SPRINGFIELD — The same month that John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, 21-year-old Chester Weger confessed to the brutal killings of three west suburban women in Starved Rock State Park.
Weger is now 80 and still behind bars for those gruesome deaths. He’s the longest-serving inmate in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
But on Thursday, after serving nearly six decades in prison, the state Prisoner Review Board voted to free him.
They voted 9 to 4 to grant Weger parole. Two board members were absent because they were ill. Last year, he fell one vote short of being released.
The board must still decide the conditions of Weger’s parole. St. Leonard’s, a halfway house in Chicago, has agreed to take Weger in.
Weger, who suffers from asthma and arthritis, is qualified for medical care from the Veterans Administration because he served in the military.
The parole board voted to delay his release by at least three months to approve the conditions of his parole.
Based on his confession, Weger was convicted of killing Lillian Oetting, 50, but he wasn’t tried in the deaths of her friends Mildred Lindquist, also 50, and Frances Murphy, 47.
On March 14, 1960, the three Riverside women checked into the lodge at Starved Rock State Park, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago in LaSalle County.
They ate lunch and went hiking and birdwatching in picturesque St. Louis Canyon, surrounded by rock walls and a frozen waterfall. Light snow was on the ground.
Two days later, a search party found their bodies in a cave. Each woman suffered numerous head wounds. The most likely weapon: a blood-stained tree limb.
In Thursday’s emotional hearing, Diane Oetting, a granddaughter of Lillian Oetting, pleaded with the board to keep him in prison.
“If you let him go today, does that mean the crime wasn’t brutal?” she asked, her voice trembling. “We’ve been fighting this for 40 years.”
But if the board did decide to free him, Oetting said, it should give him “tools to succeed on the outside.”
“If he is not ready and doesn’t succeed, it’s on y’all,” she said.
Weger’s sister, Mary Pruett, told the board she believes her brother was tortured into confessing. She begged for his release.
“I just hope my brother does not die in prison,” she said, wiping away tears.
Over the past seven years, the board has come close three times to releasing Weger, but in other years he managed only to get one or two ‘yes’ votes for his freedom.
In October, board member D. Wayne Dunn met with Weger in prison and decided he didn’t pose a threat to society. Before he had suffered a double hernia, Weger worked as a book binder and a porter. He doesn’t have a record of assaults and completed his GED in prison, Dunn said.
Dunn recommended parole for Weger, noting that he’d always maintained his innocence, even telling his father, “Daddy, I didn’t do it,” before he confessed.
LaSalle County State’s Attorney Karen Connelly urged the board to deny parole, calling the murders one of the most gruesome crimes in state history.
She said the jury decided to give the avid outdoorsman a life sentence instead of the death penalty because he would suffer from not being able to fish and hunt.
Indeed, the killings sparked a media frenzy in the early ‘60s.
“The name Starved Rock is in the public memory of the people of Illinois,” said Craig Findley, chairman of the prisoner review board.
The killing remained unsolved for more than eight months as public pressure mounted on investigators. They zeroed in on Weger, who washed dishes at the lodge.
His co-workers told investigators that Weger had scratches on his face after the killings. He blamed the marks on shaving and bumping his head on a cabinet.
Weger was repeatedly interrogated but he passed lie-detector tests and continued to proclaim his innocence.
Investigators weren’t buying it. In November 1960, a deputy sheriff told Weger he’d “ride the thunderbolt” — meaning he would die in the electric chair— if he didn’t confess.
Weger was allowed to talk to his wife and father. Afterward, he admitted killing the women in a botched robbery. He even re-enacted the crime in front of investigators and reporters outside the cave where the bodies were recovered.
A Chicago Sun-Times reporter wrote about the re-enactment, describing Weger as a “ne’er do well in chains” and saying Weger told the gathering, “I hit ‘em and I hit ‘em and I hit ‘em. I hit ‘em until they were dead.”
But Weger quickly recanted his confession. His alibi was that he was on his afternoon work break at the time of the killings — getting a haircut and lunch before returning to the lodge. The jury didn’t believe him. He was found guilty after a six-week trial.
Weger’s lawyers have always cast doubt on the notion that a skinny, 5-foot-8 man could have overpowered three women by himself.
They have noted that laboratory tests on hair recovered from the murder scene found no link to Weger.
His attorneys have criticized LaSalle County prosecutors for failing to protect the physical evidence. His lawyers said post-trial DNA testing was impossible because the evidence was tainted over the years.
Prosecutors let high-school students handle the evidence and a deputy sheriff even displayed the murder weapon — the bloody log – over his mantle as a “macabre trophy,” Weger’s attorneys have said.
Back in 1961, the Sun-Times reported that one juror, in her post-trial comments, seemed unsure that Weger really killed the women. In 2016, that same juror, Nancy Porter, told the Chicago Tribune that she regretted her decision to convict.
Andy Hale, another one of Weger’s lawyers, reminded the board that juries and law enforcement officials back in the 1960s weren’t concerned about cases built solely on confessions.
“We really didn’t understand false confessions,” Hale said. “It happens.”
Board member Donald Shelton, who voted to keep Weger in prison, acknowledged the case was a “real mess” but said he still believes Weger did it.
A few minutes after the hearing, Weger’s sister, Mary Pruett, called him in Pinckneyville Correctional Center in southern Illinois. They spoke on a speaker phone in the prisoner review board’s offices.
It seemed Weger was prepared to get a “yes” after decades of “no” votes.
“I’m happy. I’m just happy just to get out, you know?” Weger said.
“Bless your heart,” Pruett said. “I love you and I’ll see you shortly.”