Jim Dey | Is investigation of 1966 murder dead? Maybe, maybe not

Jim Dey | Is investigation of 1966 murder dead? Maybe, maybe not

One of the most high-profile murder cases in the history of Illinois remains unsolved and appears unlikely ever to be solved.

So can law-enforcement officials credibly claim their investigation into the 1966 bludgeoning death of 21-year-old Valerie Percy, the daughter of then-U.S. Senate candidate Charles Percy, is "active and ongoing"?

Or is that just rhetoric designed to allow state and local police to resist requests under the state's Freedom of Information Act to release the 20,000-page case file?

A three-judge panel on Illinois' First District Appellate Court is wrestling with that question following oral arguments held last week.

A trial judge ruled in 2016 the City of Kenilworth is entitled to withhold the case file because she concluded there is "no doubt this is an active, ongoing criminal investigation."

In making her decision, Circuit Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos relied on an undisclosed affidavit filed by Kenilworth police Chief David Miller.

In addition to the secret affidavit, a spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court said the entire FOIA case file is being held under seal.

Ms. Percy was killed Sept. 18, 1966, in her upstairs bedroom at the Percy home in Kenilworth, an extremely affluent community located on the shores of Lake Michigan. She had returned to Illinois to work on her father's campaign after graduating from Cornell University.

It was the community's first murder.

At the time, Percy, a millionaire former corporate executive, was the Republican candidate challenging longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas in the November 1966 general election. Percy ultimately won the election, which was held about six weeks after his daughter's death.

He served 18 years in the Senate before losing his bid for a fourth term in 1984 to then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Simon.

Prominent New York lawyer John Q. Kelly, who grew up in Kenilworth, filed the Freedom of Information request. He has represented a series of high-profile clients.

Illinois law permits police agencies to deny FOIA requests if the information released would undermine a pending investigation.

Lawyer Matt Topic, who represents Kelly, insists the records are so old their release will change nothing. He argued that the trial judge erred when she didn't conduct a private inspection of the documents — or a representative sample of the documents — that he's requesting.

Christopher Murdock, the lawyer representing Kenilworth, countered that the age of records doesn't mean they have no value, that they could become crucial depending on the circumstances.

By a variety of measures, Ms. Percy's murder case is bizarre.

It occurred in a city that was relatively crime-free. The victim was from a prominent family and killed in her own home. Many speculated it was an attempted burglary, but nothing was taken.

Given the publicity that surrounded the case, authorities from multiple jurisdictions — Kenilworth, the FBI and the Illinois State Police — threw all their resources at it, but for the most part, they got nowhere.

Authorities said it was a typical day off from the campaign trial for Percy, his wife and three daughters.

They entertained guests for dinner and eventually called it a night.

Valerie Percy went to her upstairs bedroom to sleep. Authorities said another Percy daughter, Sharon, came home from a date and stopped to talk to Valerie before she, too, went to sleep.

Percy's wife, Lorraine, later testified that she was awakened about 5 a.m. by the sound of "groaning" and went to check on Valerie.

When she opened the door to her daughter's bedroom, Loraine Percy said she saw "someone in Valerie's room" and that individual "shined his light in my eyes."

Lorraine Percy screamed, ran to alert her husband and pushed a home-security alarm that blared through the neighborhood.

Charles Percy testified he was awakened by a "scream of terror" and, after talking to his wife, rushed to Valerie's bedroom. There was no one there, he said, except for Valerie lying on "her right side covered in blood."

Charles Percy summoned authorities and also called a physician neighbor to ask for his assistance.

The neighbor, Dr. Robert Hohf, later wrote a detailed account of that night.

For starters, he said both he and his wife were awakened by the Percys' burglar alarm and that his wife walked outside their house to investigate. She had a clear view of the Percy residence, but she saw no one fleeing from the scene.

Dr. Hopf said that when he subsequently went to the Percy residence, he saw immediately there was nothing he could do for Valerie. He described her as a "badly battered girl, obviously dead."

Authorities discovered the intruder used a glass cutter to enter the house from the back. But even that evidence sent mixed messages as to the intruder. The hole cut in the glass was described as too small to reach through, prompting the intruder to smash the glass, not something a professional burglar would ordinarily do. A state police investigator later said the same method was used to break in to the residence of a Percy neighbor the summer before Valerie was killed.

Over the years, names of potential suspects have made it into the public domain. The most prominent was career burglar Frank Hohimer, who denied killing Valerie but identified a member of his burglary crew, Fred Malchow, as the perpetrator. Malchow, however, was dead.

So, it would seem, is the investigation, even though Kenilworth authorities now argue vigorously to the contrary.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.