Chicago Tribune

Case messier than ever; who cleans it up?
Eric Zorn, Columnist, Chicago Tribune
March 8, 2005

The long-simmering cauldron of putrid ooze that is the prosecution of Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock has at last boiled over.

As outlined in my colleague Hal Dardick's Page 1 article, 24-year veteran Illinois State Police Lt. Mike Callahan, the former leader of a multiagency reinvestigation of the case, has issued a raft of specific and damning allegations against state police higher-ups in a 134-page memorandum and other documents filed recently in federal court.

To boil 134 pages down to 134 words,

Callahan alleges:

Prosecutors and investigators conspired to conceal evidence and otherwise frame Steidl and Whitlock for the 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in downstate Paris. In early 2000--as private investigators, journalists and defense lawyers were exposing weaknesses in the evidence and asking questions about the failure of authorities to investigate possible links to a prominent local businessman and big contributor to then-Gov. George Ryan--Callahan was tapped to lead a review of the evidence. But his supervisors almost immediately began waving him off and telling him to quit sleuthing because the case was "too politically sensitive." They continued to discourage him even after his digging showed the case against Steidl and Whitlock was as unsustainable as critics were charging. When he refused to back down, state police supervisors demoted and reassigned him.

Callahan, 50, names names and cites corroborating testimony in the depositions of several other state police investigators. These fellow officers confirmed under oath Callahan's accounts of meetings with balky supervisors who, they said, seemed far more interested in defending what had been done than correcting any mistakes.

These supervisors have denied Callahan's allegations in their depositions, but state police officials did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said the issues raised in Callahan's wrongful-demotion suit, which the AG's office is fighting, are independent from the issues raised in the criminal case. But if what Callahan and his allies on the force say is true--still a question for the courts--it amounts to a huge and even frightening scandal that suggests a cynical dereliction of duty inside the state police hierarchy at best, a high-level conspiracy to obstruct justice at worst.

It would be nice to say such an allegation from respected law enforcement professionals is unprecedented in the annals of Illinois justice. But it's not.

Callahan's insider critique of the Rhoads case contains many echoes of the insider critiques of the 1983 Jeanine Nicarico case that were offered by DuPage County Sheriff's Detective John Sam, Assistant Atty. Gen. Mary Brigid Kenney and Illinois State Police Cmdr. Ed Cisowski.

Sam, Kenney and Cisowski publicly challenged the acts and decisions of those behind the prosecution of Rolando Cruz and Alex Hernandez, who were sent to Death Row for the Nicarico murder. Their apostasy was vindicated when the pair were later freed.

Callahan, who will not speak to the media until he retires from the state police later this month, has already won partial vindication: A federal judge ruled in 2003 that Steidl's "acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence," and Steidl was released from prison last May after Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan refused to attempt to retry him.

Steidl and Whitlock, now 59 and serving a life sentence at Lawrence Correctional Center in downstate Sumner, were convicted almost entirely on the same evidence--the far-fetched, contradictory and ever-changing accounts of a notorious alcoholic and an admitted drug addict, both of whom claimed several months after the crime to have witnessed Steidl and Whitlock butchering the Rhoads couple.

Whitlock's next court hearing in his fight for a new trial is March 21, and if state appellate prosecutors continue to object in light of Callahan's powerful statements, they'll officially become part of the putrid ooze.

Make no mistake. Nearly 19 years after the fact, this case is now a bigger mess than it's ever been. State police officials are the subject of very serious allegations of misconduct, and the attorney general's office is representing the state police against the man leveling those allegations.

Who will step in to clean it up?

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice