URBANA – A Champaign County prosecutor Friday called Otto Haack's death in 1998 "the worst case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Assistant Champaign County State's Attorney Steve Ziegler said the 77-year-old Rantoul man had just left the CVS Pharmacy in Mahomet on Feb. 8, 1998, when an Iowa man en route home from Indiana whose car had broken down decided Mr. Haack's 1996 Saturn would be a good replacement.
That man, Jamie Picken of Ottumwa, Iowa, who had turned 27 two days earlier, had just exited a restaurant near the CVS when he spotted Mr. Haack. He shoved Mr. Haack into the passenger side of the car and jumped in behind him. Picken's girlfriend, Brandy Fowler, then 20, drove as Picken struggled with Mr. Haack.
Fowler told police that Mr. Haack ceased to struggle and that they stopped the car some 10 miles west of where they had picked him up and put him next to a couple of silos.
The next day, Feb. 9, 1998, friends of Mr. Haack reported him missing when he didn't show up for his job at the Early American Museum in Mahomet. He had been a beloved and respected volunteer there for more than 15 years.
Two days later, his car was found in a wooded area in the southeast corner of Iowa, about 40 miles from Ottumwa.
And 10 days after that, on Feb. 21, 1998, Mr. Haack was found dead in the spot where he'd been left. A meter reader from Illinois Power found him, face down, mud on his shoes and socks but still fully dressed. He had no wallet but was still wearing the medic alert tag that indicated he was a diabetic who had undergone heart bypass surgery.
Those details and others came out Friday in Judge Heidi Ladd's courtroom as she accepted a guilty plea from Picken, now 35, who admitted to aggravated vehicular hijacking and received the maximum sentence – 30 years in prison.
Because the crime happened in 1998, at a time when Illinois' truth-in-sentencing law was found to be unconstitutional, Picken will receive day-for-day good time and be out in about 14 years since he's been in custody 310 days.
It was the efforts of Illinois State Troopers Akil Smith and Greg Lindemulder that broke the case about a year ago.
Ziegler credited the investigators for continuing to chase after leads despite a lot of dead ends.
What eventually happened was that the troopers located witnesses who admitted that they had helped Picken clean and dispose of Mr. Haack's car. Those witnesses led them to Fowler, who laid out the case against Picken.
In return for her cooperation, Ziegler did not bring any charges against her. He added Friday that he did not think that Fowler had any intention of carjacking Mr. Haack but that it was Picken's idea and she was along for the ride.
Fowler told police that after she and Picken put Mr. Haack out of the car, they took his wallet and used his money to get a hotel room.
Picken was initially charged in Champaign County in March 2005 with concealment of a homicidal death and aggravated vehicular hijacking. The murder charge was added in late June 2005. Piatt County State's Attorney Leonard Rumery also charged Picken with concealment of a homicidal death as it was unclear which county had jurisdiction.
Picken's attorney, Mark Thompson of Bloomington, said he believes Mr. Haack probably died in his own car but Ziegler said there was no way to tell when he died. An autopsy could not even produce a cause of death.
Ziegler said the lack of a cause of death, exactly where he died, little physical evidence, questionable witnesses in Iowa, "some of whom have baggage in their past" and Picken's willingness to plead to the Class X carjacking charge all factored in to his decision to dismiss the murder and concealment of a homicidal death charges. Rumery said he also intends to dismiss his concealment of a homicidal death charge in Piatt County.
Regarding physical evidence, Ziegler said Picken and the witnesses did a pretty good job of cleaning Mr. Haack's car. However, a few red hairs matching Picken were found in Mr. Haack's wristwatch which he was wearing when found and in his car.
Although Ziegler said Fowler never mentioned a word about drugs, Thompson believes his client's actions in stealing the car and struggling with Mr. Haack were drug-induced.
Thompson said at the time of his arrest, Picken had been gainfully employed for several years as a machinist for a manufacturing company in the Ottumwa area.
Ziegler said the only prior convictions he was aware of for Picken were misdemeanor theft and driving under revocation.