At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning, former Gov. George Ryan officially became a free man and opened up publicly for the first time about the tragic deaths of the Willis children — and how he prays for them daily.
“I am no longer on probation and am free to travel . . . and talk,” said Ryan, who was released from a five year stint in federal prison on corruption charges last year.
In an exclusive interview with Sneed, Ryan reflected on his future — as well as the 2008 deaths of six children of Scott and Janet Willis, which overshadowed his subsequent trial on corruption charges.
“It was a terrible, heartbreaking thing to have happened to the Willis family,” said Ryan, referring to the crash that killed six of Scott and Janet Willis’ children.
“As the parents of six children, my wife Lura Lynn and I could never comprehend the grief and heartache the Willis’s endured,” said Ryan, referring to a car accident which claimed the lives of the Willis children.
The Willis family van, driven by Scott Willis, children’s father, ran over a piece of steel fallen off a truck on I-94 in Wisconsin. Their gas tank exploded, engulfing their van in flames.
An investigation revealed the driver of the truck that dropped the piece of steel had received his license through a historically rigged testing system at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, which Ryan once headed.
“Lura Lynn and I put them in our daily prayers then and that continues to this day,” said Ryan, who feels no responsibility for the death of the children.
The former governor also talked about his future as well as the death of his wife, Lura Lynn, while he was incarcerated; the fallout of his controversial death penalty moratorium and his desire to end the death penalty in the U.S.
He’s no longer confined to a judicial district; or required to give a 10-day notice for permission to travel; or expected to file an electronic report each month detailing activities and expenditures.
Ryan, who served five years in a federal prison on corruption charges, told Sneed: “I ended my life as an inmate last year. Now July 2nd, the end of my probation, has become my Independence Day.”
“Look, you can suffer and be miserable . . . but that is a choice. I chose not to do that,” he said.
“I have great kids, five daughters and a son; 17 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren. And they all take good care of me. I have two grandsons who live with me. I am blessed. I had planned to travel with my wife, who was the love of my life, but that’s impossible now.
“But you have to move forward, not backward . . . I still plan to get in the car and travel. And I’ll always have Lura Lynn with me,” Ryan said. (Her ashes are in a vase on the living room mantel of his Kankakee home.)
“My kitchen fell apart last winter; a slow water leak created havoc. It was just fixed. Now, I can make soup . . . and it didn’t stop me from spending a little time in Florida and puttering in the garden.”
Ryan, who is writing a book about his ordeal, claims the worst part of his imprisonment was losing his wife to cancer.
“I was told I could either be with her when she was dying . . . or attend her funeral. I couldn’t do both. When I visited her it was too late to bring her any comfort. I got to sit by her bed while she was dying, but she didn’t even know I was there.”
Though his time in prison forced him to miss his wife’s funeral, Ryan insisted: “It was tougher on them than me. Imprisonment was basically like being in the Army. I thought I was back in the Army. It really was a camp within the prison system. I met some real bums there . . . but some real decent people.
“I found the sentences were too harsh and too long for some people there . . . certainly there is no real rehabilitation process. Most classes are generally taught by inmates.
“I didn’t teach because I felt I wasn’t qualified to do so.”
Ryan also claims his stint in prison “was difficult at first because some of the guards were angry over my death penalty moratorium,” he said.
“They made things a little rough, but you deal with it. I was on the fence for a long time before I decided to impose the moratorium . . . one day I was for all the executions — the next day I wasn’t. I was all over the place. But I didn’t think it was right to be selective because so many verdicts were suspect. It had to be all or nothing,” he added.
But there was personal fallout: “One day I call got call from an old friend, a powerful politician, who called me aside during my last trip to Washington, D.C., as governor — asking me to make sure the man convicted of brutally murdering the daughter of one of his constituents was executed.
“It was like asking me to kill someone as a political favor.
“Well, that guy’s sentence also got commuted due to my blanket moratorium. That old friend hasn’t talked to me since,” Ryan said.
On July 8, Ryan will be reminded of an old story once encapsulated in the history of his death penalty moratorium. On that day, Nancy Rish, who has served decades for the murder of Kankakee businessman Steven Small in 1987, will again bid for her freedom.
Ryan was not the governor when Small was kidnapped, stuffed in a box, and suffocated, but he was the next-door neighbor of Small and his wife, who took care of the Ryan kids on occasion and were “great friends who once had a hot tub delivered to our driveway — until they got back from vacation.”
◆ The Ryan connection: Rish’s former boyfriend, Danny Edwards, was accused of masterminding the murder and was on death row when Ryan issued his moratorium. His death sentence was subsequently commuted.
“Friends of Small’s family told me they were very upset with me when I commuted Edwards’ sentence and [he was] taken off death row,” Ryan said.
Edwards, who is now serving a life sentence for the killing, has always claimed Rish had nothing to do with the murder.
Rish’s appeals failed, but next week her lawyers will ask Gov. Pat Quinn to set her free because of legal errors and a recent affidavit filed by Edwards maintaining her innocence.
“I don’t know if she is innocent or not,” Ryan said. “It seems to me the evidence was pretty heavy against her at the time. But if she is innocent, she shouldn’t be in jail. Too many innocent people have been placed on death row as the result of a flawed system.
“And I’d like to continue to be part of the process to end the death penalty in the United States.”
Then he added: “I don’t know if it’s a fact I learned a lot during the past six years, but I do know one thing for sure. You never know who are your real friends until you go through something like this.
“Now, I know who they really are . . . and for the most part it was a surprise.”
Sneedlings . . .
Wednesday’s birthdays: Lindsay Lohan, 28; Larry David, 67, and Jose Canseco, 50.