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Crime & Courts

Sycamore man guilty of murder

Jury finds Gerken fatally shot man through door at DeKalb home

Matthew Apgar -
Christopher Gerken demonstrates for the jury how he says he shot Matthew Clark in self defense during his trial on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. Gerken is on trial for the October 2015 murder of Clark in DeKalb.
Matthew Apgar - Christopher Gerken demonstrates for the jury how he says he shot Matthew Clark in self defense during his trial on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. Gerken is on trial for the October 2015 murder of Clark in DeKalb.

SYCAMORE – After a jury found Christopher "C.J." Gerken guilty of first-degree murder of Matthew Clark, the victim's mother, Deborah Donley-Clark, left the courtroom with her hands folded tightly near her chin, streaks of tears down her face.

Gerken, 27, of Sycamore, will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 10, two years after Clark, 26, was shot to death Oct. 6, 2015. Gerken faces up to a life sentence.

It took a jury of seven men and five women less than four hours to decide that the physical evidence and the testimony of the defendant's longtime friend proved that Clark's death was murder, rejecting Gerken's claim he shot Clark in self-defense after a cocaine deal went bad at a home in the 800 block of Pleasant Street in DeKalb.

"I want to thank the jury for their service," said Gerken's lawyer, former DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell. "Trials like these aren't easy, and it's a lot to ask, for someone to give up a week. Even though I obviously disagree with the verdict, I respect it."

The jury found Gerken guilty of fatally shooting Clark with a .357 Magnum revolver a moment before Clark could close the front door at of Clark's girlfriend's home. The bullet hit Clark on his right side, passing through his lung and his kidney before it lodged in his back.

Prosecutors said Gerken was angry because he thought Clark had cheated him in a cocaine deal about a week earlier, and because Clark had degraded him in text messages to his middleman, Trevor D. Motsinger, 27.

Gerken took the stand Thursday and said Motsinger arranged for him to buy of an "8-ball" – 3 1/2 grams – of cocaine from Clark, and that he hoped to peacefully work out the $50 in cocaine he felt Clark shorted him. Gerken testified that Clark refused to bargain and threw a punch at him while he was sitting in a chair on the house's front porch. Gerken testified that he pushed Clark away, back into the doorway, and that he stood up and took a fighting stance before Clark went for a gun.

"He lifts his shirt, reaches into his waist and pulls out a pistol," Gerken said.

In response, Gerken said he drew his weapon and turned away while firing blind.

"I thought I was going to be shot in the face, so I turned away and fired one shot," Gerken said. "As soon as I fired a shot, I ran. I had to get to the corner. I didn't want to get in a shootout with the guy. I had to get to the corner. I thought I'd get shot in the back at any time."

He left Motsinger on the porch and drove east on Interstate 88 toward Chicago. He discarded the spent casing, but kept the revolver that still had five rounds.

"I didn't know he was hit," Gerken said. "I know he still has a gun. If I get rid of mine, and he comes for me, I have no protection. I felt like Trevor would probably tell him where I live."

First Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Klein pounced on that detail in cross-examination, since Gerken testified that he lived in an apartment on Main Street with his girlfriend, and their 5-year-old and 5-month-old boys.

"Your girlfriend and your children were at your home, by themselves, and you went to Maywood," Klein said. "This whole evening, you don't know [Clark] is incapacitated, and your girlfriend and your children are at the apartment. Alone."

The jury watched video Wednesday of the 16-minute pursuit Gerken led police on about 7 a.m. the morning after the shooting, which ended when he reached a police roadblock at Lincoln Highway and Route 47 and surrendered.

"People who have their lives threatened don't run from the police, they run to the police," Klein said during her closing argument. "They don't leave their childhood friend behind to face whatever deadly force is going to come through that door. They don't abandon their girlfriend and children to be sitting ducks for an armed assailant, and then say they're keeping the gun for the protection of those very people."

As his last witness Thursday, Gerken's lawyer, Campbell, recalled Kelly Sullivan, public relations officer with the DeKalb Police Department, who at the time was a detective who collected evidence from inside the house.

Campbell showed Sullivan several photos of contraband she seized from the house: a pipe under the porch, marijuana, and cocaine in various locations, including a line on a mirror alongside a razor and straw, and a sizable bag of cocaine in a Crown Royal bag inside a dresser drawer.

He saved a photo of a 9 mm handgun in a backpack for last. Just as she did Wednesday, Sullivan testified that no tests were done on the gun.

During Campbell's closing argument, he held up Gerken's revolver.

"This gun was tested, shot, examined and run through the wringer," Campbell said.

Then he picked up the 9 mm.

"This gun? Nothing," he said. "Not one test. … A $10 fingerprint test on this weapon would have told you who last held this. A swab of the inside of this barrel would have told you whether this had been fired."

A DeKalb police officer testified Thursday morning that as Clark was getting aid on the front porch, he tried to enter the house to find any other witnesses, but the door was locked.

"Now, of course we have the issue of how the gun gets from Mr. Clark into the backpack," Campbell said. "That's a fair question. But we have Rebecca Griffith-Perez locking the door while police are on the porch.

"We have no idea what happened on the other side of that door."

Griffith-Perez, 27, Clark's girlfriend of a few months, testified Tuesday that her 7-year-old daughter was sleeping on the couch, tucked in with her Hello Kitty blanket and pillow when Clark was shot, and that she pulled her into the kitchen pantry.

Klein said in her closing argument that Griffith-Perez let officers in to search the house.

As for Motsinger, who was convicted in March of possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to two-and-a-half years probation.

"Trevor Motsinger. You've seen Trevor; we've all seen Trevor," Klein said, referring to Motsinger's size.

Sullivan testified she found the pistol, loaded but without a round in the chamber, in a backpack under a blanket, covered by several articles of clothing and drugs, all the contents arranged in an orderly manner. That made it unlikely that a person who had been mortally wounded, or that someone in a state of panic, would have been able to place it there before police arrived, Klein said.

"You ask yourselves if he really has the agility and the dexterity to tidily tuck this gun away in the bottom of a backpack, with many other items of clothing and drugs neatly packed on top, and then put a hat on top and cover it up with the blanket," Klein said.

Among other memorable moments in the trial, Campbell asked for a mistrial Wednesday, after DeKalb police Sgt. Jeff Weese hugged Clark's parents on his way out of the courtroom. Campbell claimed it tainted the jury.

He filed a motion Thursday to preserve video of the trial.

"Then the appellate court has a more complete record of the proceedings and can determine whether Mr. Clark was given a fair trial," Campbell said.

Ultimately, Motsinger's credibility, as well as that of Griffith-Perez and Gerken, were the trial's key points.

"This is a crime conceived in hell," Klein said, "and crimes that are conceived in hell are not going to have angels for witnesses."

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