With a pardon at stake, two wrongful convictions in a double murder case get the reverse spin.
By Michael Mine
Originally reported on Chicago Reader website.
Did you know there's an "innocence industry" in Chicago? It's a "conglomeration of defense lawyers, investigators, a major Chicago-based university (Northwestern), . . . media outlets," and other assorted players. Its product is innocence—or at least the appearance of innocence—extracted from the convictions of men who may or may not be guilty.
That's the hypothesis of a website with the unlikely name What Really Happened in Paris, (Illinois). What happened there, in 1986, was that a young local couple, newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads, were found stabbed to death in their home, which subsequently had been set on fire. Two local men with police records, Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, were arrested, tried, and convicted of murder—the prosecution's theory being that they turned to violence when a drug deal with Dyke Rhoads went south. But eventually both convictions were overturned. Steidl was released from prison by a federal judge in 2004, Whitlock by a state judge in 2008. Both sued the city of Paris, Edgar County, and state authorities for wrongful conviction. Whitlock settled for an undisclosed sum and Steidl has been awarded about $6 million. In addition, Steidl asked for a pardon; former governor Rod Blagojevich didn't respond to Steidl's petition, nor has Governor Pat Quinn.
In other words, what really happened in Paris, Illinois, remains a mystery. Michale Callahan, then a lieutenant with the Illinois State Police, which had spearheaded the murder investigation, was asked by the ISP to review the file when the CBS news program 48 Hours came calling in 2000. Expected to do no more than make sure the state police were ready with answers to the network's questions, Callahan instead concluded Steidl and Whitlock had been railroaded, and he made sure everyone knew it. "How many times did you try to get this case reopened?" 48 Hours would ask him when they returned to the story in 2005. "Officially, to Springfield, five times," Callahan replied. He was transferred from investigations to patrol in 2003 after refusing to back off, and in 2005 he retired. In 2009 he published a book about the case, Too Politically Sensitive.
Karen Rhoads happened to be employed by Robert Morgan, a local businessman described by 48 Hours as a "big campaign contributor to some very high-powered Illinois politicians." According to Callahan's book, investigators heard from relatives of the Rhoads that Karen happened to spot machine guns in an open trunk in the parking lot of Morgan's pet food processing plant; Morgan, who was standing there, allegedly told her, "You shouldn't have seen this."
48 Hours asked Callahan: "What Karen said she saw in the parking lot made her afraid, according to her family and friends, who say she was thinking about quitting her job."
Randy Steidl, who was released from prison after 17 years, speaks at
the Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg in 2010.
Andrew A. Nelles / Photo for The Courier-News / Sun-Times Media