Top cops uninterested in 'person of interest'

Because of inquiries from readers and the response of other news organizations (most notably The Chicago Tribune March 7 front-page followup), I am posting my March 5 column about the Rhoads-Steidl case.

Top cops uninterested in 'person of interest'

"Well, they were in prison and maybe they were wrongfully convicted. I mean, that's not something we're supposed to be doing in this country." – Illinois State Police Capt. John Strohl, explaining in a legal deposition why he supported reopening an investigation into the convictions of Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock for the 1986 Edgar County murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads.

Capt. Strohl, a former commander of local state police district, got it right. But if allegations in a lawsuit filed at the U.S. Courthouse in Urbana are correct, people at the highest echelons of the Illinois State Police didn't share that view and worked actively to block a reinvestigation of the Rhoads' murders out of concern for the political fallout of a planned joint federal/state investigation.

The lawsuit, filed by Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan, alleges that he was assigned in January 2003 to put together a task force involving multiple investigative agencies that would not only reinvestigate the Rhoads' murders but also examine possible "extortion, narcotics, money-laundering, homicide and other significant crimes" in the Edgar County area.

Court records reveal that the investigation was to be conducted by a task force of agents and lawyers from the state police, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Attorney's office, the U.S. Treasury Department's Division of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and the Indiana State Police. But just as the task force was getting off the ground, Callahan was suddenly removed from his longstanding investigative assignment and transferred to patrol. He remained in patrol even after federal prosecutors requested state police commanders to transfer Callahan back to his duties leading the task force.

Court records indicate the task force was focused on an unidentified "person of interest" believed by some investigators to have played a major role in the savage murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, young newlyweds living in Paris, Ill., and to be the ringleader of a criminal organization operating under the cover of multiple businesses operating in Edgar County.

However, court records indicate that top brass at the state police, who were initially enthusiastic about the probe, got cold feet after they learned that the "person of interest" was a major campaign contributor to prominent politicians, including former Gov. George Ryan.

"We hit a brick wall on the Rhoads (case). (State Police Colonel Diane Carper) basically said we were to cease and desist on that case. That it was too politically sensitive and that it came from above her," said Major Edie Casella, Callahan's one-time boss at the state police investigative office on South First Street in Champaign, in a deposition.

Carper, in her deposition, denied making that statement. But court records show that multiple witnesses who were present support Casella's version of events.

Casella was one of two investigations commanders (the other was Strohl) who supported reopening the Rhoads case but were transferred from their supervisory posts. Casella's replacement, Capt. Steven Fermon, is described in court papers as being vehemently opposed to the creation of Callahan's task force.

Callahan's lawsuit alleges that Fermon, Carper and Col. Charles A. Brueggemann, a deputy state police director, violated Callahan's civil rights by retaliating against him for speaking out in favor of reopening the Rhoads' case and for filing complaints against Carper and Fermon with the department's division of internal investigations for improperly seeking to block the Rhoads reinvestigation.

The state has filed a motion asking for U.S. Judge Harold Baker to dismiss the case. Callahan's lawyer, John Baker of Springfield, recently filed a lengthy brief in opposition that lays out in detail the timeline and the substance of the dispute between Callahan and higher-ups in his department.

The Rhoads case has haunted Paris and East Central Illinois ever since the bodies of the couple were discovered about 4 a.m. July 6, 1986, in their fire-damaged home. The couple died from multiple stab wounds, and authorities said the fire was set after the couple was murdered.

Two Paris men, Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock, were subsequently arrested and convicted of murder in separate 1987 trials. But the prosecution case, both the eyewitness testimony and physical evidence, was less than compelling. Since then, alleged eyewitnesses Debra Reinbolt and Darrell Herrington, both admitted alcoholics, have repeatedly recanted their testimony.

In June 2003, U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey overturned Steidl's conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. But McCuskey's 36-page opinion went far beyond detailing the substandard performance of the late John Muller, Steidl's defense lawyer. His analysis eviscerated the physical evidence presented by prosecutors and concluded that Reinbolt was actually at work at the time she testified she was drinking in a local tavern with Steidl and Whitlock. State prosecutors subsequently decided not to retry Steidl, and he was released after roughly 18 years in custody.

Meanwhile, Whitlock remains in prison and is pursuing a post-conviction petition to overturn his conviction in Edgar County Circuit Court. A hearing is scheduled for later this month and it appears to be only a matter of time before his conviction, too, is overturned, and he is released.

But court records indicate that while Whitlock and Steidl were languishing in prison under questionable convictions and life sentences, state investigators were discussing among themselves the strong possibility the wrong people were convicted of the Rhoads murders.

Court records reveal that in 2000 Callahan was asked by his commander, Capt. Strohl, to look into the Rhoads case after a private investigator brought his concerns to state police attention. In response, Callahan looked at the original investigative file, court transcripts and talked with witnesses. He ultimately questioned the sufficiency of the evidence against Steidl and Whitlock, raises questions about issues not pursued and summed up his findings in a May 2, 2000, report.

"... there are several viable suspects that I feel were never thoroughly investigated. In reviewing this case and the documentation (the private investigator) acquired over the years there are definitely avenues that need to be investigated. At one point in this investigation, (name deleted) and (name deleted) were suspects in the Rhoads case. When the focus of the case turned to Steidl and Whitlock, the investigation turned away from them," Callahan wrote.

Higher-ups in the department eventually met to listen to Callahan's recitation of problems in the original prosecution and incriminating evidence linking others to a variety of criminal activities. They approved a full-scale investigative assault, and according to court records, Callahan was promised manpower and financial resources to pursue the probe.

But, according to court records, the initial promises of resources were not delivered. For instance, state police commanders subsequently refused to provide $1,000 to hire a private examiner to conduct a polygraph examination of Steidl. They also refused to allow one of the department's examiners to conduct a polygraph on Steidl.

The investigation also ran into problems, with information leaking to the target of the probe. Hidden cameras intended to record vehicle and foot traffic at one suspect site, whose existence was known only to a handful of people, were discovered and rendered useless.

Finally, court records reveal, Callahan filed a complaint with the department's internal investigation division, suggesting that Fermon and Carper were improperly blocking the investigation. Internals affairs, however, ignored its mandate to conduct an investigation, choosing instead to inform Carper and Fermon of Callahan's allegations.

Carper and Fermon denied engaging in any improprieties, according to court records.

Callahan was later transferred by Carper at Fermon's urging from his investigative assignment to patrol. Both she and Fermon characterized him as a discipline problem who was causing discord in the workplace. It happened so quickly that Callahan's immediate supervisor wasn't told of the transfer and the retiree that Callahan was supposed to replace still had six weeks left on the job.

Court records indicate that the task force Callahan created and that frequently met at state investigators' headquarters subsequently dissolved. There is no indication that federal investigators are continuing the probe on their own. Meanwhile, two state investigators are assigned to examine the Rhoads case, but also are handling other cases.

Callahan is scheduled to retire from the state police in two weeks.

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