“My dad came over at 6 o’clock in the morning. I never will forget that. And he told me they had been killed,” remembers Dyke’s brother Tony. “He told me about their house burning. So we just naturally assumed they died in the fire, and it wasn’t until two o’clock that afternoon that we found out they had been stabbed or murdered.”
Justice moved quickly in the town of Paris. Within a year, two men were arrested and convicted of the crime: 41-year-old Herb Whitlock, a part-time construction worker and small-time drug dealer, and his pal, Randy Steidl, 35, who also worked in construction and had several convictions for assault.
Prosecutors said the motive for the killing was a drug deal gone bad.
Both men said they were innocent, but no one was listening. That is, until 1999, when a journalism professor, David Protess of Northwestern University, gave his students the Rhoads murder as a class project. Re-investigate it, he told them. To him at least, the case didn’t add up.
Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on their cold case investigation, and its startling outcome, for 48 Hours.
The students interviewed dozens of people for their project.
They soon felt almost as if they had known Dyke and Karen Rhoads.
Over and over again, the students recreated the crime scene in their minds, going back to that Fourth of July holiday weekend.
“Dyke and Karen were sleeping in bed. The people came in. They attacked Dyke first, stabbing him in the back. Karen had time to wake up and maybe grab her glasses off her night stand, and then she was stabbed herself, mostly in the chest,” says Greg Jonsson.
There was blood everywhere but on the suspects.
“This young couple was tragically stabbed over 50 times. These men would’ve been covered in blood. There would’ve been blood in their automobiles, there would have been blood on their clothes. There would have been hair, fiber, something that linked them to the crime scene. Nothing did,” says Protess.
Remarkably, the professor’s skepticism is shared even by Dyke Rhoads’ own family.
“We weren’t 100 percent convinced they were, that they were the ones who did it,” says Tony.
Their doubt is based on both the lack of physical evidence and on the supposed motive. The prosecutors said it was a drug deal gone bad, a theory Tony will not accept. But Dyke had met Whitlock half a dozen times, according to the testimony of a friend who had bought cocaine from Whitlock.
Tony says his brother Dyke was an occasional pot smoker and that Karen never used any drugs. “There’s a big difference between somebody who’s an occasional pot smoker and somebody who gets involved in with a drug deal that’s gone bad, that’s going cost you your life,” says Tony.
The students also doubt the drug deal theory, but finding holes in this case wasn’t as easy as it first seemed, because the juries heard from two people who said they had actually been there: eyewitnesses.
The students approached their assignment by immersing themselves in the little community of Paris.
“My feeling was that the way an investigation like this begins is by becoming part of the culture of the town,” says Protess.
Because understanding Paris, Illinois, might be key to understanding who killed Dyke and Karen Rhoads, and whether the men convicted of this crime really are guilty.
Weekend after weekend, the students struggled with their investigation, knocking on doors and talking with the locals.
But Michael McFatridge, who prosecuted the Rhoads case, thinks the students were wasting their time. “I think when the dust settles they’ll be very disappointed because, in fact, Whitlock and Steidl are guilty. I mean, they’re the murderers.”
But in 1986, the young prosecutor had had a tough time building a case against Whitlock and Steidl.
The students quickly learned that the investigation into the murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads had gone absolutely nowhere for two months until an eyewitness stepped forward with an amazing tale. Darrell
Herrington claimed that he actually had seen Whitlock and Steidl at the scene of the crime.
And who was Darrell Herrington? He has been described to 48 Hours as the town drunk.
“At the time that would be, you know, a fair assessment. He was a big drinker,” says McFatridge.
In a taped statement to police, Herrington said he woke up in Randy Steidl’s car, outside the Rhoads’ home.
“Apparently somebody was damn scared about something,” Herrington told police. “I could hear a woman screaming and a man saying please don’t hurt me or kill me, or something like that.”
After using his credit card to jimmy open the lock, Herrington told police he went inside and up the stairs, where Steidl confronted him.
Herrington told police Steidl had blood on him and also had a knife. “Then I looked up and saw a body on the bed,” Herrington said.
“He knew certain things, at least in our minds, that were not things that the town drunk would know,” says McFatridge.
Town drunk or not, Herrington was key to the investigation, but without a confession, McFatridge was stuck. “We were not going to indict or charge somebody until we had a reasonable chance of conviction. We had one eyewitness with no corroborative evidence.”
“She’s trying to get off the bed, and I had went over there and was telling her that everything would be okay,” says Reinbolt.
Reinbolt says she held down Karen Rhoads while they stabbed her and also claims that her husband’s knife was used in the killings.
Reinbolt’s story impressed police, especially when she accurately described a broken lamp found in the Rhoads’ bedroom.
Two separate juries believed both the eyewitness accounts, and in 1987, despite their unwavering protests of innocence, the two men were convicted. Herb Whitlock got life and Randy Steidl received the death penalty.
Steidl says he had no involvement whatsoever in the crime and says he wished he knew who killed the young couple.
Whitlock also maintains his innocence. “I had a little belief that there was justice in the system. I was pretty naïve. I’m not naïve any more,” he says.
Although prosecutor McFatridge had recommended no jail time for the two eyewitnesses, Debra Reinbolt served two years in prison for concealing a homicide.
Darrell Herrington was never charged, but months into their investigation, the Northwestern students found new evidence that cast serious doubts on the testimony of the state’s two star witnesses.
The burned-out bedroom of Dyke and Karen Rhoads was a gruesome crime scene, but it produced no forensic evidence at all implicating the two men convicted of murder. The eyewitness testimony that was apparently enough for the juries wasn’t enough for the students.
“It did not happen the way the state’s witnesses said that it did,” says Krista Larson.
For one thing, they doubted Darrell Herrington’s story, which had put the murders at shortly after midnight.
They tracked down witnesses who challenged that timeline. One had been a neighbor of the Rhoads, Ben Light.
“You would think that with the house located just 100 yards away, we would have heard something,” says Light.
“This crime occurred much later in the night, at a time when Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock were nowhere near the scene,” says Protess.
And there’s one other thing that doesn’t quite add up. Herrington told police that after the murders, he was standing by the Rhoads’ garage with Randy Steidl. But Reinbolt also says she stood by the garage with Steidl. Remarkably, the two eyewitnesses never say they saw each other.
“It could have happened that way, matter of fact, must have happened that way,” says former prosecutor Michael McFatridge. “That argument was presented at trial to two different juries by two different defense attorneys. The juries found the defendants guilty.”
McFatridge may not find this odd, but his star witness, Debra Reinbolt, sure did. “I thought, somebody’s made this up, somebody’s lost their mind, this is the town drunk. There is no way this man was there,” she says.
But what about Reinbolt’s own story? Her testimony was key to the guilty verdict. After all, she said she had seen the murders and even said she helped.
In 1996, nine years after the convictions, Reinbolt matter-of-factly stated in a sworn statement to Randy Steidl’s lawyer that she had lied on the stand.
Asked by the lawyer what parts of her story were untrue, Reinbolt said on tape, “Oh, I don’t know that Randy was there, I don’t know that Herbie was there.”
As for those impressive details she had provided about what she had seen inside the house, Reinbolt told the lawyer she had actually never been inside the Rhoads house.
But in a head-spinning reversal, Debra Reinbolt later insisted that she actually was lying on the tape, that her original eyewitness account of being at the scene of the crime was and is true. Is it? Well, it’s pretty hard to know. Over the years, Reinbolt has changed her story more than half a dozen times.
Why has she changed her story so many times? “Basically wanting to get out of this, just wanting it over. The bottom line is I can’t change a story that’s true,” she says.
Bill Clutter, an investigator working on the Steidl case, thinks he has proof, beyond her various accounts, that Reinbolt never saw the murders at all.
Remember that broken lamp?
“The prosecution used the lamp as the centerpiece of their evidence, corroborating Debra Reinbolt’s account of what happened this night,” says Clutter. “It made her believable.”
Reinbolt testified the lamp was broken when she got to the Rhoads’ bedroom, before fire tore through the home.
After the fire, black soot covered the crime scene.
But Clutter says the broken inside parts of the lamp were white. He says had the lamp been broken before the fire, there would have been soot on the pieces.
In the same 1996 statement in which she denied being at the crime scene, Reinbolt also said police fed her the information about the lamp.
“And they would come up with, ‘Well, there was a broken vase or broken lamp there.’ And then I’d say ‘Well, okay. So there was,’” Reinbolt said on tape.
For the students, it all added up to more than a reasonable doubt, especially when they started turning up other witnesses the police never had talked to.
One of those witnesses, a woman, pointed the students in an entirely new direction.
The woman let the students videotape her but was so frightened she asked 48 Hours to conceal her identity.
“I noticed two men standing opposite of the street light by Dyke and Karen’s house. Now what caught my eye was they had trench coats on in July. And it was very, very hot, and I wondered why they had trench coats on,” she said.
She said she saw them around 9 o’clock the night before the murders. “And one of them was a big guy with blond hair, and the other guy was small-framed and looked like he had dark hair. But they were just standing there looking toward Dyke and Karen’s house.”
The woman thinks she saw the same two men the next night, the night of the murders. “This car started coming around, and it was white with a gold stripe down it. And it had Florida license plates. It would just go by, turn in front of Dyke and Karen’s house, stop. And I seen them looking, you know? And then take off. They did this about ten times, just, I mean, continuously. Why would anyone be doing that?”
Across town, the students also tracked down a gas station attendant who worked the night shift and who remembered selling a lot of extra gas to a man driving a car with Florida plates. He told them he had sold someone 21 gallons of gasoline at 3 a.m. that morning, in seven three-gallon cans.
An hour later, the Rhoads’ house was ablaze. Paris police had interviewed the gas attendant, but the Florida connection went nowhere. The police never even knew about the other witness, who over the years did not volunteer the information.
But what would the killers' motive be? The students came up with a new theory, one that focused on Karen, not Dyke.
“Karen had told several family members and friends that she had seen something at work that had scared her,” says Kirsten Searer.
Karen may have seen something in the parking lot of the pet food plant where she worked, an incident involving other people from the factory.
“She had seen large amounts of money and a gun put in a trunk that was on its way to Chicago,” says Kristen.
According to a friend the students interviewed, Karen was very worried.
Protess wonders if there could be a link between what Karen saw and the shadowy men from Florida.
The Northwestern students didn’t know it at the time, but Michale Callahan, a seasoned investigator, also would conclude that the men in prison for the Rhoads murders were innocent.
Callahan’s career with the Illinois State Police spanned nearly two-and-a-half decades. He was promoted three times over the years, and in 2000, made lieutenant. He was asked to review the Paris murder investigation shortly before 48 Hours was to air a program about it.
Callahan says he had no idea what he was getting into. “This is by far the worst investigation I’ve ever seen!” he says.
In the case file, Callahan says he found hundreds of contradictions or problems: “Evidence or information or leads that weren’t followed that should’ve been followed. Again, contradictions of what people said in these reports.”
“The case file basically said that this was over a bad drug deal. It wasn’t over drugs. I mean, you look at Dyke and Karen. They had $200 in their savings account at the time of their deaths. They’re not major narcotics traffickers by any means,” says Callahan.
Like the students, Callahan was interested in those stories of what Karen may have stumbled on at work -- not just large sums of money that seemed out of place, but also a machine gun.
Callahan wondered if someone at Karen’s job knew something about the murder – a co-worker, or even her boss, Bob Morgan, a publicity-shy businessman. It was something the original investigators hadn’t fully pursued.
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.
But if Karen did see money and a machine gun, what did it mean? Was there any connection to where she worked? Her old boss, Bob Morgan, refused to speak directly with 48 Hours, but he denies any involvement in the murders. And he recently told a local newspaper that, to clear his name, he would welcome an investigation.
But Callahan says that in 2000, no one in the state police was welcoming a new investigation and that in fact, when he tried to pursue one, his superiors yanked the rug out from under him.
“I was told that I could not reopen the Rhoads case. That it was too politically sensitive. I could not touch it,” he says.
No one ever explained what “too politically sensitive” meant, but Callahan’s investigation did reveal that Bob Morgan was a big campaign contributor to some very high-powered Illinois politicians.
Callahan says he tried to get the case reopened five separate times, but that nothing happened.
Whether Callahan’s theory of why his investigation was blocked is right or wrong, two years ago he was transferred out of investigations, which ended his pursuit of the Paris murders for good.
But Callahan refused to give up. Instead, he sued the Illinois State Police, claiming they had transferred him to shut him up, not only about the Rhoads murders, but also about reports he’d made to internal affairs, alleging inappropriate conduct by superiors.
The case against the state police went to federal court. Callahan argued that his superiors muzzled him, and violated his right to free speech, in part because he was trying to investigate any possible connections between Karen’s co-workers or Morgan and the Rhoads murders.
Callahan, now retired, found his vindication earlier this year, when he was awarded $360,000. A jury agreed that he had been punished for just trying to do his job.
“People come to us for the truth,” says Callahan. “We should always try to do the right thing.”
The Illinois State Police aren’t saying anything about Bob Morgan – in fact, they’re not talking about this case at all. But just last month, Morgan took a very unusual step and voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test about the Rhoads murders.
Morgan hired Fred Hunter, a well-respected polygraph expert. “Mr. Morgan had come to a conclusion that he didn’t want these random rumors floating around,” Hunter says.
“Well, the results basically show that he had no involvement in directing anyone to kill Dyke and Karen Rhoads or being present in their home when they were stabbed. His polygraph showed that he was being truthful,” says Hunter.
Morgan hopes the polygraph will put to rest all suspicion of him. But even if it does, it changes nothing for Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock.
“It’s my opinion that they were framed,” he says.
But fortunes are about to change, with a development that the students, the cop, and the prisoners all have worked long and hard for – and never thought they’d see.
The Northwestern students graduated five years ago, feeling as if they had left one course with an incomplete grade.
“We left this unfinished business, but there was nothing that we could do,” says Kirsten Searer. “There were times after we first graduated I just wanted to get back in my car and go back to Paris,” adds Krista Larson.
They thought they had done the impossible, finding new witnesses, new evidence. Enough, they thought, to lead to a new police investigation.
But Herb Whitlock and Randy Steidl stayed right where they had been for more than a decade: in prison.
The student sleuths began their careers in journalism. Then, five years after they began working on the case, came the story the students wished they had been able to write.
But Kirsten Searer says someone was missing. “You just couldn’t help feeling guilty for being there when Herb (Whitlock) was still in prison.”
Meanwhile, Steidl struggles to re-establish his life. He has a new job at a local factory and a determination to fit in, learning about all the changes that have happened in the last 17 years.
“I am still adjusting on a daily basis. It’s a struggle,” says Steidl.
Dyke Rhoads’ family does not understand how the same evidence can free one man and keep another in prison, and they say there can be no closure until they know what really happened on that hot July night so long ago.
“It’s just not something you’re able to be at peace with all,” says Dyke’s sister, Andrea.
“It’s like an open sore that just doesn’t heal. The truth is still out there in my view,” says his brother, Tony.
“And I think it will be found someday,” Andrea adds.