Jim Dey: New theory on Paris murders emerges from netherworld

Jim Dey: New theory on Paris murders emerges from netherworld

Theories abound in the mystery surrounding the July 1986 murders of a young Edgar County couple, but the only thing that seems certain is that this case is destined to go unsolved.

But conspiracy theorists got more to chew on this past week when Springfield private investigator William Clutter filed a 14-page single-spaced affidavit with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that identifies Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer now being held on death row in Texas, as the man who killed Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris.

Clutter's affidavit urges that state officials grant pardons to Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock, two Paris men who were convicted in the Rhoads murders and served long stints in prison before their convictions were overturned. Steidl and Whitlock both filed federal civil rights lawsuits alleging they were framed by authorities and won out-of-court settlements.

Now Clutter says in his affidavit that, based on his investigation, "the evidence against Tommy Lynn Sells is compelling."

It's certainly interesting, but Clutter's characterization is subject to vigorous dispute.

For starters, the story that Clutter tells in his investigation is maddeningly vague and filled with inconsistencies. Assuming that whatever Sells told Clutter is true, it's still hardly a confession.

Further, there's a history of death row residents making up stories of their involvement in multiple murders across the country. Another Texas-based convicted murderer, Henry Lee Lucas, admitted to many murders he did not commit in the hope of receiving better accommodations in jail, a delay in his execution and opportunities to travel with investigators from one murder scene to another.

Lucas, who died in prison in 2001, was convicted of 11 murders but claimed to police that he had committed hundreds. He eventually acknowledged that he conned police, calling himself a "serial liar." The turnabout resulted in ridicule for members of the Texas-based Lucas task force that characterized as "believable" his admissions to 350 murders.

Considered in that context, the story that Sells intimates, but does not directly tell, is hardly persuasive.

About the only thing objective observers know about the Rhoads murder case is that the initial investigation was thoroughly botched and that two local residents were arrested and convicted on the basis of evidence later thoroughly discredited.

The initial theory of the case was that the Rhoadses were killed by Steidl and Whitlock as the result of a drug deal gone bad.

But there are other theories, several of which are outlined in Michale Callahan's book "Too Politically Sensitive." They include the possibility of a neighbor who later committed suicide and a contract killing that stemmed from allegedly criminal behavior Karen Rhoads witnessed at her job.

Clutter's Sells affidavit focused on an initial police suspect, a shadowy figure registered at a local hotel as "Richard Smith, RR I, Paris, no vehicle information." Described as a mysterious "drifter," Smith checked into the Hotel France "in the early morning hours before the murders." The hotel, which is no longer in business, was three blocks from the Rhoadses' residence.

Authorities never located "Richard Smith," but Clutter said that based on his conversations with Sells, he is convinced that Sells is Smith.

He based his conclusion on the fact that Sells grew up in Holcomb, Mo., favored the Terre Haute, Ind., area and used aliases rather than his real name.

"I like to use Tony, Ricky, Richard. I used Ricky and Richard a lot," Sells told Clutter.

"When I asked him what last name he would give, he avoided answering my question," Clutter said.

Sells has been confined in Texas since 2000 in connection with the murder of two women.

According to Clutter's affidavit, Sells "began confessing to other murders. Sells claims to have killed as many as 70 people over a 20-year period beginning when he was a teenager."

Clutter said he has been looking at Sells as a suspect since 2000 when he read of Sells' confession to the 1987 murder of four members of the Darden family in Ina, Ill., a small town south of Mount Vernon in Jefferson County.

Clutter indicates that the Darden family murders were drug-related and related to the Mafia and suggests the same in connection with the Rhoadses.

The claim would be laughable were it not for the infamous federal "Pizza Connection" case that sprawled all the way from Italy to New York City and the small Illinois communities of Olney and Paris, where small town pizzerias were used as stop-off points on the drug trail. There is no doubt major mafiosi were operating in small-town Illinois, although any link to these notorious murders has never been proven.

Further, if there was any link, why would hardened criminals carrying out mob hits rely on someone like Sells to do their dirty work?

Sells abruptly halted his interview with Clutter, who said "I left the interview disappointed that he had not fully confessed" but convinced Sells "was the drifter at Hotel France" police were looking for.

Later he said he received a letter from Sells that gave further hints of his involvement in the Paris murders.

"Eiffel tower nice this time of year. You ever been?" Sells wrote.

"His reference to the Eiffel Tower indicated to me that he was letting me know that he was the one who committed the Paris murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads," Clutter states in his affidavit.

Authorities have long since abandoned the Rhoads homicide investigation, their decision based on the lack of leads and institutional embarrassment over the Whitlock and Steidl cases.

What the Illinois Prisoner Review Board does with Clutter's affidavit remains to be seen. The ultra-secret board acts on its own timetable and has ignored the Steidl/Whitlock issues for years, despite repeated public pleas for it to take action. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune editorialized in favor of a pardon for Steidl.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

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