Chicago Tribune

Cop: Police brass blocked murder probe

Investigator was looking at donor to ex-Gov. Ryan

By Hal Dardick, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed to this report

March 8, 2005

An Illinois State Police lieutenant says he was stopped from investigating the possible involvement of a Downstate businessman in a double homicide because the man had made significant political donations.

The lieutenant does not allege wrongdoing by the politician, former Gov. George Ryan, whose campaign fund received the businessman's donations.

But he alleges that state police brass were guided by fear of political reprisals, even in an investigation with the highest possible stakes--a death penalty murder case.

The charges contained in a sworn affidavit are the latest twist in a nearly 20-year-old double-murder in Paris, Ill. Two men once stood convicted of those killings;. One of them men spent time on Death Row before being freed; the other is seeking a new trial.

At the request of superiors, in April 2000 state police Lt. Michale Callahan began to re-examine the murders of Karen and Dyke Rhoads, newlyweds brutally slain 14 years earlier in Paris, a rural community about 20 miles from Terre Haute, Ind.

Callahan quickly concluded that the two men then in prison for the crime probably were innocent and he issued a memo that named the businessman as a "person of interest."

In the affidavit, Callahan said he and his colleagues were preparing to launch a full-scale investigation of the businessman in May 2000. But his superiors put the brakes on the investigation when they found out that the businessman, his businesses and relatives had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Ryan's campaign fund, the affidavit states.

In late May 2000, Callahan continued to press the issue with his superiors. One of them "advised us we could not look into the Rhoads homicide in any way because the matter was `too politically sensitive,'" the affidavit states.

In January 2001, under a new immediate supervisor, Callahan tried to press the issue again. Their supervisor then stated: "Just so I am perfectly understood here, this case is too politically sensitive and that comes from above. Am I understood?" according to the affidavit.

Callahan made the allegation last month in a federal court affidavit filed in his own lawsuit against the state police. Callahan alleges that he was demoted because he pressed ahead with the investigation of the businessman.

In a sworn deposition taken by Callahan's attorneys, his police supervisor denied impeding the investigation, said John A. Baker, Callahan's lawyer. In the court file is one document outlining Callahan's allegations, where the supervisor wrote "lie" next to the alleged statement, he said.

Two other state police supervisors who oversaw Callahan's work also denied the allegations, Baker said.

But three other state police personnel, two of whom held higher rank than Callahan, backed his claims in their depositions, he said.

Illinois State Police Lt. Lincoln Hampton referred all inquiries to Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan's office, which is representing the three police officers named in Callahan's suit. Melissa Merz, Madigan's spokeswoman, declined comment.

Callahan, a 24-year state police veteran nearing retirement, alleged he was demoted because he persisted in the investigation and brought allegations against a supervisor to the state police's Internal Investigations Division after his work on the case was thwarted.

The state has said the transfer of Callahan from an investigations supervisor to a patrol supervisor was a lateral move that was not retaliatory.

The Rhoadses were stabbed to death on July 6, 1986, in their home, which was then set on fire.

In early 1987 separate Downstate juries convicted former drinking buddies Gordon "Randy" Steidl and Herb Whitlock of the murders. Steidl was sentenced to death, and Whitlock was given life without parole.

No physical evidence implicated either Whitlock or Steidl, both of whom had gone to the FBI shortly before the killings to report corruption, gambling and drug dealing in Paris.

The two key witnesses have since changed their stories several times.

Steidl, who spent more than 17 years in prison--12 on Death Row--was released last May. A federal judge had ordered a new trial in his case and prosecutors dropped the charges rather than proceed.

Whitlock remains behind bars. He is seeking a new trial.

The appellate prosecutor's office continues to fight Whitlock's release and has said Steidl remains a suspect.

Michael Metnick, the defense attorney for Steidl, said the affidavit confirms some of the facts he learned. "I'd love to see a U.S. Department of Justice study" of the case, Metnick said.

The federal decision that led to Steidl's release was based in part on the work of Bill Clutter, an investigator for Metnick. It was Clutter's work, some of which was sent to the state police, that triggered Callahan's involvement in April 2000.

Callahan's affidavit is the first public document to detail his conclusions--and the alleged backlash against them.

As soon as he was assigned to the case, Callahan received three unsolicited calls. One came from a state police lieutenant who suggested he "essentially rubber stamp" the state police findings from the initial investigation in 1986 and 1987 that led to the convictions of Steidl and Whitlock, according to the affidavit.

A retired police officer called Callahan to ask him "not to make us old guys look bad," and another "wanted me to know that he was not a dirty cop," the affidavit stated.

Despite the pressure to endorse early state police findings, Callahan issued a memo in early May of 2000 that pointed out dozens of faults with the initial investigation and trial. He pointed to "other viable suspects," including the Downstate businessman.

Karen Rhoads had a professional relationship with the businessman. She once told a friend she saw him put a machine gun and bags of money into his car, according to police reports.

In an interview Monday with the Tribune, the businessman denied the incident and involvement in any criminal activity. "We didn't do anything wrong," he said.

The businessman said he was aware that investigators were watching him.

Callahan's memo was sent to then-Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan's office, which determined it could not review the matter because the businessman had given $2,500 to Jim Ryan's campaign fund.

In January 2001, Callahan had a new immediate state police supervisor, Major Edie Casella, who wanted him to pursue the case. But in April, their supervisor told Callahan he "could not go there" and made the comment about being understood, the affidavit states.

In October 2001, Casella "was removed from her position for no apparent reason," the affidavit states. Casella declined to comment Monday.

In April 2003, Callahan took allegations about his new immediate supervisor to the state police internal affairs division. He alleged that the supervisor had undermined a federal, state and local task force set up earlier in the year to investigate the businessman.

Two months later, Callahan was transferred from his post as an investigations commander to patrol commander, a move he considered a demotion.

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice