On December 9, 1994, the body of 71-year-old Fred Reckling was found beaten to death near the rear of his store, Grand Appliance, in Waukegan, Illinois. Blood was found on the carpet just inside the front door. Reckling had been severely beaten—his skull was fractured and his left arm was broken in several places.
Ten days later, his Lincoln Town car was found on the north side of the City of Chicago. Bloodstains were found in several areas inside, including the steering wheel and the driver’s seat.
For 13 months, the case went unsolved—the only unsolved homicide in Waukegan at the time.
On January 4, 1996, 45-year-old James Edwards was taken into custody for questioning for an armed robbery of a motel in Waukegan.
Edwards had a history of violence. He had been convicted of the March 28, 1974, murder of 83-year-old Cora Lee Young, a woman he met at a church and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was released on parole in 1991.
During 27 hours of interrogation, police said Edwards confessed to the armed robbery of the motel as well as several other armed robberies, a burglary and three murders, one in New York, one in Ohio and that of Reckling.
Police said he admitted murdering a man in the Bronx in 1974 after the man made a sexual advance toward him. They said he also confessed to the robbery and murder of 60-year-old Sylvia Greenbaum, of Shaker Heights, in a Cleveland shopping center parking lot in February 1974.
Edwards confessed to the Reckling murder on videotape, saying he saw Reckling park his car outside the store, followed him inside, beat him and then left with $1,800 in cash. He said he drove the car to Chicago and abandoned it, then went on a three-day crack cocaine binge with the money.
Edwards went on trial for the murder of Reckling and the armed robbery of the motel in Lake County Circuit Court on October 31, 1996.
Although DNA tests on the blood found in the store and in the car showed the blood was not his, the prosecution contended the blood belonged to a store employee who had cut himself and then drove Reckling’s car.
The sole evidence against Edwards was his confession, which his attorney contended was coerced. Waukegan detectives denied the confession was coerced, with one calling Edward’s demeanor during questioning “congenial.”
The jury rejected the state’s plea to impose the death penalty and Edwards was sentenced to life in prison without parole and 60 years in prison for the armed robbery.
In 1997, Edwards was extradited to Ohio where he was convicted of the February 11, 1974 murder of Greenbaum. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Edwards’ appeal of the conviction for the Reckling murder was upheld by the Illinois Court of Appeals on December 31, 1998. Motions for post-conviction relief were denied as was a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
On June 20, 2005, Edwards' attorney, Kathleen Zellner, filed a motion for DNA testing of the blood found in the car and in the store. More than five years later, prompted by an order from the Illinois Supreme Court, the testing was ordered by the Lake County Circuit Court on March 15, 2011.
On June 27, 2011, the DNA profile obtained from the blood was matched to a Hezekiah Whitfield, 42, a convicted robber who was released from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 1993 after being paroled for an armed robbery in May 1991. Whitfield was later convicted of two separated robberies in 1995 in Evanston and Wilmette, two Illinois suburbs near Waukegan, and convicted in 1998.
In 2012, Zellner and co-counsel Paul DeLuca filed a motion seeking a new trial for Edwards, citing the DNA evidence and submitting a sworn affidavit from Edwards alleging that during his interrogation, Waukegan police detectives beat him, slammed him against the wall, pressed their hands into his temples, denied him access to a bathroom and food and forced him to stay for the entire 27-hour interrogation.
Edwards said in the affidavit that the detectives told him that unless he confessed to the murder, they would kill him and claim he killed himself.
He denied committing the murders.
The post-conviction motion noted numerous inconsistencies between Edwards’ confession and the evidence in the case.
Edwards confessed to taking $1,800 from a bank bag and leaving the bag on the floor of the store, although the bag was never recovered. He said he left Reckling’s car in a parking lot, although it was found parked on a street.
Edwards said in his confession that after leaving the car, he went to Fluky’s bar on Chicago’s South side. The bar had been closed for several years by 1994.
On May 15, 2012, Whitfield was arrested and charged with Reckling’s murder. In April 2014, a jury convicted Whitfield of the murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On May, 29, 2012, Edwards’ conviction for the Reckling murder was vacated and the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges. Edwards remains incarcerated for the armed robbery conviction and has yet to begin serving the sentence imposed in Ohio.
In May 2013, Edwards filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Waukegan and several police officers for violating his civil rights. Edwards was also challenging the Ohio conviction as a false conviction in 2014.
– Maurice Possley