On this date, March 14, 1960, the bodies of three women from the Chicago suburbs were discovered in St. Louis Canyon, one of the many natural wonders at Starved Rock State Park, near Utica, Illinois. The crime shocked northern Illinois and led to a manhunt that snared a confessed killer who has been in prison ever since. It is one of the most shocking stories to ever occur in this otherwise peaceful region.
But no one can say that Starved Rock does not have a violent and bloody past. The park takes its name from a rock fortress on the Illinois River, where a band of Illiniwek Indians were besieged in the seventeenth century. As their numbers decreased from starvation, desperate warriors attempted to escape, only to be slaughtered in the surrounding forests.
In March 1960, the violence of the past returned to Starved Rock with the discovery of the bludgeoned bodies of three women from Riverside, Illinois. The land around high stone fortress had been turned into state park years before and on March 14, the women’s bloody corpses were found in one of the park’s fabulous box canyons.
The three women from the Chicago suburbs, Mildred Lindquist, Lillian Oetting and Frances Murphy, who hiked to their fate in Starved Rock’s St. Louis Canyon.
The three middle-aged women, Mildred Lindquist, Lillian Oetting and Frances Murphy, had driven from their upscale homes in the Chicago suburbs for a four-day holiday at Starved Rock Park. The three friends, who all attended the Riverside Presbyterian Church, had been anxious for an outing together. Oetting, who had spent the entire winter nursing her husband after a heart attack, was especially looking forward to several days of hiking, bird watching, and spending time outdoors. Employees at the park’s lodge would later remember the arrival of the three ladies. Frances Murphy had parked her gray station wagon in the inn’s parking area and she and her friends had unloaded their few pieces of luggage. They registered for two rooms, dropped off their bags and then ate lunch in the dining room. Afterward, they remarked to one of the staff members that it was a beautiful day for a hike and they left carrying a camera and a small pair of binoculars.
The women walked away from the lodge wearing rubber galoshes. The path was covered with a light snow and they trudged and slipped along, pausing occasionally to take photographs of one another. Eventually, they came to the dead end of St. Louis Canyon, where steep rocky walls framed a majestic, frozen waterfall. The three women were only one mile from the lodge. Lillian Oetting struggled with the controls of her friend’s camera and snapped several color slides of the canyon. When she was finished, the group turned to leave --- and they walked into a horror that stunned the entire nation.
The first sign that something was wrong occurred that evening when George Oetting tried to telephone his wife at the lodge. She had promised to call him but when she had not, Oetting placed his own call. He was told by staff on duty at the desk that his wife was not available. It was surmised that the ladies had gone out somewhere and the staff member suggested that she would call in the morning. Unconcerned, Oetting went to bed.
On Tuesday morning, he called the lodge again and once more, asked to speak to his wife. The employee who answered mistakenly told the worried man that the three women had been seen at breakfast and were simply out of the lodge at that time. Reassured, Oetting ended the call.
That night, a late winter storm hit the Illinois Valley. In St. Louis Canyon, several inches of snow covered up footprints, blood stains and other vital pieces of information around three cold and still bodies. The near-blizzard conditions continued all night long, making the roads in the park nearly impassable.
St. Louis Canyon in the warm weather months. In March 1960, the water was frozen and an early spring snow blanketed the region.
George Oetting telephoned the lodge again on Wednesday morning but his wife and her friends could still not be located. At his insistence, employees entered the women’s rooms and found that the beds and bags were untouched. A quick check of the parking lot also showed that the Murphy station wagon had not been moved. Shocked, Oetting realized that his wife and her friends had now been missing for more than forty hours.
As soon as Oetting broke off the call, he telephoned his longtime friend, Virgil W. Peterson, the operating director of the Chicago Crime Commission. When Peterson learned of the news, he contacted the state police and other law enforcement agencies in the area. Within minutes, word of the missing women had reached the LaSalle County Sheriff’s office and Sheriff Ray Eutsey began organizing search parties to look for the women. He accompanied one of the groups that left immediately for the park.
Bill Danley, a local newspaper reporter, was just finishing his last story for the day’s edition when he got a tip about the disappearances. Grabbing a camera, he braved the snow-packed roads and headed for the park. When Danley reached the park’s west entrance, he noticed a boy running across an icy ravine toward the road. He drove to a small parking area and found several other youths, shouting that bodies had been found on one of the trails. Danley recognized the boys as members of the nearby Illinois Youth Commission Forestry Camp, where he had once led an Explorer Post, and he pulled them aside to a nearby storage garage for some questions. When they told him of the bodies, he called the lodge, where law enforcement officials had gathered, and then called the newspaper to report the discovery. In a matter of minutes, the story was flashing across news wires around the country.
Danley was among those who entered St. Louis Canyon and got the first look at the bodies. The three mutilated women were lying side-by-side, partially covered with snow. They were on their backs, under a small ledge, and their lower clothing had been torn away and their legs spread open. Each of them had been beaten viciously about the head and two of the bodies were tied together with heavy white twine. They were covered with blood and their exposed legs were blackened with bruises.
Recovering the bodies from the depths of the canyon was a major undertaking in the snow.
State Police detectives soon arrived and began a search of the immediate area. Except for the floor of the overhang where the bodies were found, the entire canyon was covered in nearly six inches of snow. The fine, white powder had to be carefully removed and as it was, signs of a violent struggle were revealed. Mrs. Murphy’s camera was found about ten feet from the victims. Its leather case was smeared with blood and its strap was broken. They also found the women’s bloody binoculars. A short distance away, LaSalle County’s States Attorney Harland Warren stumbled across a frozen tree limb that was streaked with blood. The snow beneath it was covered with blood and it was realized that this was likely the murder weapon. A trail of gore also led them to speculate that the women had been killed deeper in the canyon and then their bodies had been dragged and positioned under the rock ledge. The bodies remained in place for hours, until pathologists and state crime lab officials could arrive. The vigil lasted long into the night and then, aided by lanterns and flashlights, the victims were removed on cloth stretchers.
The bodies were taken to the Hulse Funeral Home in Ottawa, where they were examined and autopsied. The women had obviously been molested, but the cold, and limitations of medical techniques at the time, failed to find any evidence of rape. The doctors were able to determine the time of death, placing it shortly after they had enjoyed lunch at the lodge. No motive was suggested for the murders but robbery was dismissed, as the women had left their money and jewelry behind in their rooms when they went for their afternoon hike.
The investigation went nowhere, almost from the start. There were few clues to follow and theories began to grow wilder and wilder. Things were further confused by all of those who wanted to maintain jurisdiction in the case. State’s Attorney Warren, a hard-working and respected official, was technically in charge but the state police maintained their authority in the case because the murders were committed on park property. The two law enforcement camps clashed but Warren was in a bind. He was forced to deal with the state authorities because the officials in LaSalle County simply had no experience dealing with crimes of this manner.
As the investigation slowly moved forward, fear was gripping the region. Doors that were never locked before were now firmly secured. Hardware stores experienced a run on new dead bolts and sporting goods stores saw guns vanish from their cases at an alarming rate. The number of overnight guests at the Starved Rock Lodge dropped off to almost nothing and some motorists went miles out of their way to avoid driving near the canyon entrance. Newspapers and radio broadcasters around the state widely reported the slow progress of the investigation and elevated the level of panic in the area.
The continued newspaper scrutiny of the case kept pressure on police officials to make progress, especially at Harland Warren’s county office. He was doing everything in his power to move the investigation forward, but he had a hard time coping with the pressure, especially during an election year. Money was becoming a problem as well, since the investigation budget was soaring. Throughout 1960, he was under ever-increasing pressure to solve the murders. Frustrated, he felt that he had taken enough criticism for the investigation. He was an attorney, not a detective, but he decided to take one last desperate run at the case. He asked himself what the killer had left behind at the scene of the crime and the obvious answer was the twine that he had used to bind two of the victims.
Using his own money, Warren purchased a microscope and began intently conducting a study of the twine. Research revealed that there were two kinds of twine used, a 20-ply cord and a 12-ply one. With this information in hand, he sought out help to follow the lead. Instead of choosing someone from his staff, he handpicked two county detectives who would report to him alone. The two men were deputies Bill Dummett and Wayne Hess. They were both trustworthy and intelligent and would not leak the details of what Warren was doing to the newspapers.
The men chose the most logical place to start the search for the source of the twine, which was Starved Rock Lodge. In September 1960, Warren and his deputies met with the manager of the lodge’s kitchen. Within minutes and without much difficulty, Warren found both kinds of twine used in the murder. They were each used for wrapping food and Dummett and Hess, using lodge purchasing records, soon tracked down the twine’s manufacturer. The twine used to bind the murder victims had been taken, without question, from the supply in the lodge’s kitchen. Just as Warren had always suspected, the killer either worked at, or had access to, the park’s lodge.
Faced with the fact that all of the lodge employees had been given polygraph tests, and had passed, Warren now had to wonder if the tests had been accurate. He boldly decided that it was time to run some of his own tests. Hiring a specialist for a prominent Chicago firm, Warren recalled all of the employees who had worked during the week of the murder. One by one, they came to a small cabin located near the lodge and again submitted to an exam. The first dozen or so were quickly cleared and Warren and the deputies wondered if they might be wasting their time. Then Bill Dummett brought in a former dishwasher named Chester Otto Weger and everything changed.
Chester Weger stepping out of a car.
When Weger’s polygraph test was completed, Warren noticed that the examiner’s face had gone pale. As soon as Weger left the cabin, the technician ended months of endless leads and wasted time. He turned to Warren and the two deputies and quietly stated, “That’s your man.”
Weger, twenty-one, was a slight, small man with a wife and two young children. He had worked at the park until that summer, when he resigned to go into business with his father as a house painter. Dummett remembered the man’s name from an earlier police report, but he had never made much of an impression on the investigators. Warren intensified the investigation of the man and strangely, Weger happily cooperated with him. He surrendered a piece of a buckskin jacket that he owned so that some suspicious “dark stains” on it could be examined. It later turned out to be human blood, but in 1960, it could not be typed and matched to a specific victim. Warren also asked Weger to submit to further polygraph tests and again, Weger agreed. He was given an entire series of tests and he failed all of them.
Once the jacket was determined to be stained with blood, Warren put the former dishwasher under constant surveillance by the state police. Warren, along with Dummett and Weger, began checking into Weger’s past and also into similar crimes in the area, which might have escalated into murder. Dummett came across a reported rape and robbery that took place about a mile from Starved Rock in 1959. With Warren’s approval, he approached the young female victim with a stack of mug shots. As she slowly sorted through them, she began to scream as she came across the face of Chester Weger.
With this positive identification, Warren could have easily have ordered Weger arrested, but he was forced to wait. A new problem had reared its ugly head. With all of time and energy involved in the investigation, Warren had worked very little on his campaign for re-election. If he booked Weger on rape and murder charges before the election, defense attorneys would simply say that he had done so as a stunt to retain his job. He left Weger under surveillance, not wanting to jeopardize the case against him with the election. Confident of his record of cleaning gambling and prostitution out of LaSalle County during his eight years in office, Warren let his past actions speak for themselves. Unfortunately, his opponent let the “bungling” of the Starved Rock murder case speak for him. Out of 60,000 votes case in the election, Warren lost by nearly 3,500.
Disappointed by the election results, Warren still had time in office to pursue the case against Weger. Although his evidence was not as strong as he would have liked, he obtained an arrest warrant against Weger for the 1959 rape and ordered Hess and Dummett to pick him up. He believed that when he saw all of the evidence mounting against him, Weger would confess to the crime – and to the Starved Rock murders.
Warren made careful plans with his two deputies about how to interrogate Weger before confronting him with murder charges. A short time later, Hess and Dummett arrived at the young man’s apartment and explained that they had some more questions for him. They made no mention of the arrest warrants that were waiting at the courthouse. Once they had him in custody, the officers began to question him about the rape and also began to press him about the murders. They kept him in the interrogation room until past midnight and then finally, weary of questions and nearly exhausted, Weger stopped in mid-sentence and asked to see his family. A police car was dispatched to his parents’ home in Oglesby and his mother and father were brought to the courthouse. Dummett and Hess gave them a few minutes alone with their son.
In his official statement, which was taken the next day, Deputy Hess stated, “When Bill stepped out of the back room in the states attorney’s office to show Mr. and Mrs. Weger to the door so they could go home, I could see that something was bothering Chester. I said ‘Chester, why don’t you tell me about it? There are just the two of us here… just tell me about it.’ He said, ‘All right. I did it. I got scared. I tried to grab their pocketbook, they fought and I hit them.’ The pocketbook that Weger claimed that he tried to take was actually Mrs. Murphy’s camera.
Minutes later, the confession was transcribed and signed by Weger. During the confession, when he was asked why he had dragged the bodies under the overhang in St. Louis Canyon, Weger said that he had spotted a small airplane flying low over the park. Weger said that he was afraid that it was a state police plane so he moved the bodies so that they could not be seen from above. A few days later, the flight over the park was confirmed by the pilot’s testimony and log book.
Although Weger later claimed that he had been coerced into confessing, he gave the investigators many details about the crime and even went out to St. Louis Canyon with them to re-enact how he carried out the murders.
Weger confessed several more times to the murders over the next few days and even reenacted the killings for a crowd of policemen and reporters at the canyon. Then suddenly, after his first meeting with his court-appointed attorney, Weger changed his story and stated that he was innocent of all of the charges. Weger claimed that Dummett and Hess had coerced a confession from him by threatening him with a gun. He had lied in his confession, but had been so scared that he signed the papers anyway. Weger also said that Dummett had fed him the information about the airplane. He claimed to be in Oglesby at the time of the killings.
Weger was brought to trial. Jury selection took almost two weeks and the trial began on January 20, 1961. The new state’s attorney, Robert E. Richardson, was in charge of the prosecution and was assisted by Anthony Raccuglia. The trial, which gained national attention, was presided over by Judge Leonard Hoffman and because the two prosecutors had never tried a murder case before, he suggested that Harland Warren be named as a special prosecutor for this case only. Richardson, who had strongly criticized Warren during the election, dismissed the idea. Richardson and Raccuglia decided to file charges against Weger for only one of the three murders. The reason for this was that in the event of a mistrial or an acquittal, they could still file charges against him for the other killings. They sought the death penalty in the case.
On March 4, almost exactly a year after the murders, the jury brought back a guilty verdict for Chester Weger. On the day of his twenty-second birthday, he was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. After Judge Hoffman dismissed the jurors, reporters asked them if they knew that a life sentence in Illinois meant that Weger would be eligible for parole in a few years. Most of the jurors were shocked -– they had no idea. Some of them even said that if they had known that Weger was not really being sent away for the rest of his life, they would have voted for the electric chair. A lack of knowledge of Illinois law, and the prosecutor’s failure to properly instruct the jury, ended up saving Weger’s life.
Chester Weger was incarcerated at the Statesville Penitentiary in Joliet and remains in prison today at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton. Weger has been denied parole two dozen times since 1972 and most feel that he belongs securely behind bars.
However, in the minds of some people, there are questions about the case that remain unanswered. Many feel that the evidence that was used to convict Weger would not stand up in court today. His prosecution largely turned out to be based on his confession, which pre-dated Miranda warnings that are required today. Others question how a small, slight man like Weger could have overpowered the three middle-aged women, and then moved their bodies by himself to leave them hidden under the rock overhang.
Others who believe in Weger’s innocence point to a “deathbed confession” that allegedly occurred in 1982 or 1983. A Chicago police sergeant named Mark Gibson submitted an affidavit in 2006 that recounted the confession. It was being used in court to support a motion for new DNA tests in the Starved Rock murder case. In the affidavit, Gibson stated that he and his partner, now deceased, were called to Rush–St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital to see a terminally-ill patient who wanted to “clear her conscience.
The affidavit stated, “The woman was lying in a hospital bed. I went over toward her, and she grabbed hold of my hand. She indicated that when she was younger, she had been with her friends at a state park when something happened.”
The woman then told Gibson that she was at a park in Utica and things “got out of hand,” multiple victims were killed and “they dragged the bodies.”
Gibson said that the woman’s daughters cut the interview short, shouting that their mother was “out of her mind” and ordering the police from the room. In the affidavit, Gibson did not provide the exact date of the interview, or the woman’s name, but said he passed the information along to a detective. The affidavit did not address whether or not there was any follow-up or why the confession was not presented until 2006. The alleged “confession” was not allowed into the court hearings, although new DNA tests were ordered. However, they failed to clear Weger of anything because the samples had been corrupted over the years.
After these attempts for release failed, a clemency petition was sent to Governor Rod Blagojevich, but it was denied in June 2007.
To this day, Chester Weger continues to maintain that he was framed for the murders by Deputies Dummett and Hess. But both of the deputies, until the day each of them died, insisted that Weger had confessed. They firmly believed that he had committed the murders and had been the perpetrator of one of the most heinous acts in the already-bloody history of Starved Rock.
The story of the Starved Rock Murders and other crime and haunting stories around the state can be found in my book BLOODY ILLINOIS, which is available autographed on the website or as a Kindle edition.