Charles Weger’s Murders at Starved Rock
By Mark Schwendau
The recent release of an Illinois prison inmate on parole and an HBO mini-series now has many people in north-central Illinois arguing about the guilt or innocence of a man rather than Washington politics. That man is named Chester Weger. ‘The Murders at Starved Rock’ is a true-crime HBO documentary that explores the 1960 murders of three middle-aged girlfriends; Frances Murphy, Mildred Lindquist, and Lillian Oetting. Weger, now 82, is in the process of trying to clear his name after claiming he was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the last 60 years.
The documentary uses the perspective of David Raccuglia, the son of Anthony Raccuglia, the prosecutor who sent Weger to prison.
On March 15, 1960, a 21-year-old Chester Weger worked at Illinois’ Starved Rock Lodge as a dishwasher in the state park. That day fellow employees noticed several scratches on his face after he returned from an afternoon break. This was the day after the three ladies Murphy, Lindquist, and Oetting went missing in the Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby, Illinois. Weger said his scratches were due to a shaving mishap and offered an alibi that at the time of the murders; he was washing dishes when the women were hiking.
The bodies of the three missing women were found on March 16. They were half-buried in the snow in a cave in a canyon of the park. Authorities reported Murphy, Lindquist, and Oetting had been bludgeoned to death with a tree branch found near their bodies and stained with their blood. Their autopsies revealed all three women sustained more than 100 blows on and around their heads. Their bodies had been partially disrobed. There was evidence at least one of them fought back. Two of them had their wrists tied up with white twine. It was a similar twine found in a toolshed near the park kitchen where Weger worked.
The police immediately considered Weger, a married man with two small children, a person of interest. He had a slightly suspicious past. Weger’s profile matched that of a man who had raped a teenager at nearby Matthiessen State Park the year before in 1959. That teenage girl had also been bound with twine during the rape.
Weger went on to pass several polygraph tests indicating he was innocent. But, on September 23, 1960, he ended up failing a series of lie-detector tests, which made him a prime suspect with law enforcement. He was arrested on November 16, 1960. It is widely reported the next day, he confessed to the murders and said that the entire incident had been a robbery attempt gone wrong. It was said thereafter that he took police investigators to the cave where the women were found and provided information only the killer could know. One fact he voluntarily offered was a red-and-white plane had flown over the canyon at the time of the murders, information which was later verified by law enforcement with the FAA.
What is not common knowledge is how they got Weger and how Anthony Raccuglia, the prosecutor of the LaSalle County State’s Attorney office, got him to confess. I learned of this story by way of a LaSalle County attorney in the mid-1980s and found it most interesting:
Authorities were having a real hard time putting Weger at the scene of the crime since he was a dishwasher who had said he was doing dishes after the lunch rush at the lodge. Authorities knew Weger was wearing a particular boot and that boot print was found all over the scene of the crime, but his excuse was he walked the trails of the park all the time.
One piece of evidence of the crime was a camera the women were carrying snapping pictures as they walked the trails. Authorities waited with bated breath hoping to perhaps see the killer in one of the pictures or at least see a shadow in some background. The developed film offered no good pictures to point a finger.
But then one of the prosecuting attorneys of the LaSalle County State’s Attorney office remembered a recent journal article he had read by an Ohio State University professor. Anthony Raccuglia remembered reading how this professor said he could take any picture and, so long as he knew the date and exact longitude and latitude of where it was taken, he could tell the exact moment in time it was taken within plus or minus 5 minutes. The only condition was, it had to be a sunny day. The professor had developed a mathematical way to use geometry with the lines of shade, shadow and umbra to graph out the precise time of day given the angle of the sun to that longitude and latitude on that particular day.
So while that particular March of 1960 went down as one of the coldest on record for Illinois, that particular day of March 15th was a very sunny day.
The OSU professor was contacted by phone and copies of the photographs found in the victim’s camera were sent to him. He reported the time in the afternoon the day the women went missing in March, and it corresponded to the exact time Weger would have been on his afternoon break after the lunch rush. His alibi was blown and they had their man!
What impressed me about this story was how random it all seemed to come together. It seemed like truly a blessing from beyond!
But, for the prosecution at the time, another surprising twist to the case came on November 19, 1960. Weger took back his confession! He claimed he had been under duress at the time and that the authorities had threatened to send him to the electric chair. Back then, Illinois did indeed use the electric chair in Stateville Prison in Crest Hill, Illinois. There is a cemetery of those who had their bodies go unclaimed by family just south of the prison.
So Weger insisted he had been fed information about the murder method and the plane sighting so that his confession would be admissible without offering evidence. It made the prosecution’s case a little more of a challenge, but since he had lied about working during the murders, and with the scratches he returned with on his face, the jig was pretty well up. On March 3, 1961, Weger was convicted of the murder of Lillian Oetting and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. He was never tried for the other two murders, as the first murder charge would result in him spending his entire life in prison. It is unclear what the prosecution’s logic was, but one can imagine the judge might have added the parole possibility without their knowledge it was coming. Perhaps they all assumed Weger would never see the light of day again as a free man.
After many appeals, Chester Weger was finally granted parole on his 24th attempt. On February 20, 2020, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board voted to parole him 9-4 in his favor. That rationalized it for him being a “model prisoner.”
“They ruined my life. They locked me up for 60 years for something I’ve never done,” said Weger after his release. After his release from the downstate Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Weger now resides in a Chicago nursing home. His attorneys are now working to clear his name so that he could be eligible for medical coverage, housing services, and Social Security benefits due to his military record.
It is amazing that after all of these years, the Starved Rock Murders and the guilt or innocence of Chester Weger can still be such a polarizing discussion. One new face in the game is an author who points to DNA evidence from a human hair on one of the lady’s gloves. The hair was not that of Weger, and law enforcement did not yet use DNA evidence at that time. The problem with that argument is that hair could have been picked up by that glove from almost anywhere, so that does not clear or eliminate Weger as a suspect.
A more logical way to look at this story is to look at how that prosecution and an Ohio State University professor used new-age technology of that time to catch a suspect in a lie, a lie that would destroy an alibi. Weger’s timecard at the lodge offered he had plenty of time on his afternoon break to commit the crime and come back with the scratches on his face.
People are going to believe what they want to believe. Still, it is good to have all the information before you reach a conclusion, and the authors of these books looking to defend Weger do not have all the information.
Copyright © 2022 by Mark S. Schwendau
Mark S. Schwendau is a retired technology professor who has always had a sideline in news-editorial writing where his byline has been, “Bringing little known news to people who simply want to know the truth.” He classifies himself as a Christian conservative who God cast to be a realist. Mark is an award-winning educator who has published 7 books and numerous peer-reviewed trade journal articles some of which can be found on the Internet. His father was a fireman/paramedic while his mother was a registered nurse. He holds multiple degrees in technology education, industrial management, OSHA Safety, and Driver’s Education. His personal website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech.
In the 2007 movie Fracture which was about a trial that was complicated by the fact that the intended murder victim didn’t die, Ryan Gosling had a scene where he was wearing a Starved Rock Council Boy Scout T shirt. I always wondered if that was a reference to something.