Steve Manning by John J Flood


Mom thinks ex-cop knows son’s fate
Selena Jankovich has gone 16 years not knowing whether her son is dead or alive. The uncertainty, she says, “kills me a billion times every day.”
But there is one person Jankovich thinks can shed light on the mystery: an ex-Chicago cop and freed Death Row inmate who last week won a $6.6 million verdict after a jury bought his argument that two FBI agents framed him in two different crimes. 
Jankovich’s son, Tom Vuckovic, planned to meet with the ex-cop, Steve Manning, one morning in March 1989. Vuckovic, then 33, ran a jewelry business with Manning.
Jankovich awoke her son at 7 a.m. and hasn’t heard from him since. 

Authorities filed no charges in his disappearance, and there are no known leads in the case. 
Police, however, had recovered a car Vuckovic leased, and one witness said he saw Manning and Vuckovic together in a used-car sales office in March 1989, according to testimony at a court hearing for Manning in 1993.

‘I need to know what happened’

Last week, Jankovich, 67, talked about that and other information with the Chicago Sun-Times. It marked her first media interview about her son’s case.
I need to know what happened to my son,” she said, sobbing. “I want to see his body. I want my peace. I want to die in peace.”
And when it comes to Manning, she’s not the only one with questions. The $6.6 million the jury  awarded him has failed to put to rest questions from law-enforcement authorities that long have surrounded him.
Several cases linked to Manning remain unsolved, and investigators say trails have gone cold. That includes the 1986 murder of Manning’s father, Boris, who was shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of a car left in a Vernon Hills shopping mall parking lot. 
Besides Vuckovic, another Manning business associate, Frank Lippa, disappeared and was never seen again.
Manning has repeatedly professed his innocence, saying he has “made mistakes” but never killed anyone.
“We had to prove our case through prosecutors and law enforcement people. Each one is still insisting [Manning is guilty],” said Jon Loevy, one of Manning’s attorneys. “The jury heard all the evidence and disagreed.”
It was a remarkable win for Manning and his legal team, which also included Ray Smith, Michael Kanovitz and Jonathan Rosenblatt. Finding liability against FBI agents is believed to be unprecedented.
Manning, who walked out of prison in 2004, brought his civil suit after courts in Illinois and Missouri deemed that improper evidence was used to convict him for a murder in northwest suburban Des Plaines and a double kidnapping in Missouri.

Jurors agree not to talk

Manning, who legally changed his name to Etienne Duvalier in 1988 but still goes by his birthname, testified at his six-week civil trial that as a police officer he accepted bribes and had been convicted in two crimes: a burglary and an insurance-fraud scheme.

After the burglary, which he admitted to carrying out with another police officer, Manning cut a deal and acted as an FBI informant. He said he wanted out of that deal when the job became dangerous.

That angered two FBI agents, and their quest to frame him started from there, Manning alleged.

Jurors found in Manning’s favor after his attorneys picked apart the investigation into the murder of Des Plaines trucking firm owner James Pellegrino and the investigation into the double kidnapping in Missouri. Manning’s lawyers said agents improperly coached witnesses and didn’t disclose payments to informants.

Several jurors wouldn’t talk, saying they had a pact not to discuss the case after 61/2 days of deliberations. But one juror, who did not want to be identified, said there wasn’t any single piece of evidence or witness that made Manning’s case.

“There was a lot of stuff; it was very complex to weigh,” the juror said. “I want to stress that lawyers only had to prove preponderance of the evidence — 51 percent. It wasn’t what people think of as guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Even after the jury verdict, law enforcement officials haven’t backed down from their belief that Manning is guilty of the Pellegrino murder and more.

Publicity about Manning’s jury award aggravated Selena Jankovich, the mother of Tom Vuckovic, and prompted her to go public with her story about her son’s 1989 disappearance for the first time.

She said she called Manning just after her son disappeared. Manning told her that Vuckovic had lied and that they weren’t together the day she last saw him.

Manning then came to her home, telling her he wanted to allay her concerns.

Wrote to Clinton

He wasn’t the same personable man she had once baked cheesecake for, she said. When her phone rang, she claims Manning snatched it before she could answer. During that time, Jankovich claims she heard a man tell Manning over the phone: “Don’t touch her.”

Jankovich talked to the FBI, hired a private detective agency, filed missing person’s reports and wrote letters to politicians — all the way up to former President Bill Clinton.

Jankovich said that when she spoke with FBI agent Robert Buchan in 1989 — who along with agent Gary Miller was found liable by the jury for framing Manning — he told her to stay away from Manning and to tell the FBI every move she made for several days. “He is a very dangerous man,” she recalled Buchan telling her.

Buchan and Miller’s attorneys were limited as to what they could talk about at the civil trial. Jurors were not told that Manning’s father was murdered — Manning testified only that his father died and he later bought a condo with an inheritance.

After finding Boris Manning’s body in March 1986 at Hawthorn Shopping Center in Vernon Hills, authorities first suspected it was a signal to his son not to testify against the ex-cop in the burglary trial the younger Manning was caught up in.

‘You will find a body’

But investigators later turned their attention to Steve Manning himself. Two weeks after authorities found his father’s body, Manning had closed all of his father’s accounts, totaling$119,000, according to court testimony given in 1993.

Prosecutors also raised questions about how the body was discovered. A caller tipped off authorities to a car emitting a strong odor at the Hawthorn Center parking lot. But it was cold, and mall security couldn’t find any odor. Days later, a note was found on the desk of the Vernon Hills police chief: “To whoever cares, you will find a body in the trunk of an Oldsmobile . . . car is located in aisle 34. Have a nice day!”

Authorities believed Manning wanted police to find the body so he could recover the car, which he later did, according to evidence presented at the 1993 court hearing. Investigators also found a letter Boris Manning wrote to the Illinois attorney general’s office, explaining he previously was a victim in a home invasion and that he believed his son knew the person who had hurt him.

But no one has ever been charged in Boris Manning’s murder. “It was never solved. There were no witnesses to come forward, nor was there enough physical evidence to charge anyone,” retired Vernon Hills Police Chief David Schram said.

Vernon Hills Police Officer Kim Christenson said the case isn’t closed, but the trail has run cold.” As far as we’re concerned, it’s an open case, currently suspended pending any kind of development or new leads,” he said.

William Gamboney, who prosecuted Manning in the Des Plaines murder of Pellegrino, said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Manning with his father’s murder in Vernon Hills. But prosecutors raised the crime as an aggravating factor when Manning was sentenced to death in 1993.

“The whole thing is bizarre, seeing Steve Manning on the front page of the paper with a thumb’s up saying he’s going to get $6.5 million,” Gamboney said.

Loevy, Manning’s lawyer, said his client is suspected in his father’s death only because FBI agents were out to get him.

‘Wasn’t arrested, wasn’t guilty’

“It’s ridiculous. If you believe the FBI, Steve Manning is responsible for every murder in Chicago. You can’t trust what they say. We closely examined two crimes. They were twisting the facts,” Loevy said. “That’s the story. Mr. Manning wasn’t charged in any of those crimes. Wasn’t arrested, wasn’t guilty — whether the FBI likes it or not.”

At trial, Loevy was also able to successfully debunk a witness identification of Manning in the Missouri double kidnapping. He also raised questions about whether agents inappropriately fed witnesses details.

Rob Warden, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, said regardless of the questions that might surround Manning’s innocence or guilt, law enforcement handled the case the wrong way.

“There is not a great deal of affirmative evidence of actual innocence, but there is a great deal of evidence that he was wrongfully convicted in two states,” Warden said. “No matter how sure they thought it was him, it doesn’t justify what happened in this case.”