1985 Cold Case: 'Burning Body' mystery

1985 Cold Case: 'Burning Body' mystery

The purpose of longtime C-U news reporter CAROL VOREL's podcast series — "Cold Cases" — is to shed light on unsolved crimes.

Anyone with information about the 1985 murder of ROBERT VAUGHN WAGNER near his hometown of Sidney is urged to call Champaign County Sheriff's Investigator Tim Beckett at 217-384-1213. If you want to remain anonymous, call Crime Stoppers at 217-373-8477.

Do you have a Cold Case you’d like Vorel to chase? Email her at cvorel@news-gazette.media or call 217-351-5345.

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Curt Beamer/The News-Gazette: Investigators examine the scene where the burned body (not pictured) of Robert Vaughn Wagner was discovered on Nov. 3, 1985. The dark area in foreground is the burned fuel that officials said was used to ignite the body.

By CAROL VOREL

That so many years have passed since the brutal slaying of Robert Vaughn Wagner could play in the favor of detectives still working the case.

"Thirty-four years later, hopefully that fear isn't there anymore," Champaign County Sheriff's Investigator Tim Beckett said. "People are more willing to come forward and talk now that it's not so recent."

Little did passersby know the tragedy that was unfolding before them on Nov. 3, 1985, when they happened upon a fire along a rural road about 3 miles north of Sidney. Eventually, a motorist stopped at the curve where County Road 1200 N becomes County Road 2025 E and, upon closer inspection, discovered that the burning object was a body.

The death of Mr. Wagner — known as the Burning Body Case — dominated local media for months.

Years later, investigators are still trying to fit the puzzle pieces together in their attempts to solve the murder of the 21-year-old Sidney man.

"Suspects have surfaced, but we just haven't been able to get the evidence needed to tie them in," Beckett said. "We need those pieces."

Meanwhile, residents of this tiny village in southeastern Champaign County (pop. 1,213) wait for answers.

Dennis Riggs, a longtime Sidney businessman who lives nearby, was farming land near the village in 1985.

"When the case is brought up, everyone remembers it because it was such a shock to the community," Riggs said. "Because of the seriousness of the crime, we thought for sure someone would be brought to justice. It's still on everyone's back memory, especially in a small town like this."

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An autopsy showed that Mr. Wagner had been shot four times at close range with a shotgun. His body was then wrapped in a canvas material and set on fire, with gasoline used as an accelerant.

Beckett (left) said Mr. Wagner was considered a small-time marijuana dealer. Fingerprints from his arrest a year earlier on drug charges were used to identify him.

Members of Mr. Wagner's family could not be reached for comment. In stories published in The News-Gazette in 1990, Mr. Wagner's brother, Bill, said that "Bobby" had fallen in with an unsavory crowd involved in drug trafficking.

"Yes, he was involved in dealing small amounts and that was stepping on someone else's toes," his brother told staff writer Mary Schenk. "I'd talked to him about it and told him how stupid it was, and he paid the price.

"The theory was that his killing, because of the way it was done, was a message to everyone else to don't mess around on our turf."

Added then-lead investigator Kent Fletcher: "It's a difficult case because the manner in which it was done, nobody wanted to talk about it."

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Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette: Investigators search the Sidney home of murder victim Robert Vaughn Wagner days after his burned body was discovered on a county road 3 miles to the north.

At first, investigators said the homicide was probably drug-related. Today, Beckett said it's one of the theories behind a possible motive for the killings. He declined to elaborate.

Beckett said the night before Mr. Wagner was killed, he had attended a party on the University of Illinois campus, eventually getting dropped off at his house in Sidney by a friend around 3 a.m. Sunday. It was the last time anyone who investigators talked to saw him alive.

A number of people told police they heard gunshots late that afternoon, ranging from one to three hours before Mr. Wagner's body was found around 6 p.m.

"You're going to get different accounts of how many shots were actually heard because your brain might not register all four, but there was at least one witness who said they heard four shots," Beckett said. "They said it came from south of where the body was located."

However, Beckett also said investigators still don't know where Mr. Wagner was killed or if more than one person was involved.

He said there were no signs that a murder took place at Mr. Wagner's house in Sidney, ruling it out as a crime scene.

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In the nearly 34 years since, investigators have chased down numerous leads and run into dead-ends. A couple of people who appeared as strong suspects were arrested, but the cases against them didn't pan out.

Gregory Watson of Danville was arrested about six months after Mr. Wagner was killed. In April 1986, he had tried to join the U.S. Army by signing up at the recruiting office in Champaign posing as Mr. Wagner and using his identification.

"I think at that point in time, they feel they have a pretty good suspect, he has the identification of Wagner," Beckett said. "They end up talking to him, and his story is that he was trying to escape, basically. Danville police had been wanting to talk to him and he believed arrest him on some other cases, some fraud-like cases, so he wanted to get out of town."

Beckett said Watson didn't actually have any identification that would have been taken from Mr. Wagner. Instead, he had checked obituaries looking for someone's identification to steal. He was able to obtain Mr. Wagner's Social Security number and get his birth certificate.

He was eventually cleared in the murder.

In December 1990, investigators again thought they had a solid suspect in 37-year-old Michael Baker, considered a drifter from Cincinnati who had been living in Urbana.

He was indicted on murder charges — but those were dismissed in May 1991.

In a News-Gazette report, First Assistant State's Attorney William Gaston said: "Considering the total amount of information now available, we feel it's appropriate to withdraw the murder charge against Mr. Baker. Our evidence would indicate Mr. Baker did not kill Mr. Wagner."

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No one other than Baker has been charged in Mr. Wagner's murder.

"What I can say is that anyone who was referred to as a suspect or person of interest throughout this case hasn't changed; it's still the case," Beckett said. "No suspect has really been cleared in the case."

Beckett said even the slightest bit of information could help crack the case.

"It's a small piece that could be part of a larger puzzle that could help us put everything together," he said.

In 1990, Bill Wagner said he wanted to see whoever killed his brother brought to justice, not only for his brother's sake but for others.

"There's nothing we can do for him. But if they can bust up a drug ring or whatever, then something good will come out of it," he said.

Beckett said the last new lead developed in 2012, before adding, "We won't rest until we can provide some kind of closure for the family."

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