Jerry Davich: Finally, after 16 months, justice for Amanda Bach?
Jerry Davich email@example.com January 26, 2013 10:42PM
A memorial to Amanda Bach stands near railroad tracks in Wheeler where her body was found in Sept. 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 28, 2013 6:27AM
The now lonely and weathered memorial is still easy to miss on the south side of twin railroad tracks, framed by Wheeler High School in the frigid background.
Small stuffed animals are still there, too, alongside faded bouquets of plastic flowers, and tipped-over candles that have long been extinguished.
Amid all the warm memories and loving gifts left by friends and family, a handmade cross stands out with a bold message that still cries for attention.
“JUSTICE FOR AMANDA,” it screams in the dead of winter.
Finally, after more than 16 months of legal wrangling, odd twists and swirling rumors, justice for Amanda Bach is set to begin on Feb. 4 with her murder trial.
I revisited Bach’s death site last week to remind myself where her body was found on Sept. 17, 2011, after a frantic and massive search by police, family, friends and strangers.
The pretty, petite and bubbly 19-year-old Portage woman was shot in the throat and killed, allegedly by her former boyfriend Dustin McCowan, who was arrested and charged for her murder.
Bach was last known to be at the McCowan home in Wheeler on Sept. 15, 2011 — just 300 yards from where her body was found — and her vehicle was found abandoned the next day at a general store in town.
The 2011 Portage High School graduate was determined to be killed on Sept. 16, 2011.
“Amanda was a wonderful daughter who enjoyed running, basketball and hiking,” stated her parents, William and Sandra Bach, in her obituary. “She will always be remembered for her incredibly beautiful smile and the vibrance she brought into our lives.”
Both families, the Bachs and the McCowans, declined to comment for this column, for obvious reasons with the murder trial looming. Neither family wants to jeopardize its outcome or give opposing counsels additional firepower.
Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel anticipates calling roughly 100 witnesses to the stand during the trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks. Beyond that, his office can’t comment on the long and winding court case known as State vs. McCowan.
Defense attorney John Vouga, who has been representing McCowan since last April, couldn’t say much to me either. But he did tell me that new, telling evidence will be revealed during the trial that has not yet been released to the public.
“I only ask that people keep an open mind,” said Vouga, noting the same request for a “fair and impartial” jury pool, to be selected in the trial’s opening days.
Police are not saying much either, besides insisting again that everyone involved in this murder investigation is focused on one thing: bringing justice for Bach and her family.
Porter County Sheriff David Lain noted the additional poignancy of teenage homicides.
“Families are robbed of a life. All of us are robbed of the victim’s potential, their unknown contributions to the world,” Lain said.
“Police officers cannot always protect everyone from harm but, especially in the case of a homicide, they will use every resource possible to find answers and justice.”
There’s that word again — justice.
‘I want a conviction’
Several of Bach’s friends echoed it again and again since her killing. No one I heard from was more vocal and passionate than Christine Duda, of Chesterton. The two young women met while working at Quaker Steak and Lube in Portage.
“Amanda became loved by everyone very quickly,” Duda recalled. “She was one of those people where there’s no way you couldn’t notice her in a room. She was always smiling, hugging people and complimenting them in any way she could.”
Duda said Bach’s voice was “explosive,” and every sentence seemed to end with an exclamation point. But behind the public persona, Bach would confide in Duda about her rocky relationship with McCowan, who was “very controlling” of her.
“Dustin would come into the restaurant either by himself to speak to her or with friends,” Duda said. “Dustin never treated her like a woman. He would say nasty things and she would brush it off as a joke. I personally never liked him by the way he treated her.”
On the morning of Sept. 17, 2011, Duda received a phone call from Bach’s father, asking if she had seen his daughter. That’s when Duda’s cheery world started melting, and she joined dozens of others in the search for Bach.
“I decided I would set out on my own to look for my friend but, little did I know, she was already found,” said Duda, who was later interviewed by police.
“If you stood where they found her, you can see directly across the field to the Wheeler High School, where everyone gathered to start the initial search. To your right, just two houses down, was Dustin’s house,” she recalled. “I have never felt so sick.”
Bach was supposed to attend Duda’s wedding on Oct. 6, 2012, so Duda invited Bach’s parents in their daughter’s place. Surprisingly to her, they accepted and attended.
“It put me at ease knowing that my friend would be there in spirit, but to hug her parents meant more to me than anything in the entire universe,” Duda said. “It was like I was hugging her and it was just so beautiful. I was speechless.”
Duda also saved a seat for Bach at the reception, alongside a photo of her, pink roses and a sign stating, “I know you would be here today if heaven weren’t so far away.”
Since Bach’s killing, this case has had many odd twists, legal motions and pre-trial hearings before Porter County Superior Court Judge Bill Alexa.
This includes contentious requests for a change in venue for the trial, the allowance of dog-tracking evidence and the release of 29 firearms and a Playstation game owned by McCowan’s father, Elliot McCowan, a Crown Point police officer.
After Bach’s killing, the elder McCowan announced a $10,000 reward offered for information about her death, with McCowan supporters hinting at a serial killer on the loose.
The money came from a supporter, McCowan noted at the time, and I cannot confirm if any of it was ever distributed.
Last week, another intriguing twist in the case popped up from one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Daniel Grunhard, who claims McCowan admitted Bach’s murder to him while both were incarcerated at Porter County Jail.
Grunward also told prosecutors that McCowan, now 20, admitted to burying the murder weapon and ultimately beating the state’s “weak case” against him in court.
The twist is that Grunhard just happened to have been defended in another case by Vouga, McCowan’s attorney, which presents an obvious conflict of interest. The solution, ruled by Judge Alexa, is for an outside attorney to cross-examine Grunhard on the stand.
If Grunhard’s claims against McCowan are true, just how common — and how stupid — is this jailhouse scenario, where an alleged murderer can’t keep his mouth shut?
“I am beyond convinced of Dustin McCowan’s guilt by what I personally know, what I have heard come from Amanda’s mouth, and by what is being presented in court,” Duda told me.
“I would love nothing more than to help put him behind bars for the rest of his life,” Duda said. “I want a conviction and I want so badly to start the healing process for her family, myself and the rest of her friends. We deserve this closure.”
McCowan may be guilty in the court of public opinion, but the question I want answered by Vouga, McCowan, or anyone else for that matter, is a simple one.
If Dustin McCowan didn’t kill Amanda Bach, who did?