Friday, June 12, 2009

Starved Rock State Park, Vacation or Ghost Hunt? UPDATED 10-28-09

I’m heading to Starved Rock State Park this weekend; miles of hiking trails, beautiful scenery, great food, and picturesque waterfalls. Ah, the great outdoors! This park fascinates me, plus it’s a wonderful opportunity for picture taking. The lodge was built in the 1930s, by the Civilian Conversation Corps, thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. I’ve even stayed in one of the log cabins located just outside the lodge and I’ve experienced the tranquility of a massage in the spa cabin. I’ve relaxed in the whirlpool by the indoor pool and taken a load off my feet while sitting in an oversized chair in the great room next to the massive stone fireplace, ensconced in a book. It is the perfect get-a-way!

Created when glaciers masked this area, Starved Rock boasts 18 canyons, four miles of majestic sandstone bluffs and fascinating rock formations. My favorite local legend is of two young lovers. Forbidden to marry by the chiefs of their tribes and unable to live without one another, they climbed the largest rock, joined hands and leapt to their deaths in the turbulent Illinois River waters below. Now, I ask you, how romantic is that?

French explorers passed through this region and several Native American tribes called it home. Starved Rock derives its name from an old legend of vengeance where two Indian tribes surrounded the bluff area of the park, denying food and water to the Illiniwek, starving them in retribution for murdering Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa. Tourists are encouraged to use extreme caution when hiking the trails year round. Years ago, I was never afraid to go there alone, but now that I’m older, I flat out refuse. Seriously, it seems at least once a year someone falls to their death off the exact bluff where the Illiniwwek supposedly died. But, for me, this isn’t the worst of it.

In the dead of a cold March winter, in the year 1960, three middle-aged, vacationing, socialite women seeking tranquility, drove down from Chicago, leaving behind their husbands and children, so they could enjoy a few days of nature and friendship. They lunched in the same dining room I often eat, then, taking the same path I often walk, wandered more than a mile into the woods, down winding trails in search of frozen waterfalls. Two days later, Frances Murphy, Mildred Lindquist and Lillian Oetting, were found murdered in St. Louis Canyon where two of the women had been raped. Wrists tied with twine, all were stabbed numerous times and bludgeoned in the head so badly they were hardly recognizable.

You will find Steve Stout’s accurate and in-depth book, “Starved Rock Murders,” for sale in the gift shop. I called Steve and spoke to him for about an hour last week, after I realized the murderer was up for parole again. He told me about other rapes and robberies occurring during the same time period at Starved Rock and Mathieson State Park, right up the road, which police believed were also the handy work of the killer. He went on to inform me this crime forever changed forensics across the nation. Steve explained that a recent four-inch snowfall covered any tracks, making it nearly impossible for police to uncover evidence of the crime. Liquid petroleum gas tanks had to be hauled into the canyon to help slowly melt the fallen snow.

A lodge employee, Chester Weger, finally confessed to the murders, but later recanted stating he had been coerced and threatened with the electric chair by detectives responsible for the investigation. His statement was taken in the pre-Miranda days and no lawyer had been present during his interrogation. Weger is serving a life sentence and has been trying to get his case re-opened, asking the Governor of Illinois to dig up the bodies of these three women so DNA testing could be conducted, since it was not available at the time of the murders. The families of these women have fought this request and so far, the Governor has sided with them.

To this day, many people do not believe that Chester Weger acted alone in this brutal murder, but it seems to me, after serving more than 47 years behind bars, he would have come up with the name of his accomplice. This hasn’t happened.

I know it seems hard to believe that one man could murder three women, but you must realize, I come from the city where Richard Speck was tried and found guilty of murdering eight student nurses. With all the craziness going on in the world today, I feel much safer walking into the woods with a companion, preferably one that knows martial arts and isn’t into auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Photo of two of the victims taken just before heading out on the trails
that fateful day and photo of police investigation.
Thank you to Steve Stout for photos.


Chester Weger, the so-called “Starved Rock Killer,” on Wednesday told a state parole official that he deserves to be freed from prison after more than 40 years because he isn’t guilty.

Weger and five of his family members made their case to Prisoner Review Board member Thomas Johnson, who conducted the board’s customary interview of an inmate seeking parole. The full board will decide later whether to grant the request.

Weger was convicted of beating Lillian Oetting to death in 1960 at Starved Rock State Park near Utica. The suburban Chicago woman had gone to the park with Frances Murphy and Mildred Lindquist. All three bodies were found in St. Louis Canyon.

Authorities have said they believe Weger, who was a dishwasher at the park, killed all three woman, but he was convicted only in Oetting’s death.

But questions have been raised about whether Weger committed the crime. His sister, Mary Pruett, said Wednesday that people have been “coming out of the woodwork” with information that could help her brother and should have been disclosed long ago.