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MISSING AND MURDERED IN THE MIDWEST: A podcast looking into crimes that made the headlines, starting in the Quad City area and expanding throughout the Midwest. Podcast host and News 8 Executive Producer Toria Wilson, dedicated her time into researching the murder cases that shocked us and the missing persons cases that left us with unanswered questions.
EPISODE 12: It’s been nearly 60 years since a brutal murder took place within the beautiful grounds of Starved Rock State Park.
Located on the Illinois River halfway between the Quad Cities and Chicago, the park includes sprawling miles of trails are waterfalls that freeze in the winter, creating distinctive icicles and frozen landscapes. Hikers that reach peaks can get an up close and personal view of eagles flying by and down in the canyons, the trees seem to touch the sky.
Frances Murphy, 47, Lillian Oetting, 50, and Mildrid Linquist, 54, were three friends who just wanted some time away from the hustle and bustle of life with a winter vacation.
The three checked into Starved Rock Lodge in the state park’s property and employees reportedly remember their arrival on Sunday, March 13, 1960.
After grabbing lunch in the dining room, the ladies set off on a 1.2 mile hike into St. Louis Canyon chatting about how beautiful of a day it was.
At around 11 p.m. that afternoon, Chester Weger, a dishwasher with the lodge, also headed down to the canyon. The canyon is a dead end and it’s really unclear why he decided to go down that way in the first place.
Chester said he ran into Lillian, Frances and Mildred near a bridge at the entrance to the canyon. Attempting to steal what he believed was Lillian’s purse, he grabbed her binoculars strap on her shoulder.
Frances starts hitting him and he bolts past the women back out of the canyon.
After threats, fighting and arguing, the women and Chester eventually all walk toward the end of the canyon near the waterfall where Chester ties up the three women with some string.
Frances broke free and attacked Chester with a camera. He then grabbed a tree branch, 3 feet long and 4 inches thick, and hit her in the head carrying her back into the cave where Mildred and Lillian were still tied up.
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With one arm free, Lillian began striking and scratching at Chester before he hit her with the same branch he disabled Frances with and then bludgeoned Mildred.
He drug their bodies in the cave later saying he thought a red and white Piper Cub plane flying in the area was police and walked back to the lodge.
Later that night, Lillian’s husband, George, became concerned when she didn’t call. He called the lodge, but got no answer from her room. Staff suggested the ladies went out somewhere for the night, so he went to bed and called again in the morning.
An employee mistakenly told him the three women were seen at breakfast and were just out at that time. George would keep calling… trying to get in contact with his wife.
By Wednesday, March 16, a snow storm covered up footprints, blood stains and other evidence surrounding the three cold, still bodies. The near-blizzard conditions made the roads in the park nearly impassable.
That morning, George called his brother Herman saying, “I can`t seem to reach Lil down at Starved Rock Lodge, and I`m getting a little edgy. I wonder if you could give it a try.”
Herman called to the same result: There was no answer from his sister-in-law. Frustrated, George called Frances Murphy’s husband, Robert. After a series of calls to the state police, LaSalle County Sheriff and the lodge, it was understood the women were missing for days.
A massive search of the state park was immediately conducted and search parties presumed the women had simply gotten lost or fell off a cliff.
It wouldn’t take long before Frances, Lillian and Mildred were found underneath a small ledge, covered in snow and laying side-by-side, on their backs. The clothing on the bottom half of their bodies were missing and their legs were spread open, blackened with bruises.
Each of them had been beaten so viciously in the head and face they were barely recognizable, and two of the bodies were tied together with a heavy white twine.
After investigators taped off the frigid scene, they had to carefully sweep away around 6 inches of snow to uncover the violent struggle that took place. The camera, it’s case, the binoculars and the tree branch were all found covered in blood in the crystal, white snow.
Autopsies later revealed the three had died from skull fractures and brain damage, caused by the severity of the beating. The women had obviously been sexually molested, but the cold, and limitations of medical techniques at the time, failed to find any evidence of rape.
It would take months of leg work for investigators to narrow down a suspect. Five hundred people who worked in the park underwent fingerprinting to try to find a match to evidence to no avail and between 50 and 60 people who were at or near the lodge at the time of the women’s disappearance were interviewed and given polygraph tests.
They all passed, including Chester but was always suspicious to investigators. Chester would do poorly on future lie detector tests and lab results indicated dark red stains found on one of his jackets was human blood; the same type as the victims.
Chester also was accused in the past of raping a 17-year-old girl at a nearby state park in 1959. He was released due to a technicality, but the girl and her boyfriend were also bound with twine.
On Nov. 17, 1960, Chester was arrested and led to the crime scene for re-enactments. After meeting with his court appointed attorney, he changed his story saying he was innocent and that his confession was coerced.
“Chester, you’re going to ride the thunderbolt sure as hell if you don’t cooperate with us,” Chester said one of the investigators told him. He said he was scared and lied about committing the crime.
By March 4, 1961, Chester was found guilty for the death of Lillian Oetting. The state’s attorney made this decision, stating in the event of a mistrial or acquittal, they could still file charges against Chester for the other two murders.
Chester was sentenced to life in prison and is still alive at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Last year the Illinois Prisoner Review Board denied his parole for the 24th time since 1972.
Now 80-years-old, Chester still maintains his innocence.
The two lead investigators stood firm until the day they died that they caught the right man in this case, but others are not so sure.
In 2006 an affidavit was submitted recounting the confession of a woman back in the 1980s.
“The woman was lying in the hospital bed,” Chicago Police Sergeant Mark Gibson said. “I went over towards her and she grabbed a hold of my hand. She indicated when she was younger, she had been with friends at a state park when something happened.”
The woman reportedly told Mark things got out of hand and multiple victims were killed, but the woman’s daughter shouted that her mother was out of her mind and cut the interview short.
The confession was never submitted to courts, but new DNA tests were ordered. They failed to clear Chester as the samples became corrupted.
In 2017, the last remaining juror, Nancy Porter died. But the year before, she says she regretted her decision to convict.
Speaking with the Chicago Tribune, Porter said she found the confession and the idea that an unarmed Chester, who stood 5′ 8” with a thin build, could overpower three women “implausible.” But Porter says that after a six week trial, and hours of deliberations, she gave into the will of the 11 other jurors.
Some former parole members say that given his old age and his time serving around two-thirds of his life in prison, he should be released. They say he doesn’t pose a risk to the community.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, you can see he’s a balding grandfather with dentures and a list of health issues including arthritis and asthma.
But the family continues to urge the board to deny his release recounting the toll these deaths took on their family.
On Nov. 21, 2019, the Illinois Parole Review Board ruled in a 9-to-4 vote to let Chester walk free. The Illinois Attorney General’s office though, requested a 90 day stay immediately following the vote.
Chester is scheduled to be released February 19, 2020. Two weeks before his 81st birthday.
Chester has said he wants to live out the remainder of his days spending time with his grandchildren. The LaSalle County State’s Attorney though, put it best by saying, “tell that to the grandchildren of the victims who did not get that same opportunity.”
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