MOUNT CARROLL – The DCFS worker got wind that the toddler was with his father. That was a violation of an order of protection – a felony case was pending accusing Andrew "A.J." Sucher of physically abusing a 6-year-old, and so he was court-ordered to stay away from his son.
Knight, who worked out of the agency's Sterling office, had to take the 2-year-old into custody, so she called for backup, and she and an officer went to Sucher's Rock Falls home.
She learned that the toddler was with his paternal grandparents in Milledgeville – a different county, a different jurisdiction. A different law officer would be needed if she were to have an escort, but at the time, no one in Carroll County was available.
She decided, for the safety of the little boy, she'd risk it and pick him up anyway.
Which is why, when she pulled into the driveway of the small, tidy house on Hager Avenue, she had no protection from the fury that rained down on her.
She opened the car door and as she was getting out, Sucher, then a 25-year-old, 6-foot-4, 270-pound weightlifter, was on her in a flash. He'd been tipped by a call to the house from a Whiteside County sheriff's deputy that the DCFS was coming.
He pushed petite, 59-year-old child welfare investigator Pamela Knight backward to the ground, cracking her head on the concrete driveway, then stomped on it for good measure, and walked away.
His mother, Angie, called 9-1-1. "You need to get an ambulance here now!"
Knight never recovered. One hundred and thirty-two days later, she was dead. Unable to walk or to talk, she never saw her home again. The cause of death, the medical examiner said, was blunt force trauma to the head from the attack.
This afternoon, Sucher paid the price for his uncontrollable rage: in a plea agreement forged between his public defenders and the state, he will serve 100 percent of 21 years in prison, no parole, no time off for good behavior, for her first-degree murder.
Had it gone to trial, he could have faced 20 to 60 years, up to life. Or if Carroll County State's Attorney Scott Brinkmeier could not prove Sucher intended to murder her, could not prove that the kick, and not the fall, was the ultimate, proximate cause of death – and the medical examiner would not say with absolute certainty that it was – he might face only 2 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter.
Life in prison. Not a chance Sucher wanted to take. Two to 5. Not a chance Brinkmeier wanted to take.
Hence the deal.
Three other felony cases pending against him, including one in Whiteside County, and all accusing him of some form of physical violence, as wee as the other charges in this case, were or will be dropped.
It's not enough, Don Knight, Pam's husband, told the court Wednesday afternoon in a short, powerful victim impact statement.
"Justice wasn't served here for her today," Knight said, his voice heavy with frustration, the sorrow catching in his throat. "This terrible tragedy will be with us for the rest of our lives. My family's loss is permanent."
The Knights' adopted daughter, Jennifer Hollenbeck – as a child, one of Pam's cases, she said – spoke of her mom's kindness. Pam was humble, soft-spoken, kind, compassionate and fair, with a dry wit and a ready, hearty laugh.
Those qualities are her legacy: Hollenbeck's children, her grandchildren, also are children of the foster care system.
Sadly, at the time of her death, the strongest person those children ever knew "couldn't speak or sit up or even hold her head up," Hollenbeck said.
It's a loss not only to family and friends. "It was a loss felt by the entire child welfare community, and she will be missed," she said, as many of the nearly dozen DCFS co-workers and friends there for the hearing quietly wept.
Sucher, who had answered only "yes, sir" to all the judge's questions – did he agree to the terms of his own free will, did he understand there would be no parole, etc.– said "no, sir" only one time: when he was asked if he wanted to make a statement.
No one was in court for him save his attorneys.
It's cold comfort that Sucher, who claimed on Facebook to be a doting father, will miss his son's childhood altogether. He turns 27 in a month, and so will be free when he is 48, and done with mandatory supervision when he is 51.
His boy will be just about the age Sucher is now.
Still, 48 is not old. There will be plenty of time left for him to wreak more havoc. Or to turn his life around, Judge John "Jerry" Kane noted.
"You've got to get a hold of your anger," Kane said, after accepting the terms of the agreement and convicting Sucher. "Do it for that child."
"This is a waste. This woman's life was wasted, and your life is wasted," said Kane, whose mother also was a child welfare worker.
"I just hope you come out better and ready to deal with your life ... not fighting. ready to respect the world. I truly hope you come out a better person. I'm sure you can. I know you can."
The hearing at a glance
According to Wednesday's court proceedings:
Andrew "A.J." Sucher, 26, attacked Pamela Sue Knight, 59, at his parents' house in Milledgeville on Sept. 29, 2017, as the longtime DCFS worker arrived to take his 2-year-old son into protective custody.
He kicked Knight, 59, of Dixon, in the head after pushing her to the ground, fracturing her skull and causing severe brain damage; she was comatose for about 2 months and died Feb. 8, 2018, in a Chicago hospital of "complications of blunt force head injuries due to assault," the Cook County medical examiner's office said.
He was charged with five counts of first-degree murder, aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and aggravated battery of a state employee.
He pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of first-degree murder; the other charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement that requires him to serve 100 percent of 21 years in prison. He will be given credit for the 649 days he's been jailed, and upon his release from prison, will be on mandatory supervised release – probation – for 3 years.
He has 30 days to file an appeal.
Sucher also was charged with aggravated battery of a peace officer for punching a deputy in the face in the Carroll County Jail on Dec. 19, 2017, and just last month, was charged with aggravated battery in a public place for attacking another inmate.
He was charged in Whiteside County Court with aggravated battery of a child, battery, domestic battery, and interfering with the reporting of a domestic battery Investigators say he dragged a 6-year-old by the foot and struck him in the face with a squirt gun, and threw a woman against a wall on July 29, 2017.
That was the case that resulted in the order of protection barring him from being with his 2-year-old son. He was out on bond on those charges when he attacked Knight.
Whiteside County State's Attorney Terry Costello has agreed to dismiss that case.