After fast verdict, Sheley killing spree cases could slow

Saturday, September 24, 2011 | 4:48 p.m. CDT

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It took more than three years for Nicholas Sheley to go to trial in the first of eight slayings authorities allege he committed during a two-state crime spree.

The one part of the process that has been quick was the verdict in the first trial: Jurors took less than an hour Monday to convict Sheley in the June 2008 beating death of Ronald Randall. But Sheley still faces charges in seven other deaths, and his path through the legal system is expected to again slow to a crawl. The last prosecutor in line says he may have to wait years.

For Lyle Reed, the frustrating wait has been as much a part of his life as the unfading memory of finding blood on his father's porch and in the kitchen of his Sterling, Ill., farm house back in June 2008, days before 93-year-old Russell Reed was found dead in his car. The murder charges against Sheley include that killing and four others in nearby Rock Falls, Ill., for which he will be arraigned on Monday. The other two killings were in Festus.

"As far as I'm concerned it's just a sideshow. He's guilty as sin," Lyle Reed said, adding that he knows he'll eventually have to go to the Whiteside County Courthouse as a witness but otherwise wants no part of watching Sheley make his way toward trial. "I'll have to (go), but not any more than I have to. I don't plan to sit through it at all."

The first case involved the death of Ronald Randall. Jurors ultimately made their decision quickly because DNA evidence drawn from blood found in Randall's truck was a powerful persuader, one said.

The prosecutor handling the two cases that are last in line, Forrest Wegge of Jefferson County, said he's prepared for a lengthy wait.

"I'm not saying I'm willing to wait, but I'm not clamoring, either," he said. "It is what it is."

A number of factors could slow or speed up the Whiteside County cases.

Prosecutors — both from the Whiteside County State's Attorney's office and the Illinois attorney general's office — will need to decide whether to try Sheley in all five deaths there at once or try him separately in Reed's death. The others killed in the county — 29-year-old Brock Branson, 25-year-old Kenneth Ulve, 20-year-old Kilynna Blake and her 2-year-old son, Dayan — were found dead in a Rock Falls apartment.

Aside from Wegge, attorneys involved in the Sheley cases either declined to discuss them in detail or didn't return calls. And court officials in Whiteside County said prosecutors haven't yet filed anything that makes their intentions clear.

The search for a judge who doesn't know Sheley also could slow things down. The court agreed in August with a request from Sheley to remove first one judge and then a second. Sheley has an extensive criminal record and had appeared before both, leading him to believe neither could guarantee him a fair trial. A judge from Rock Island County, Ill., Jeffrey W. O'Connor, will handle Monday's arraignment, but a spokeswoman said it isn't clear yet whether he'll handle the cases.

Another hurdle is that Sheley doesn't yet have an attorney and, in June, indicated he would represent himself. In his Galesburg, Ill., trial, Sheley changed his mind more than once about whether to represent himself before finally relying on attorney Jeremy Karlin.

Karlin said last week that he could represent Sheley again but nothing has been decided. If a new attorney is chosen, it could take months for him or her to get up to speed.

Once a trial begins, some of the evidence that could be used against Sheley has already helped convince a jury he was guilty of killing Randall. Prosecutors have said clothing Sheley wore when he killed Randall was found in the Rock Falls apartment. Police have also said they found Sheley's DNA on a cigarette butt in Reed's kitchen. Sheley's wife has testified that Reed had previously let the two take scrap metal from his farm to sell.

Karlin, the defense attorney, called no witnesses in Sheley's first trial. University of Illinois law professor Steven Beckett said a defense attorney might take a similar, not-uncommon tactic in later trials.

"A defendant doesn't have to put on a defense," said Beckett, who has worked as a defense attorney in 16 murder cases. "The defendant can simply take the position that the government does not have enough evidence to meet a burden of proof."

When Sheley's legal path reaches Missouri, where he's charged with killing Jill and Tom Estes of Sherwood, Ark., he could face the death penalty. Illinois abolished the death penalty while Sheley awaited his first trial.

Wegge hasn't decided whether to pursue that option. But if he does, Beckett said, the outcome of the remaining cases in Illinois could become factors in Missouri.

"The jury is being told, 'Oh, by the way, he has seven other murder convictions' — that would have a heavy impact on a jury in deciding whether or not he receives the death penalty," Beckett said.

The Esteses were visiting Festus and it appeared they were attacked the moment they climbed from their Corvette after leaving a graduation party, police said. Police have said the Esteses' bodies were loaded into the pickup Sheley stole from Randall and driven away.

In the Esteses' Arkansas hometown, Sherwood, Tom Estes' 87-year-old mother, Mazie Estes, said waiting for any justice "is not easy," and "there's never a day that goes by I don't think of it." If Sheley is convicted of the Missouri killings, the long-retired manager of a shoe department said she's clear about what should happen.

"I'm for the Bible, an eye for an eye. That's the way it should go," she said. "I think this has taken way too long. I hope they get on with it as soon as they can, but they don't ever do anything the way we think."

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