violent crimes task force discovered Becky Klein's corpse in the trunk of Abusharif's "baby," her 1966 Mustang, a car which Nicole named "________" and whose appellation she used as her MySpace password. The car was parked in the detached garage of the Villa Park house. Klein's hands and feet were bound with duct tape, her mouth was gagged, her eyes covered with a blindfold, and around her head was a plastic garbage bag secured, once again, with duct tape.
It was a horrific crime, and Abusharif quickly became the prime suspect. Although she had no documented history of violence, although the Klein-Abusharif union was regarded by friends and family alike as an ideal one, the revelations of Abusharif's titillating secret life cast a long shadow of suspicion. Her actions during the search for Klein did little to dispel that impression: she displayed no obvious distress or concern for Becky's welfare, instead focusing on Sodaro. Abusharif told the teenager to lie to the police if they contacted her, to claim they didn't know each other. Abusharif tried desperately to keep Sodaro out of the whole mess, lying to the police that she didn't know the girl's surname, cell phone number, or e-mail address.
Her lies were suspicious enough, but the physical evidence against Abusharif was overwhelming. The Mustang had two trunk keys, and both were found in her possession. Twenty-five finger and palm prints belonging to Abusharif were found on the garbage bag used to suffocate Klein. Abusharif's DNA was found on the bandanas used to gag Klein's mouth and blind her eyes. And more DNA belonging to Abusharif was found on the duct tape used to bind Klein's feet and hands, and to securely fasten the garbage bag over her head.
Abusharif's defense attorneys, Bob Parchem and Dennis Sopata, had little chance of an acquittal given the tsunami of evidence against their client. So they resorted to innuendo and accusation to deflect attention from Abusharif's actions. And shamefully, one of their tactics was to discredit the very nature of lesbian relationships. Parchem claimed in his opening arguments that gay relationships are "different" from straight ones, that infidelity is generally accepted as normal, that Abusharif's desperate wooing of a third party was a typical component of a lesbian union. With his folksy manner and quizzical tone, Parchem seemed to be saying, "Those wacky gay girls. Who can figure 'em out? This is just what they do." ( To their credit, the prosecution quickly rebutted this contention, reminding the jurors that Becky Klein believed her relationship to be monogamous, that Becky Klein wasn't engaging in similar behavior, that Becky Klein considered herself to be married to the defendant in the same way Klein's sister was married to her husband ) .
The defense also offered an alternate explanation, albeit a flimsy one, for what really happened to Becky Klein. They claimed that Klein and Abusharif argued about Sodaro, that when Abusharif decided to meet Sodaro in Tinley Park against her partner's wishes, Klein angrily declared her intention to go to her sister Melanie's house. With that, both women left Harvard Avenue, and according to the defense, Abusharif never saw Klein again. An unknown assailant, the defense posited, murdered Becky after Abusharif left the house.
The most plausible of the defense's arguments concerned Abusharif's physical limitations. With a bad back and weighing 40 pounds less than her partner, they argued there was no way Abusharif could have subdued and bound Klein, let alone stowed her in the trunk of the Mustang, all while leaving no marks on the body or bearing any signs of a struggle herself. But sitting in the courtroom and walking to and from the proceedings, Abusharif, who has gained weight since the murder, looked neither infirm nor waifish.
The defense did manage to score one victory. The jury declined to add to its guilty verdict a key aggravating factor—that the murder was cold, calculated and premeditated, as the prosecution requested. Had they done this, Abusharif would have been eligible for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. As it stands, she will serve a minimum of twenty years and could serve as many as sixty. She will be at least 48 years old before she has her first opportunity for parole.
After she is sentenced by Judge John Kinsella in early June, her most likely destination will be Dwight Correctional Facility in Dwight, Ill., the state's only maximum security prison for adult female offenders. Among the women Abusharif will meet there is Marilyn Lemak, a Naperville homemaker and former surgical nurse convicted in 2002 of slaying her three children. Ironically, Lemak, 44 years old at the time of her sentencing, was also a DuPage county resident who suffocated her victims.
Though the jury found Abusharif to be responsible for the murder of her partner, unanswered questions remain. The most pressing is whether or not Abusharif acted alone. According to published reports, even at the time of her arrest in 2007, authorities expressed doubt that Abusharif had the physical capacity to subdue, restrain, murder and hide her 160-pound partner by herself.
In November 2008, Robert Edwards, who worked with Abusharif at the security company in Des Plaines, was convicted of obstruction of justice in the murder investigation of Becky Klein. Edwards—who did not testify at Abusharif's trial—lied to police about his whereabouts the night of the murder—he was videotaped by Villa Park police admitting to being present at the Harvard address on March 15—and about the nature of his relationship to Abusharif. After initially claiming he only knew her casually from work, Edwards later admitted that he and Abusharif used drugs together and discussed having a three-way sexual encounter, presumably with the bisexual Rose Sodaro and not Becky Klein—though the intended third party was never named.
Edwards has not been charged in connection with Klein's murder. He was sentenced on December 30, 2008 to 75 days at the DuPage County work camp on the obstruction charge. However, Edwards' legal problems continue—he is also facing charges in Cook County for child pornography, discovered on his computer during the Klein murder investigation.
For the family of the victim, the conviction of Abusharif brings, perhaps, the closest thing to closure they will ever have, though nothing will ever mitigate the pain of their loss. But for the family of the convicted, the guilty verdict is the beginning of a very private ordeal understood only by the unfortunate few who have also given birth to, raised, and loved a criminal. Though Nicole's parents and brother were never charged with any wrongdoing in the death of Becky Klein, the guilty woman's actions have tainted them with the brush of accountability.
But throughout the trial, the Abusharifs were far from cavalier. Rather, they appeared shaken, confused, and painfully aware of the seriousness of the charges facing their daughter.
Her father paced the courthouse hallways nervously, telling an observer that Becky Klein was "like another daughter" to him and that he never in his life imagined that he, and his family, would be in such a terrible situation. Her mother sat on a bench, blinking back tears, explaining that she wanted to extend her condolences and sympathy to the Kleins but was advised not to do so by her daughter's lawyer.
Though the Abusharifs' pain is private, it is real. Though the public has little empathy, they are, themselves, innocent. And their betrayal is one of Shakespearean magnitude: their daughter is a convicted killer. What parent would ever believe this to be true of their baby? Yet the accusations have been proven, and somehow they must face it.
The losses engendered by the murder of Becky Klein cannot be overstated. Most importantly, there is the loss of Klein herself, a woman described as the most generous and giving person one can imagine, a woman beloved by her family and friends, a woman who devoted herself to helping people with disabilities find meaning in their lives. Her family and friends are now forever deprived of her. And the family of Nicole Abusharif is left to grapple with the fact that their only daughter is now a convicted murderer.
Clearly, the word "tragedy" was invented for just this situation.