Jim Dey: 'Frame-up' defendants pay up to avoid trial
State and local law enforcement officials will never admit they framed two Paris men for a 1986 double murder of a young newly wed couple in Edgar County.
But this week they settled the last of the wrongful conviction lawsuits filed by Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock, both of whom alleged they were convicted of the murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads on the strength of manufactured evidence and witness statements police knew were false.
U.S. Judge Harold Baker, who presides at the federal courthouse in Urbana, on Wednesday signed a consent judgment authorizing a $3.5 million judgment in Steidl's favor. Baker's action ends the federal lawsuit Steidl filed against the city of Paris, former Police Chief Gene Ray, Detective James Parrish as well as Edgar County and former State's Attorney Michael McFatridge.
The agreement calls for McFatridge and Edgar County to pay $2 million while the municipal defendants will pay $1.5 million. One sticking point, however, is that Steidl's lawyers will have to pursue the state for $1.65 million of the McFatridge judgment on the theory that the state indemnifies prosecutors. Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office has resisted paying for McFatridge's legal fees, and the issue is before the Illinois Supreme Court.
In December 2011, the Illinois State Police settled Steidl's case for $2.5 million. The state police defendants included former investigator Jack Eckerty, who allegedly was in on the original frame-up. The other state police defendants are Capt. Steve Fermon, Col. Diane Carper, Investigator Jeffrey Marlow, Capt. Ken Kaupas and upper commanders Andre Parker and Charles Bruggeman, all of whom are retired.
The second set of ISP defendants allegedly was involved in the effort to cover up the original wrongful conviction after evidence of wrongdoing was brought to their attention by former state police Lt. Michale Callahan.
Whitlock had earlier settled his case against all the defendants for an undisclosed sum.
In a statement issued by one of his lawyers, Flint Taylor of Chicago, Steidl was quoted as saying that he is "pleased and relieved that, after 25 years of fighting for justice, I have finally resolved my civil cases."
"While no amount of money can fully compensate me for what I have suffered, the judgment and the prior settlement establish, once and for all, that I was wrongfully convicted for crimes I did not commit," Steidl said.
Whitlock was more circumspect.
"There's not much to talk about. You do the best you can," he said of his settlement.
But Whitlock made it clear that he is not happy with the outcome.
"Well, I wish I would have got some justice and (a bunch) of money out of it," he said.
As was the case with the state police defendants, neither the city of Paris nor the Edgar County defendants acknowledged any wrongdoing. But the settlements speak for themselves.
"If you really thought (Steidl and Whitlock) were murder suspects, would you pay them millions of dollars? Obviously, (authorities) don't think they're murder suspects," said Callahan, who was assigned to review the cases in the early 2000s and quickly concluded Steidl and Whitlock were not involved in the killings of the Rhoads couple.
Both Steidl and Whitlock continue to seek pardons from the governor's office based on their claims of innocence. Taylor said he believes the state will be more willing to grant the pardons now that the lawsuits have been settled and its exposure to monetary damages limited.
"The government has no practical reason to refuse to grant the pardons," he said.
Despite the settlements, the mystery remains.
Who killed newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads on July 6, 1986, at their Paris home? Both victims sustained numerous stab wounds, and their house was set on fire to destroy evidence in the case.
It's unlikely the real killers will ever be identified. Authorities, particularly the state police, have been so thoroughly embarrassed and compromised by the misconduct and incompetence in the original investigation and prosecution that they have no interest in pursuing the matter. To do so would risk unearthing more skeletons from official closets.
"There's still no justice for (Dyke and Karen Rhoads), and I don't think there ever will be," said Callahan, whose effort to re-investigate the case ran into repeated roadblocks. One supervisor told Callahan the case was "too politically sensitive" to re-examine, prompting Callahan to use that phrase for the title of a book he wrote about the controversy that cost him his law enforcement career.
The wrongful convictions were built on circumstantial evidence, which was later successfully challenged in post-trial hearings, as well as from two purported eyewitnesses to the murders.
Darrell Herrington, a hard-core alcoholic, testified he was driven to the murder scene by Steidl and Whitlock. Debra Reinbolt, a woman with severe substance abuse and mental health problems, testified she held Karen Rhoads while she was killed, even providing the murder weapon for the killers to use.
Despite testifying to being present at the murder scene, neither Herrington nor Reinbolt testified they had seen the other. The so-called Reinbolt knife also later was eliminated as a possible murder weapon because its blade was too short to inflict deep stab wounds and it lacked a hilt that would have caused bruising if plunged deeply into the two victims.
Those inconsistencies, however, barely scratch the surface of the evidentiary problems that defense lawyers uncovered during their long investigation.
For starters, authorities withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, including Herrington's initial statements that the two killers were not Steidl and Whitlock but two men named "Jim and Ed." Herrington also flunked a polygraph examination, the results of which were unlawfully withheld from the defense.
As for Reinbolt, she repeatedly recanted her testimony and recanted her recantations over the years. One major falsehood in her testimony came when she testified to being present with Steidl and Whitlock in a Paris bar at a time when her employer's business records showed she was working.
Despite evidentiary problems, Steidl and Whitlock were convicted in separate trials.
Steidl was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. He served 17 years in prison, including 12 years on death row, before his conviction was overturned by U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey. He was released from prison in 2004.
Whitlock was convicted only of killing Karen Rhoads, a result totally at odds with the prosecution theory of the case. Because his case was on a different legal track than Steidl's case, Whitlock served 21 years in prison before Illinois' Fourth District Appellate Court overturned his conviction. He was released in 2008.
Since his release, Steidl has devoted much of his energy to pursuing anti-death penalty legislation. He has repeatedly testified in official forums and spoken to groups about his experience. In his early 60s, Steidl lives in Charleston.
Approaching 70, Whitlock resides in Paris. Unlike Steidl, he said he doesn't dwell on the past because he considers it unhealthy.
"Who do you hurt (when you dwell on the past)? You hurt yourself. That's why I live in the present," he said.
Even though Whitlock is quick to anger when the subject is raised, he said he "put it behind me a long time ago."
"I've got a pretty good life," Whitlock said. "Usually, it's about the furthest thing from my mind."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette. com or at 351-5369.