In the early morning of July 6, 1986, Karen and Dyke Rhoads were brutally stabbed to death in their bedroom in downstate Paris, Illinois. The killers then set the house afire in what police believed was an attempt to conceal evidence of the murders. Fearful residents demanded swift arrests.
On September 21, 1986, a local alcoholic and petty criminal, Darrell Herrington, told police that he was with Gordon “Randy” Steidl and Herbert R. Whitlock when they went to the Rhoads’s house that July morning. He said he heard arguments, and saw the knife, bodies, and the blood. The trouble with Herrington’s grisly tale was that, by his own admission, he had been very drunk when the crimes occurred, and he flunked a lie-detector test. The police took his statement, filed it away, and didn’t give much credence to it.
Five months later, on February 16, 1987, Deborah Rienbolt, a certified nurse’s aide, unexpectedly came forward with a story about visiting a bar on the night before the murders where she saw Whitlock arguing with 27-year-old Dyke Rhoads for backing out of some unspecified deal. At another bar the same night, she said she saw Whitlock with her husband’s knife that he had previously borrowed from her and had returned the day after the murders. She said she heard him say he was going to “take care of a few people [who] know too much” and made a vague allusion to Karen Rhoads. Later that night, Rienbolt said that she encountered Steidl and Whitlock at yet another bar and went with them to the Rhoad’s house where she witnessed the murders. One detail of her statement was that she saw one of the killers beat one of the victims with a broken lamp.
With Rienbolt’s statement, coupled with Herrington’s statement, the police felt that they had a case. On February 19, 1987, the police arrested Steidl and Whitlock and, three weeks later, the Edgar County grand jury returned indictments charging them with the Rhoad’s murders.
During their separate jury trials, both Steidl and Whitlock took the stand and denied they had anything to do with the murders. They admitted being at bars looking for women, but said they had not been with either Rienbolt or Herrington. The women who had been with them that night corroborated their accounts. Inexplicably, the defense attorneys failed to call some potential witnesses who would have helped Steidl and Whitlock — a supervisor who would have said that Rienbolt was at work that night, not out boozing; a friend of Rienbolt would have contradicted her account of the evening; a Forensic pathologist would have testified the knife that Rienbolt provided could not have been the murder weapon because its blade was too short.
A jailhouse snitch, Ferlin Wells, testified that Steidl had confided to him, saying if he had thought Herrington would come forward, “he would have definitely taken care of him.” The prosecution also made a major issue of the broken lamp and that may have clinched their case. On May 22, 1987, Whitlock was acquitted of the murder of Dyke Rhoads, but was convicted of killing Karen Rhoads, and was sentenced to life in prison. In July 1987, Steidl was convicted of both murders and was sentenced to death on August 12, 1987.
Their state appeals went nowhere. But, on November 21, 1988, Herrington testified under oath before a court reporter that police had fed him information and urged him to change parts of his story. Then, on January 13, 1989, Rienbolt also came forward to admit that her testimony was a lie. But, a week after each recantation, they recanted their recantations and signed affidavits that their original testimonies were true. Steidl’s new attorney, Michael Metnick, and his investigator began reviewing the case. Rienbolt contacted them in 1996 and said that she wanted, finally, to tell the truth. They videotaped her on February 17, and part of the video appeared on a CBS “48 Hours” documentary about the case. Five days after her videotaped testimony, however, she once again recanted her statements.
A team of students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism began to look into the case and found several witnesses who had not been interviewed by police. Lieutenant Michael Callahan of the Illinois State Police, assigned to reinvestigate the case, concluded the men were innocent and accused prosecutors of not considering other suspects. Fire investigators determined the lamp had been intact during the crime, but was broken by the firefighters.
On December 11, 1996, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Steidl’s appeal for a new trial, but granted a new sentencing hearing on the ground that his attorney provided ineffective assistance at the sentencing phase of his trial. On February 18, 1999, Steidl was resentenced to life in prison after the prosecutors refused to pursue the death penalty.
Steidl finally won release on a federal writ of habeas corpus on June 17, 2003, and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him on May 28, 2004. Whitlock remained behind bars another three and a half years until the Illinois Appellate Court reversed his conviction, holding that exculpatory evidence had been withheld at his trial. Prosecutors dismissed the charges against him on January 8, 2008.
Randy Steidl filed a lawsuit against the Illinois State Police and settled for 2.5 million dollars in 2011. In 2013, Steidel settled his lawsuit against Paris police and Edgar County for $3.5 million. Herbert Whitlock settled his lawsuit against the Illinois State Police for an undisclosed amount.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions