"I am innocent and I've done everything I can to prove that to you," Julie Rea tells ABCNEWS' John Miller.(ABCNEWS.com)
UPDATE: Serial Killer Confesses to Joel's Murder
UPDATE: Answers Needed in Rea Case
UPDATE: Julie's Conviction Thrown Out
No Hard Evidence
Mother Convicted of Murdering Her Son Stands By Plea of Innocence
A W R E N C E V I L L E, Ill. May 31, 2002
Julie Rea calls her 10-year-old son Joel "the best kid in the world" — even though she was convicted of stabbing him to death."He was just so alive and so fun and so interested," Rea told ABCNEWS' John Miller in her first interview since her conviction two months ago.
Night Pierced by a Scream
On the night of Oct. 13, 1997, Rea says she was awakened in her home by a scream. Concerned about her son, she says, she went to investigate and yelled his name. But his bed was empty. She then struggled with a masked intruder, she says, chasing him through the house, bursting through two glass doors and into the backyard. She was convinced, she says, that her son had been taken from the house.
"I didn't know where Joel was and I didn't know what to do. I was screaming for help," she says. "I fell to the ground," she says, and then the intruder hit the back of her head, pounding her face to the ground.
Then, she says, the intruder walked away, removing the mask under a streetlight before vanishing into the night.
Within minutes, police arrived. Rea had a bruise over her eye and a gash on her arm. Police immediately searched her home and found Joel dead, his T-shirt bloody from multiple stab wounds in his chest.
Bitter Divorce, Finger Pointing
When children are murdered, parents are often suspected. Both Rea and her ex-husband, Len Kirkpatrick, were questioned. Their divorce had been bitter, and they fought for Joel's custody, a case Kirkpatrick had recently won because Rea was moving a lot.
Kirkpatrick believes it was his ex-wife who killed their son. "I think it was simply a matter of, if I can't have Joel, you can't either," he said.
But there was no hard evidence directly linking anyone to the crime. Police continued to investigate, but had little to go on. Rea described her story of a masked intruder and helped police come up with a rough sketch of the face she says she saw as he removed the mask under a streetlight before vanishing.
News traveled fast in the small town of Lawrenceville, and rumors traveled just as quickly.
"The rumors ranged from residential burglary gone wrong to a group of boys tripping on methamphetamine," says Fred White, a town resident and friend of the Rea family. "Most of the young people will tell you names … they can point to four, five individuals who have over the last couple of years taken credit for being involved in this."
Another resident noted that a suspicious man had been seen two nights later, less than a mile from the murder scene.
Police reports recorded all the stories, and interrogated the teens. They found the leads unconvincing, as did Kirkpatrick.
"Drug-crazed teenagers don't break into a house in the middle of the night with no signs of forced entry in the dark, to murder a child and then exit without a trace," he says.
Local authorities were frustrated as the case came to a standstill. But they continued to press Rea, who had moved to Bloomington to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
Special state prosecutor Ed Parkinson was put on the case, and felt there was a solid case against Rea. He quickly pressed for an indictment.
"To believe her you would have to believe that this assailant came into her home in the middle of the night in dark clothes hiding his identity by the use of a mask, for the sole purpose of killing a 10-year-old boy," says Parkinson. "And after he accomplished his result he pulled off the mask to reveal his identity to her. Nonsense."
At her attorney's request, Rea took two polygraph tests and passed both. Kirkpatrick also took two tests. The results of the first were inconclusive, and he passed the second.
But it was more than Rea's story that troubled prosecutors. It was the physical condition of the crime scene.
"The house was in complete neatness," says Parkinson. "There would have been some disturbance, some blood trail, something knocked ajar. There was none."
Even the murder weapon, a knife from Rea's kitchen, appeared to have been placed on the carpet, not dropped in a struggle that would leave a pattern of blood splatter.
Police found no evidence of a murderous intruder, no forced entry and no blood trail.
"No one in this world except Julie Rea fits the killer," says Parkinson.
But where did Rea get her injuries? And if she had repeatedly stabbed her son, why was she not covered in blood?
Three years to the day after Joel was murdered, Rea was indicted for killing her son. With only circumstantial evidence against her, the prosecution put Rea's character on trial. Witness after witness questioned her behavior and demeanor at the scene and in the courtroom. Her former husband portrayed her as a volatile and unstable woman.
The defense called a parade of supporters to speak on Rea's behalf, but in the trial's most critical decision, Rea did not testify in her own defense.
"I felt that she would have a very difficult time with Mr. Parkinson, or any of the other attorneys," explained Rea's attorney, Brad Vaughn. "And I did not think that she would bear up well under cross examination."
One juror thinks that decision was detrimental.
"I needed to hear her tell me that story," she said. "I looked at her for two weeks, stared her in the eyes for two weeks. I wanted her to tell me that story."
Rea's lawyers pointed out the lack of significant blood evidence on Rea or her clothing, and suggested that state police investigators had not made a concerted effort to find clues that would lead to the identity of an intruder.
The trial lasted two weeks. After five hours of deliberation, the jury found Rea guilty of first-degree murder.
For Kirkpatrick, the verdict was clear and just. "Joel died a horrible death," he said. "He was murdered in his sleep, in the comfort of his mother's home, by his mother. And probably with knowledge of who his attacker was." Rea was sentenced to 65 years in prison, eligible for parole in 32.
One Woman’s Report
But jurors never heard Tobi Pfoff. Pfoff, whose name was in the police reports that were available to both the prosecution and defense, says a family friend confessed to her that he and another committed the crime during a burglary.
But police were unable to locate the man.
Prosecutors dismissed Pfoff's story as another rumor. Asked why the defense did not use Pfoff's story to fuel a reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds, Vaughn said, "I had to have more than somebody saying they heard someone say they heard someone. I needed direct hearsay not second or third hand hearsay," he said.
Pfoff told 20/20 that the young man said he and his friend had been told the Rea house had a VCR and stereo that would be easy to steal. She said he told her they entered the house while high on LSD, then heard someone say "Mommy," got scared, and repeatedly stabbed the little boy.
Part of the story, she said, seemed on track with Rea's story of struggling with an intruder. The two boys, she said, then went back to a party and burned their bloody clothes and shoes.
"I just feel like I could have been doing something about it if they would have just listened," says Pfoff, who believes that an innocent woman is behind bars. "She needs to mourn her child in peace."
Rea, who plans to appeal, says, "At a very survival-oriented level, I am praying to God … My son knows I didn't hurt him. My son knows I would have never hurt him."