The Starved Rock murderer is headed to a mission in Chicago with a mission of giving paroled prisoners a fresh start.
But how long will the 80-year-old Chester Weger stay at St. Leonard’s Ministries? And what restrictions will the paroled killer have? Prison officials have yet to answer these questions, but they also have time to sort things out, as Weger won’t be released from custody until Feb. 19.
Weger was granted parole Thursday following a 9-4 vote by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board — Weger needed eight votes to go free — but immediately after the vote, an attorney with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office asked for a 90-day stay, meaning Weger must remain in custody three months while the agency conducts a risk assessment and chimes in on the terms of his release.
Weger’s reaction was not immediately known. He was not present for Thursday’s hearing and family members retreated behind closed doors to telephone him of the board’s decision.
The vote followed emotional testimony by Weger’s sister and by the granddaughter of one of the three women found bludgeoned to death in 1960 at Starved Rock State Park.
Weger was sentenced to life in prison for the 1960 bludgeoning death of Lillian Oetting in a canyon at Starved Rock State Park. He also confessed to killing Oetting’s two companions.
Diane Oetting said her family endured a great loss when Lillian, a beloved wife, mother and grandmother, was found with 100 wounds to her head, alongside two companions with whom she went bird watching. Compounding their grief, she said, the Oetting family endured cruel and malicious rumors about how Lillian’s widowed husband had hired a contract killer.
“I ask you,” Oetting told the board, “if you let him go, does that mean the crime wasn’t brutal? That my grandmother is still here?”
In response, Weger’s sister said her brother was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Mary Pruett said evidence surfaced after Weger’s trial that either could have shown he was innocent or shown the abuses used to coerce a confession out of Weger.
“He (Weger) has lost his life in prison,” Pruett said, adding later. “I just hope my brother doesn’t die in prison.”
He won’t. Barring a medical setback, Weger will leave for Chicago a free man just two weeks before his 81st birthday. It was disclosed during the packed-house hearing that St. Leonard’s agreed to accept Weger after release; but chairman Craig Findley warned the throng that where and how Weger is discharged is up the Department of Corrections.
Findley was among the nine who voted to release Weger. Most of the board listened patiently to the supporters and opponents while giving no hints as to how they would rule. Those who did speak seemed most interested in whether Weger’s confession, which he recanted, was reliable by today’s exacting standards.
Board member Vonetta Harris, who voted in favor of release, said she was troubled that Weger’s confession was obtained after police developed Weger as a suspect and then interrogated him intermittently over an eight-month span — a timetable that simply wouldn’t fly today.
Board member Donald Shelton voted against release, flatly rejecting any talk that police tortured Weger or physically coerced him. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled as much in a 1962 appeal by Weger.
Shelton acknowledged he was troubled by primitive handling of evidence but said the evidence incriminating Weger overcame any doubts of his guilt.
“The deeper you look, the more evidence you find,”
Board member Pete Fisher voted against release. He reminded the board that Weger directed police to the bodies and had enough direct knowledge of the crime scene to discount any notion that he was coached or told what to say.
The prevailing sentiment, however, seemed to be whether Weger had reached a stage of life where he could do no further harm. Board member D. Wayne Dunn said he interviewed Weger and found him cooperative and with a disciplinary record showing him to be a good inmate.
“I believe it is time for Mr. Weger to be paroled,” Dunn said.
The vote was greeted with dismay by a prosecutor who lobbied the board against release.
“I am deeply disappointed in the board's decision this date to release Weger,” said La Salle County state’s attorney Karen Donnelly, who was present Thursday in Springfield. “There are fewer voices out there opposing his release, as many of those who played any role in the investigation and prosecution are now gone.
“He now gets to enjoy the remainder of his life as he chooses, having once stated to a reporter that he would like to spend the remainder of his life with his grandchildren. Tell that to Diane Oetting, the granddaughter of one of Weger's victims, who did not get that same opportunity.”
The vote appeared more likely to break in Weger’s favor after a series of recent events.
Double-murderer Henry Hillenbrand cut loose earlier this year.
Thursday’s hearing rattled nerves among prosecutors and the survivors because a series of springtime events suggested the scales might finally tip in Weger’s favor.
Weger turned 80 in March, strengthening the case he no longer represents a physical threat to society. Hillenbrand was paroled in April, leaving Weger supporters hopeful for a similar result. In May, a key voice in opposition was lost when Weger prosecutor Anthony Raccuglia died.
Oetting and companions Frances Murphy and Mildred Lindquist were found bludgeoned in a canyon at Starved Rock State Park in early 1960. The case confounded investigators until the cords used to bind the women’s hands were identified as kitchen twine that matched a spool in the kitchen at Starved Rock Lodge.
That discovery turned the spotlight to Weger, a dishwasher with a criminal record as a juvenile and who had been identified as the assailant in a recent sexual assault. Weger eventually confessed to bludgeoning the three women — he was convicted only for Oetting’s death — and told authorities he was trying to rob the women. Weger later recanted that confession.
Recanted or not, Weger was convicted following a lengthy jury trial, after which jurors declined to hand down a death sentence and instead opted for life in prison.
The case has been hotly-debated ever since, with alternate theories abounding even as Raccuglia and others attached to the case insisted Weger’s recanted confession remains credible. Raccuglia had, however, disclosed in 2002 that he didn’t believe Weger robbed the women but in fact tried to sexually assault them.
Weger has spent the past six decades trying to overturn his conviction and sentence, most notably in 2004 when he petitioned the court for DNA analysis. The petition eventually was withdrawn when analysts determined the physical evidence was too old and degraded, not having been stored by contemporary protocols, to be of any use.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.
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