Forensic scientist Samuel “Skip” Palenik analyzed spray paint droplets to identify Gary Ridgway as the “Green River Killer” responsible for the deaths of least 49 women and girls near Seattle more than three decades ago.
Palenik also studied green carpet fibers to finger Wayne Williams as the man who killed more than 20 young Black children, teens and adults in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.
Now, his Elgin forensics lab, Microtrace, is inspecting evidence in the Starved Rock slayings of three women in 1960 in the popular state park 100 miles southwest of Chicago.
That’s because lawyers for Chester Weger — who was paroled for the Starved Rock killings last year after nearly six decades in prison — got permission from a LaSalle County judge to examine the evidence.
Weger, 82, was released from prison in February 2020 after members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board found he was a model prisoner.
But the courts haven’t deemed him to be innocent of the killings.
Weger — who was the longest-serving inmate in Illinois — says that, despite his initial confession, he didn’t kill anyone and that testing the evidence could prove it.
The LaSalle County state’s attorney’s office had fought Weger’s attempts to gain access to the evidence, calling it a “fishing expedition.” The office said the evidence wasn’t stored properly over the years — and that even school children were allowed to handle it on field trips.
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, appointed special prosecutor in the case, also opposed the request.
In court papers, Palenik said a “non-destructive examination” of the potential evidence has “no downside to the state.”
On June 1, LaSalle County Judge Michael Jansz heard testimony from Palenik’s son Christopher Palenik, a vice president of Microtrace.
“It’s not really possible, in most cases, to make a blanket statement to say, ‘This entire case is contaminated,’ ” Christopher Palenik testified.
For example, hairs embedded in resin on microscope slides still could be tested for DNA even if they were jumbled together with other evidence, Palenik said.
He also told the judge that, if a particular type of clothing fiber needed to be tested, it could be compared with more than 3,000 fibers in Microtrace’s collection from manufacturers.
Weger’s lawyers Andy Hale and Celeste Stack said the evidence collected in the murder investigation included clothing from the three victims and fingernail scrapings in sealed test tubes.
“If we realize there’s not testable evidence, we’ll go home,” Stack told the judge, according to a transcript of the hearing. “But we don’t know that. I’m hoping that your honor will give us a little bit of justice today and just let the evidence go to Microtrace and have the wonderful people there catalogue it. And then we’ll see where we’re at.”
The judge agreed to allow Microtrace to examine and catalogue the evidence but said he wasn’t committing to letting it go to the lab to be tested.
“Mr. Hale made an argument earlier that Girl Scout troops have seen it more often than he has,” the judge said. “Columbia College got to see it. Mr. Weger’s current counsel ought to get to see it.”
Since the judge’s ruling, the lab has done two inspections of the evidence, according to Hale, who said it was surprisingly well-organized.
Now, Hale said he plans to ask the judge for an order allowing Microtrace to test some of the evidence. Hale said he wants DNA testing done on hairs found on the victims in hopes that would exclude Weger as the killer. Then, Weger could ask that his conviction be vacated.
“He’s been trying to clear his name for almost his whole life,” Hale said. “He wants to remove ‘Starved Rock Killer’ from his name.”
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board paroled Weger last year by a 9-4 vote after years of rejections.
After living in a halfway house in the West Loop, he’s now living elsewhere in the Chicago area, Hale said.
Based on his confession, Weger was convicted of killing Lillian Oetting, 50, but wasn’t tried in the killings of her friends Mildred Lindquist, also 50, and Frances Murphy, 47. The women were killed while hiking in the park, a popular weekend getaway from Chicago.
Weger — who worked at a lodge where they were staying — said he was coerced into the confession, which he quickly recanted.
In 1961, a juror told the Chicago Sun-Times she regretted convicting him.
Oetting’s granddaughter opposed Weger’s parole at his last hearing in February 2020.
In an affidavit he filed with the judge, Samuel Palenik said that a Chicago serial rape case in the 1990s showed key evidence can be found even after the authorities say it’s lost or worthless.
“Labeled microscope slides with evidence were eventually presented to us (from which we extracted never before recognized microscopic evidence that led to the identification of the true perpetrator) in the ‘Beauty Shop Rapist Cases’ in Chicago,” Palenik wrote.
“This ‘lost evidence’ was only brought to the front evidence desk one day at the Chicago PD evidence repository because a new evidence clerk was on duty. The usual evidence clerk claimed for years that this ‘newly discovered evidence’ never existed when periodic inquiries were made of her,” he said.
Based on DNA testing, John Willis was freed from prison and exonerated in 1999 in a series of robberies and sexual assaults on the South Side a decade earlier.
Dennis McGruder, who was in prison for other crimes, admitted he was guilty of the “Beauty Shop” rapes.
Willis got a $2.5 million settlement after he filed a wrongful-conviction lawsuit.
Palenik — a graduate of St. Rita High and the University of Illinois at Chicago — is a former Army intelligence analyst. He founded Microtrace in 1992 and has worked on investigations involving other high-profile cases, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998 and the 1983 rape and killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County.