Man accused of killing Island Lake woman claims he was insane at the time — (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune

September 12, 2016 5:57 pm

Amanda Marrazzo, Chicago Tribune

A man who authorities say killed an Island Lake woman did not “appreciate the criminality of his actions” because of his severe mental illness, a defense expert testified at the start of the man’s murder trial Monday.

Howard Dibbern, 52, is charged with beating and stabbing Karen Scavelli to death in her home June 2, 2014. Authorities alleged that Dibbern then fled in Scavelli’s car, stopped at bars and then crashed the car into a Mundelein home as an officer tried to pull him over.

Defense attorneys for Dibbern, who sat quietly during proceedings in McHenry County court Monday, are not disputing that he killed Scavelli. Rather, they’re mounting an insanity defense, and called as their first witness a psychologist who evaluated Dibbern and determined that he suffers schizoaffective disorder and delusions of grandeur.

Licensed psychologist Denise Dojka, who conducted an hourlong interview with Dibbern in McHenry County Jail and reviewed police and medical reports, testified that Dibbern has likely suffered mental health illness since the 1990s. Over the years he has been on different medications for psychosis, depression and mood disorders, and has had five electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

She said Dibbern, who has a long criminal record, had been in at least two mental health institutions and did a stint in a prison suited for those prisoners with mental illness. He has made up stories that he has mob connections, is a wealthy business owner and is supported by wealthy women.

“He really believes these stories are true,” Dojka said. “He’s bragging, but I believe he believes what he is bragging about.”

Two weeks before the 48-year-old Scavelli was murdered, Dibbern was released from a mental health facility after a suicide attempt, one of many he had tried over the years, according to testimony. At the time of the alleged murder he was prescribed Prozac but he was not taking it. [according to the testimony of psychologist who did no follow-up, and so really does not know].

Dojka said Dibbern at times is not in touch with reality, displays mania and psychotic features, experiences auditory and visual hallucinations and has thoughts of grandiosity and delusions.

Prosecutors said Dibbern murdered Scavelli by beating, strangling and stabbing her twice in the neck. They say he then attempted to cover up the crime by moving her body upstairs, where he wrapped her head in a plastic bag and put blankets over her. Dojka testified that in 2004 Dibbern had threatened to kill another woman in the same manner.

Prosecutors said Dibbern attempted to clean up the crime scene at Scavelli’s house, changed into clothing belonging to her son and stole her purse and car. He then drove to bars in Mundelein where he attempted to flirt with women, ordered drinks, used Scavelli’s credit cards, gave away her bracelet to a waitress and then to drove to another bar where he tried to give her purse to another woman.

When police caught up with Dibbern in Mundelein, he had crashed Scavelli’s car into a home. He got out and began hitting himself in the head with a hammer and cutting himself with a knife saying he did not want to go back to prison, according to testimony.

These were not the actions of someone who did not know what he was doing, Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Zalud said while cross examining the psychologist.

Zalud questioned the doctor’s evaluation, noting she did not conduct follow-up testing. Zalud also noted that there are many people with schizoaffective disorder who live productive, law abiding lives. The prosecutors noted Dibbern has the presence of mind that day to clean up the crime scene, attempt to hide Scavelli’s body, change clothes and drive a car.

“Having schizoaffective disorder does not mean he didn’t (appreciate) the criminality of his actions,” Zalud said. His mental illness “doesn’t mean he doesn’t know his actions are wrong.”

Scavelli had three grown children and had recently become a grandmother at the time of her death. Family members have said she was a cancer survivor and had been a single mother for many years.

Dibbern had a long history of criminal arrests and convictions and had been paroled from prison months before Scavelli’s death after serving time for a weapons-related conviction in Cook County, according to court and Illinois Department of Corrections records.

Dibbern has been held on a $2 million bond since his arrest days after Scavelli’s death.

He opted for a bench trial, meaning a judge, not a jury, will determine his guilt. He has been held in McHenry County Jail on a $2 million bond since his arrest days after Scavelli’s body was found by police in the home she shared with her daughter.

Dibbern’s criminal history includes convictions for aggravated battery, residential burglary, forgery and theft, records show.

The trial is set to resume Wednesday when prosecutors will call their own mental health expert.

Amanda Marrazzo is a freelance reporter.