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In March 1960, three middle-aged women from the Chicago suburb of Riverside stepped out of the local lodge at Starved Rock State Park, which sits along the Illinois River, for their first hiking excursion of a planned four-day trip. Frances Murphy, 47; Lillian Oetting, 50; and Mildred Linquist, 54, who were close friends and all attended the same Presbyterian church, wore their galoshes for the slippery winter hike. A dusting of snow had just blanketed the famed Utica, Illinois-area park, which got its name from an Indigenous American legend and is renowned for its natural wonder, frozen winter waterfalls and stunning canyons.
It was inside St. Louis Canyon, just off one of the park’s more popular trails, where the women’s battered bodies were discovered days later. They’d been bludgeoned and lined up in a row on their backs; some of the clothing was torn off and their legs were splayed open. Two of the women had been bound with white twine. That snowy dusting on the day they’d set out for their hike had been followed by a heavy storm that spread across the valley, and the accumulation wiped away potential evidence, such as foot and handprints of their killer or perhaps the murderer’s blood. As authorities removed the bodies, news of the shocking murders had already begun to tear across the region and the difficult hunt for their killer began.
In his new three-part HBO docuseries, director Jody McVeigh-Schultz looks back at the murders and the effect that they had on the Illinois River Valley region, the families of the women, and on Chester Weger, who spent 60 years in prison for the murders until he was released on parole last year. But the series also centers on David Raccuglia, the renowned hairstylist and founder of American Crew. His father was the prosecutor who helped put Weger in prison for life in 1961, and Raccuglia says that his life has been colored by the case — so much that he began an unfinished documentary 15 years ago about the murders and the lingering questions around Weger’s prosecution. “The Murders at Starved Rock” premieres today on HBO Max.
The series arcs over 60 years of history in Illinois’ LaSalle County, weaving Raccuglia’s quest for the truth about Weger and his possible crimes, with the history of the case and the deeply troubling questions about the investigation that led to Weger's conviction. Peppered throughout are interviews with members of the “Friends of Chester Weger," a group that has spent years trying to exonerate the convicted killer. They believe that Weger, who was a dishwasher at the Starved Rock Lodge at the time, was forced into a confession by corrupt authorities amid a tenuous connection to the crimes and apparently failing polygraph tests after he’d already been cleared.
For his supporters, the details that point to Weger — who was slight in stature and the father of two young children in 1960 — as a lone perpetrator who viciously brutalized three women with a frozen tree branch during a botched robbery attempt, don't add up.
Certainly, the reasoning and standards used to arrest and prosecute him wouldn’t hold up today. These included a questionable positive ID in a potentially rigged police line-up for an unrelated rape case, multiple polygraph tests, and unexplained blood on a buckskin jacket Weger turned over to detectives. They’d zeroed in on Weger based on his past brushes with the law and his access to the kitchen at the lodge, from where it had been determined the twine found at the crime scene had originated. Meanwhile, the suspicious son of the Starved Rock Lodge’s owner had been spirited away to Greece in the wake of the murders and died by suicide years later. But then there’s the jaw-dropper: the state’s attorney and two of his hand-picked sheriff’s deputies investigating the murders pocketed the thousands of dollars in reward money when they declared the case solved.
Finally, there’s the fact that, for six decades, Weger has maintained his innocence. This proclamation is seen in the series in harrowing interviews conducted by Raccuglia, and at parole hearings — that is, until his conditional release was granted in November 2019 by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. He walked free in February 2020.
This all seems to suggest that there’s just no way that Weger could not have committed this heinous crime alone. Or could he have? Over the course of the series — after interrogating his own father and others in LaSalle County — who all insist Weger is as guilty as sin, Raccuglia’s interviews with Weger begin to suggest alarming discrepancies and the slipperiness of memory. The series also suggests how narratives about the truth begin to form for those touched by brutal and unforgettable crimes like the murders at Starved Rock — for the imprisoned, their families, those who fought for justice for the victims of crimes, and others who believe it must be restored for the falsely accused.
Though it centers on the decades-old murders and those affected by it, then concludes on a note about the potentially unknowable truth, the docuseries may soon need a coda. Weeks ago, in what local prosecutors have called a “fishing expedition,” LaSalle County Judge Michael Jansz ruled that cigarette butts, hair, and twine found at the crime scene in 1960 can now be submitted for new DNA testing.
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