After nearly eight months in jail, a Will County man who police said had confessed on videotape to the June 2004 murder and sexual assault of his 3-year-old daughter was set free Friday, after DNA tests failed to link him to the crime.
Kevin Fox walked out of jail and into a knot of cheering, sobbing relatives and friends after a brief court hearing at which prosecutors said they no longer had enough evidence to hold Fox for the slaying of his daughter, Riley.
The DNA testing of evidence resulted in an "absolute exclusion of Kevin Fox as a donor," State's Atty. James Glasgow told the judge.
A short time later, a tearful but smiling Fox emerged from jail. He walked with an arm around his wife, Melissa, and 7-year-old son, Tyler, at his side. He was also accompanied by his lawyers, Kathleen Zellner and Paul DeLuca.
He said he was eager to spend the night with his family in his own home. "I dreamed of that every night, every single night," he said. "Finally, it's here."
Fox turned aside questions about the videotaped confession at the heart of the case, saying "it was a nightmare and I don't want to relive it right now."
But later, in an interview with the Tribune, he said he was "fed lies and threats the entire time." His wife, who stood by him through his arrest and time in jail, said that when she was questioned "they messed with my mind so much in what little time they had so I couldn't even imagine what they did" with him.
Fox's release sidetracked a case that was contentious from the start, and one that whipsawed the emotions of residents in the tiny community of Wilmington where it occurred. Faced with the disappearance of a child, they gathered together to search for her and mourned on learning she had been slain.
Then, they were forced to come to grips with the idea one of their own had committed the crime. Now, a year after it all began, they are confronted with a new set of facts: that authorities erred when they charged Fox with the slaying.
The case also focused renewed attention on the issue of false confessions, one that has plagued the criminal justice system in Illinois. The Fox case appears to be the second in which a videotaped confession proved false.
In January 2002, Cook County prosecutors dismissed the murder case against Corethian Bell after DNA undermined a videotaped confession that he had killed his mother. Like Fox, Bell said police coerced him to confess. He spent 17 months in jail before he was released.
Though DNA cleared Bell and connected another man to his mother's slaying, police said they have no suspects in the Fox case. Glasgow stopped short of saying Fox was innocent, and said he could not explain why he confessed.
"Numerous confessions are made without coercion," he said.
In court, the case was marked by contentiousness, as Zellner took an aggressive tack to fight the charges. She criticized investigators for botching the investigation and took the unusual step of filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Will County sheriff's office and several detectives, alleging that they had coerced Fox's confession.
Zellner also investigated the case on Fox's behalf in an effort to develop other suspects, and she sought the DNA tests that led to Fox's release. She alleged sheriff's investigators and prosecutors had rushed to judgment in the case, relying on the confession without waiting for the tests.
"The ultimate thing to learn is, do the tests before you make the arrest," Zellner quipped after the hearing at which the charges were dropped.
Even after evidence was sent to the FBI's lab at Quantico, Va., Zellner charged that sheriff's officials told the agency not to pursue the testing. A report from the FBI lab indicates that a sheriff's officer told FBI analysts in early November to stop testing.
"Once they got a confession, they told them to stop the testing," Zellner said. "There's absolutely no excuse for not having those tested."
The decision to release Fox followed a meeting Thursday evening between Glasgow and Zellner, who recounted the discussion and described the county's lead prosecutor as "flabbergasted" by the DNA results.
Zellner criticized the Illinois State Police lab for failing to get a genetic profile when analysts at the Joliet lab examined the vaginal swab.
Lt. Lincoln Hampton, a state police spokesman, said the lab did only preliminary work on the case before the evidence was sent to a private lab, and so it never had the opportunity to try to isolate the DNA--an explanation Zellner challenged.
With the case against Fox dismissed, Glasgow said prosecutors and sheriff's detectives--although none whose work led to charges against Fox--will reopen the case and investigate it with renewed vigor.
Additional DNA testing also will be performed, he said.
"A vicious sexual predator murdered Riley Fox last June, and we are making it our No. 1 priority to reopen this case and aggressively investigate it ..." Glasgow said, adding that there were a "number of leads" investigators were reviewing.
Sheriff Paul Kaupas declined to answer questions about the case but read a brief statement in which he said that "... if evidence presents itself, we'll keep an open mind, continue the investigation and follow any and all leads."
The case began on a quiet Sunday last June. Fox was home with Riley and Tyler, while his wife was in Chicago taking part in a charity walk.
The night before, Fox told police, he had gone to a street festival. He had left the two children in the care of their grandparents. After he picked them up, around midnight, he put them to bed.
In the morning, the front door to the home was open, but Kevin Fox said he did not know whether his daughter had opened it and wandered off.
Between 500 and 600 volunteers took up the effort, and her body was found later that day in Forked Creek, 4 miles from the family's home.
An autopsy determined that Riley Fox had been drowned.
Kevin Fox, then 27, was arrested four months later after the sheriff's office said he gave a videotaped statement implicating himself in the crime.
According to sheriff's officials, Fox said in the videotape that he accidentally killed his daughter but tried to make her death look like a murder and sexual assault so police would not suspect him of the crime.
Fox, in the interview, said he sometimes despaired being in jail but never gave up hope that the truth would emerge and he would be released.
He told himself "there is a big light at the end of the tunnel. It's just how far is the tunnel. And we're arriving at the end."
Some observers charged that then-State's Atty. Jeff Tomczak, who was in a tight race for re-election against Glasgow, filed charges against Fox and quickly decided to seek the death penalty only to quiet criticism over the failure to make an arrest in the case.
Tomczak denied the allegations but eventually was beaten by Glasgow.
Glasgow renewed criticism of Tomczak on Friday, saying at a news conference that it was the state's attorney's duty to stay on top of the forensic evidence and that the office had failed.
"So when you send something to the lab, you monitor it," he said. "The state's attorney's office at that point needs to get involved and say, `Wait a minute. We've got to get this to the laboratory so that we can process it quickly.'"
Zellner praised Glasgow for his handling of the case, saying that Glasgow had "inherited somebody else's mess and still he did the right thing."
The confession was the most contentious piece of evidence and, from the start, Zellner aggressively challenged how the police obtained it.
Fox, according to Zellner, confessed only after he was questioned for 14 hours and was exhausted, and because authorities allegedly promised him that he would face lesser charges and quickly be released if he said his daughter's death was an accident.
"They get people who are emotionally traumatized and obtain a bogus confession," said Zellner, who has helped to free several wrongly convicted inmates but, in an unusual move, took on the defense of Fox before trial.
"People say to me that they would never confess to killing their child," said Zellner. "Have you ever had a child who was murdered? Do you know what it's like to go through that kind of trauma and then be suspected of something like this?"
Melissa Fox said she never thought her husband killed their child.
"... there was nothing that triggered in my mind or my heart that he had ever done anything wrong," she said.
Friday's hearing saw none of the contentiousness that had marked the case.
Fox entered the courtroom wearing a blue jail uniform and crying. When he met his wife's gaze, she began to cry as well. And when Glasgow began to explain he was dismissing the case, their crying grew stronger and Fox's thin shoulders began to shake.
After the judge dismissed the charges, friends and family who had packed the courtroom started to whoop and cheer, then broke into prolonged applause.
Fox family members were jubilant. They told Fox's father, Curtis, that his son's release was a perfect Father's Day gift--two days early.
Sitting in Zellner's office while family members ate pizza and drank champagne and beer, Kevin Fox said his immediate plans are to enjoy his wife and son--and continue to mourn his brown-haired daughter.
While in jail, he had not wanted Tyler to see him in a bad place.
Consequently, he went eight months without seeing his son, although they did talk on the phone.
He may also become a spokesman for falsely accused people, and he said he certainly would press ahead with his federal civil rights lawsuit.
"It's not over," he said. "It's far from over. We have so many more obstacles to hurdle. But we've gotten this far, and I don't think anything could tear us apart after what we've been through."
"I want the public to know that I did not kill my daughter. I have always cooperated with the authorities in the investigation of my daughter's death. On Oct. 26, I went to the Will County Sheriff's Department at the request of the investigators. I tried to cooperate and answer their questions, however, they became very abusive -- yelling and screaming at me that I had killed her."
"For hours, I told the investigators that I did not kill my daughter. I asked them repeatedly to call my father so that he could get me a lawyer. I was told that I did not need to speak to my father or a lawyer."
"I was kept in a locked area for approximately 14 ½ hours. I was told by the investigators that if I did not give a statement saying I was involved in my daughter's death that they "knew inmates at the jail" that would make sure that I was (expletive) every day I was there."
One of the investigators "got 6 inches from my face screaming at me that I was a (expletive) for not talking and that my wife was going to divorce me if I didn't cooperate."
"I was told that I would be in jail for 30 years unless I talked. At one point the investigators threw a picture of my deceased daughter on the table in front of me. They screamed that I had duct taped her mouth and hands. This was the first time I learned that she had been bound. The wanted me to say that there had been an accident at home and that she had hit her head -- that was the first time I learned that she had lumps on her head."T
hey said if I said that she fell and I panicked and tried to cover up the accident I could only be charged with involuntary manslaughter and would immediately go home on bond and could not get more than 3-5 years. They told me to say that I duct taped her mouth and hands."
Kevin then says authorities told him to say that he performed an act on his daughter to make it "look like a sexual attack."
"I have never been under this kind of pressure in my life. I was isolated, alone and terrified. As soon as I saw my brother and lawyer I told them I did not do this. I love my wife, daughter and son more than anything in this world. I trusted the authorities and they betrayed me and my family. I can only hope the truth will come out."
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