When he was sentenced to death for the murder of an Uptown boy prostitute, police and prosecutors thought they had brought an end to a long series of gruesome homosexual murders. But the killing hasn’t stopped, and now Eyler is returning to court with a s
In a Rogers Park alley on August 21, 1984, Joe Balla, a building janitor, made a horrible discovery. Balla, a native of Hungary, arrived at his building at 6 AM intending to take the garbage out to the alley in time for the usual Tuesday morning pickup. As he approached his dumpsters, however, he saw that they had been filled with gray Hefty bags. Balla knew his tenants well–they used cheaper bags–so it was immediately clear to him that this was garbage left by a stranger.
“I was very pissed off a little bit,” Balla said later. “So I opened one up, ripped it open. . . . I was very curious what the hell I am throwing out.”
Inside was a human leg.
“Why me?” Balla said to himself. “Why I have to see those things?”
But it was thanks to Joe Balla that one of the most notorious figures in local criminal history was taken off the streets. Janitors from neighboring buildings had seen the man who threw the bags into the dumpster, and one of them led police to the apartment of Larry Eyler. Eyler, then 31, was a housepainter who worked intermittently, a weight lifter who was fond of Marine Corps T-shirts (though he had never served in the military), a man of normal appearance who did not seem to have much of a plan for the future. In certain circles he was already well-known, a suspect in the murders of 23 young men whose bodies had turned up in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Many of the victims had links to gay communities in Indiana and Illinois.
In relatively short order, police discovered that the leg in the Hefty bag belonged to Danny Bridges, a 16-year-old prostitute from Uptown. Bridges was unusual in that he had been befriended by policemen, who had introduced him to television and newspaper reporters working on stories about the sexual abuse of children. As a result, his murder rose above the statistics; his photo, taken from a television screen, appeared in newspapers, his words were quoted, his story was told, and for at least a short time the city paid attention.
Almost two years after the Hefty bags were opened, Mr. Balla and his colleagues took the witness stand in the Criminal Courts Building and told their stories. Larry Eyler was convicted of murder and aggravated kidnapping, and on October 3, 1986, Judge Joseph Urso pronounced sentence. Citing the “overwhelming” evidence he said, “If there ever was a person [for whom] the death penalty is appropriate, it’s you. You are an evil person. You truly deserve to die for your acts.”
Eyler went off to death row, and it seemed as though gay men throughout the midwest could rest a slight bit easier.
But the killings continued. In May 1985, eight months after Eyler’s arrest, the body of 17-year-old Eric Allen Roettger turned up off a rural road in Preble County, Ohio. Not many dead bodies turn up in Preble County, which has a population of about 45,000, so when a second body turned up there the following year, David Lindloff, the county prosecutor’s sole investigator, began to wonder what was going on. In 1987 a body turned up in Shelby County, Indiana, just across the border from Preble County. By April 1992, 11 bodies had turned up in rural counties in Ohio and Indiana, 4 of them in Preble County, and Lindloff and investigators from Indiana had a pretty good idea of what was going on. The dead men, whose ages ranged from 15 to 32, all had links to the gay community in Indianapolis. They had been found naked or partially clothed in desolate rural areas, in creek beds, ditches, a railroad bed. Many had ligature marks on their wrists, indicating they had been tied up. Most had been strangled (the bodies of two of the victims were too decomposed to determine a cause of death). None of the victims had been killed during the winter; it seemed the killer got the urge only during warm weather. By April of this year, when investigators realized that an 11th body–found in a creek bed in Defiance County, Ohio, in 1989–fit the strangler’s pattern, it was apparent that this murderer had been dumping bodies for a decade or more.
There were some significant differences between this string of murders and the ones that Larry Eyler had been suspected of. Eyler’s alleged victims were stabbed, and as many as 16 of them may have been murdered within 12 months’ time. The other victims were strangled, and their killer seemed less driven, sometimes waiting more than a year between one murder and the next. Still, the similarities were also striking. Both killers concentrated on gay victims and both dumped bodies off Interstate 70 and U.S. 40, two highways that run roughly parallel from Terre Haute to Indianapolis and east to Ohio. Several of the strangler’s victims were found not far from Richmond, Indiana, where Larry Eyler’s mother had lived. These facts gave rise to the theory that the murders were all connected; perhaps the stabber and the strangler were part of a team that did not retire after Larry Eyler went off to death row.
Police and prosecutors in Indiana and Ohio lean toward this theory, and thus they were excited when Kathleen Zellner, Eyler’s attorney, came forward in December 1990 and offered to make a deal. Surprisingly, Eyler was not asking for some hope of distant freedom. He wanted to be taken off death row and be given a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. In exchange for that, Zellner let it be known that her client would provide information that would solve more than 20 murders in nine counties in Illinois and Indiana, more than half of them involving at least two perpetrators.
Seven of the nine jurisdictions agreed almost instantly, offering Eyler a lengthy prison sentence in exchange for his confession and his agreement to cooperate against any accomplices. Kankakee County held back, waiting to see what Cook County would do. Because the Bridges murder was committed here, Cook County state’s attorney Jack O’Malley was the key to the whole deal. If O’Malley did not agree to recommend that Eyler be taken off death row, Eyler would not agree to testify for anyone else.
Through an intermediary, Zellner let it be known that Eyler was willing to attach no conditions to his information; if O’Malley did not think that Eyler’s information was useful to law enforcement, he could call off the deal.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the offer had a foul smell about it. On the surface it seemed as though Eyler, having been convicted of one heinous murder, was asking to be rewarded for confessing to others. Zellner, however, insisted that the matter was much more complex; she maintained that O’Malley would face a serious problem if he declined the offer because Eyler’s conviction for the Bridges murder was going to be overturned. She predicted that in a second trial Eyler would not get the death penalty and might not even be convicted of the murder. She indicated that she was happy to share her insights and the new evidence she had discovered with the state’s attorney’s office. From her point of view, the offer boiled down to this: State’s Attorney O’Malley could keep Eyler in jail for the rest of his life, solve more than 20 old murders, help bring to justice a killer or killers still on the loose, and save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in appeal costs, or he could see Eyler eventually wind up a free man.
At the time of Zellner’s offer, Jack O’Malley had been Cook County state’s attorney for only a few weeks. Andy Knott, O’Malley’s press secretary, says that his boss sought input from family members of suspected Eyler victims and a variety of law enforcement officials, and that the decision the state’s attorney reached was “Screw it. Larry Eyler can sit and rot. He can manipulate everybody else but he is not manipulating us. . . . A bird in the hand is better than 20 in the bush. We put him on death row. Nobody else did. We’re not walkin’ away from that.” O’Malley called a press conference, denounced the proposal, and called Eyler a butcher.
It was O’Malley’s first major decision as state’s attorney, and he has since portrayed it as a test of his mettle. There was no objection from any quarter, not even from members of the gay community, who perhaps were not aware that bodies were still turning up in creek beds in neighboring states.
But now, as Kathleen Zellner predicted, Mr. O’Malley has a problem.
Larry Eyler was born December 21, 1952, the youngest of four children. He attended Catholic schools and had some difficulty. At age ten he was sent to the Riley Child Guidance Clinic at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, where psychological tests revealed normal intelligence, extreme insecurity, and great fear of separation and abandonment. The staff of the clinic noted that Eyler did not feel loved or secure in his relationship with his parents and that he felt he was damaged and a pawn controlled by others. Clinic staff came to believe that Eyler’s home environment was unstable and chaotic, and they recommended that he be sent to live elsewhere. At the age of 12 he went to live in a Catholic boys’ home, where he stayed for five months.
In March 1991 Zellner asked Dr. Lyle Rossiter, a forensic psychiatrist, to prepare a profile of her client. In an affidavit filed last spring, Rossiter describes Eyler’s family as “highly dysfunctional.” He goes on to say that Eyler’s “care was often and abruptly shifted among relatives and numerous babysitters unknown to him or else he was left under the supervision of his siblings, the oldest of whom was ten years old.” Rossiter contends that Eyler suffered “continuing developmental trauma” as a result of “abrupt and repeated intrusions into his life over many years of multiple adult males dating his mother; his mother’s divorce from his natural father when he was two, her remarriage when he was four, her second divorce when he was five, a third marriage when he was seven, a third divorce when he was eleven, a fourth marriage when he was twelve, and a fourth divorce when Mr. Eyler was in his late teens.”
Rossiter goes on to say that there was a strong history of alcoholism in the family and that Eyler was “the victim of extreme physical and mental abuse” at the hands of his natural father (who died when Eyler was 18) and his three stepfathers. In his affidavit, Rossiter does not spell out what precisely was done to Eyler, but in a recent interview he said it was one of the worst cases of child abuse he had seen in 20 years in the field. Zellner is bound by an agreement with her client not to divulge the precise details of the abuse until such time as they are required in court. Eyler has said that one of the stepfathers repeatedly punished him by running hot water over his head, but his lawyer says that is just a small example of what went on in the Eyler household.
Perhaps because of his strange home life, Eyler failed to graduate from high school. He eventually got a GED certificate. Not long after leaving high school, he joined a monastery, but he left after a brief time. He then began living a life of low-paying jobs.
In 1978 Eyler came to the attention of Indiana police after he picked up an ex-marine who was hitchhiking in Terre Haute. Eyler allegedly pulled an eight-inch butcher knife on the young man, drove him to a forest, handcuffed him, and stripped him of his pants. According to testimony the marine gave years later (in connection with the Danny Bridges case), Eyler then shed his own clothes and began running the knife up and down his captive’s body, mumbling something. The marine managed to run away, but he did not get far. Eyler stabbed him in the chest, left the scene, and then called the police. The marine survived, though his wound required 36 stitches to close. He testified that Eyler’s attorneys paid him $2,500 for his trouble; in return, he signed a release and Eyler was not prosecuted.
Two years later, in 1980, dead bodies began turning up in rural Indiana. Indiana state police eventually realized there was a pattern, and a task force was formed to track down the killer. In the spring and summer of 1983, three bodies turned up in Lake County, Illinois. Eventually a connection was made between the Illinois cases and what was happening in Indiana: street hustlers from Chicago’s Uptown and from Indianapolis seemed particularly at risk. A caller to Indiana state police headquarters fingered Eyler, and though he seemed to fit the profile of the murderer, the police had no evidence to back up an arrest.
On September 30, 1983, an Indiana state policeman noticed two men leaving a ditch and returning to a gray pickup truck parked by the side of Interstate 65, headed toward Indianapolis. One of the men was Eyler, the other a hitchhiker whom Eyler had solicited for sex. Both were taken to an office of the state police. Eyler was questioned, held for 12 hours, and released without being charged.
Much evidence was gathered, however, as a result of the arrest. A bloody knife was found in Eyler’s truck; laboratory tests later revealed that the enzymes in the blood matched those of Ralph Calise, whose body had been found four weeks earlier in Lake Forest, Illinois. The soles of the boots Eyler was wearing matched plaster casts taken of footprints at the site where Calise’s body had been found. Plaster casts of tire tracks at the same site matched the tires on Eyler’s pickup.
On November 1, 1983, Eyler was charged with Calise’s murder. It looked like a very strong case, but the Indiana police had incarcerated Eyler for 12 hours without charging him with a crime, a fairly clear constitutional violation. Three months after the arraignment, Lake County circuit court judge William Block ruled that Eyler had been illegally detained and that the evidence gathered as a result of that detention could not be used against him. With that ruling the case collapsed, and Eyler was once again out on the streets.
At that point he was a suspect in 23 murders. His story had been covered by newspaper, radio, and television reporters in both Indiana and Illinois. He was notorious among policemen and within the gay community, so notorious that boy prostitute Danny Bridges was warned to stay away from him both by police and by a probation officer. That made it all the more surprising when Bridges turned up as victim number 24.
Danny Bridges was the youngest of 12 children in a family that also seems to have been dysfunctional. In a social history compiled by Maryville Academy, a residential institution for children in need where Danny was sent to live for a time, the intake worker noted that one of Danny’s siblings was in the Audy Home, that the whereabouts of three others was unknown, and that the parents had a history of unemployment and “severe alcoholism.” In interviews that Danny gave the Tribune and NBC TV a few months before his death, he said that when he was nine years old he was raped by a neighbor. It is not clear exactly when he began to work as a prostitute, but by the age of 15 he was well established in the trade.
He was eventually befriended by members of the Chicago Police Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which had been established to combat child pornography and the sexual abuse of children. Bridges proved to be an important witness for them in several cases, and at least three men were convicted in large part because Bridges testified against them. Despite that close relationship with the police, however, Bridges never really gave up the street life.
On May 29, 1983, he disappeared. In its daily bulletin, the Police Department ran a “Missing Person” photograph and description, saying that Bridges was needed to testify in pending child pornography trials. It turned out that Bridges had gone to live with a man we’ll call Mr. B (for legal reasons, his name cannot appear here). Mr. B kept Danny in a basement as a sort of sex slave. The older man was fond of bondage and left ligature marks on Bridges’s wrists. Bridges left him in September and moved to North Carolina. In February 1984, SIU officer Brian Killacky traveled to North Carolina and brought the boy back to Chicago.
At that point both Eyler and Bridges were in Chicago. There is no doubt that Danny Bridges knew Eyler, both by reputation and by face. According to an affidavit given by Bridges’s probation officer, the boy had been warned that an acquaintance of his, a housepainter named Ervin Gibson, might have been killed by Eyler. In an interview with an NBC reporter in 1984, Bridges was asked about Eyler and replied, “Yeah, I knew him. He was a real freak. He used to come around Uptown and hang around.”
Given that knowledge, why would Bridges climb into Eyler’s pickup truck?
Attorney Kathleen Zellner offers one possible answer: Bridges didn’t get into Eyler’s truck, in fact he never saw Eyler at all on the night he died. He was picked up by someone else, taken back to Eyler’s apartment, and killed. Eyler returned home to find the body and, given his reputation, could hardly call the police to report it. Instead he cut the corpse into eight pieces and threw it in Joe Balla’s dumpster. Zellner’s theory explains why none of Danny Bridges’s fingerprints were ever found in Eyler’s truck. She argues that her client may be guilty of concealing a homicide, but not of murder.
The “someone else” that Zellner has in mind is Dr. Robert David Little, 54, the short, portly, white-haired former chairman of the school of library science at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Who’s Who in America reports that Little has had a distinguished career as a librarian, that he likes to read and travel, and that he is a former president of the West Central Indiana Chapter of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
The professor and the housepainter met when Eyler was briefly enrolled at Indiana State University in 1975. Eyler has testified that he moved into Little’s house not long after their meeting, that Little began supporting him financially, and that that financial relationship continued for approximately seven years. In February 1984, after Judge Block ruled that the evidence in the Calise case was tainted, Eyler was released from jail on $10,000 bond and Dr. Little helped him get an apartment in Rogers Park. Little cosigned the lease application, paid the security deposit and the rent, and bought Eyler a bed and a television. It was in that apartment that Danny Bridges would later be killed and carved up.
Little declined to be interviewed for this story, so his characterization of his relationship with Eyler cannot be reported here. Eyler has portrayed it as a two-way relationship, saying that in return for financial support he functioned as a leading man for Little, who because of his appearance needed help attracting sexual partners. In psychiatrist Lyle Rossiter’s analysis, Eyler was a man looking for a father who played a childlike, dependent role with Dr. Little. At the start of the Bridges trial, prosecutor Mark Rakoczy portrayed the librarian as an altruistic professor who helped young, struggling students out of the goodness of his heart.
At the trial, Rakoczy called Dr. Little as the state’s first witness against Eyler. The professor explained that on the weekend of the murder, he had arrived at Eyler’s apartment on Friday and had let himself in with his own key. Little said that he slept in the bedroom and Eyler slept on the couch, according to their usual arrangement, and that the two spent Friday and Saturday night driving around, going to dinner, seeing a movie, and watching television. Little claimed that he left the apartment on Sunday night at about 10:15, that he arrived back in Terre Haute about 2:30 AM, that he slept until 10 or 11 AM, and that he then went down to the county courthouse and paid his property taxes. To back up this story, Little claimed to have been stopped by a freight train in Dyer, Indiana, on the way home. He also produced a receipt for the property taxes on his Terre Haute condominium. The receipt indicated that the professor had indeed paid the bill on Monday, August 20.
Other testimony established that Danny Bridges had left his sister’s house between 10:30 and 11:00 on that Sunday night, saying he wanted “to go out and get some air.” The next time he was noticed was on Monday afternoon, when Eyler walked past his building janitor carrying two Hefty bags; the janitor later testified that his dog barked viciously, “started to go crazy,” and ultimately had to be locked in a toolroom.
Little’s testimony was crucial because it put Eyler alone in the apartment around the time that Bridges disappeared. Chicagoan John Dobrovolskis, Eyler’s lover, took the stand and seemed to support the prosecution’s scenario of the murder. He said that he and Eyler didn’t see each other when Little was visiting because it upset the professor, but they often talked on the phone. On that Sunday night at 8:45 PM, Eyler called to say that a date was impossible, that Little was still around, and that it was not clear when he was going to leave. Dobrovolskis testified that this was unusual; ordinarily the professor was gone by that hour.
At 11 PM and again at 11:25, the two talked again, and then Dobrovolskis, fed up with the situation, went out to meet another man. He happened to see Eyler driving his pickup truck near Montrose and Western not long thereafter. A gas station attendant testified that Eyler had stopped to fill his tank at a Union 76 station sometime between 11:45 and 1 AM.
At 2:45 AM, Dobrovolskis called Eyler’s apartment. Eyler answered, said that he had been sleeping on the couch, and that Little was still in the bedroom. The two lovers quarreled, two more calls followed, and Dobrovolskis threatened to come over to Eyler’s flat. Instead, Eyler agreed to go to his friend’s apartment at 4 AM. He arrived late. He left at 5:30 AM. He called Dobrovolskis 45 minutes later to ask where his goggles were, saying he wanted to wear them on a painting job. Dobrovolskis told Eyler where they were, but pointed out that it would be hard to see out of the dark-tinted lenses. Dobrovolskis also testified that Eyler said he had managed to get back into the apartment without waking Little.
And so the prosecution’s theory was laid out: Little left for Indiana at 10:15 PM. Eyler picked up Bridges sometime between 11:25 and 2:45. He had killed him by 4, when he went to see Dobrovolskis, and he started cutting him up, wearing goggles, at about 6:15. When Eyler told Dobrovolskis that Little was still in the apartment late Sunday night, it was just a ruse to keep Dobrovolskis from coming over and seeing the corpse.
At the trial Eyler was represented by David Schippers, a bearded, distinguished, and well-respected criminal attorney and former prosecutor. Schippers did not put his client on the stand, and the attorney was careful to open no doors that would allow the prosecution to ask questions about the murder of Ralph Calise or any of the other men who had turned up dead in similar fashion.
Schippers tried to undermine Little’s testimony of his whereabouts the morning after the murder. Little had claimed that he had paid his property taxes early because he had the money and simply decided he would pay off some bills. Schippers thought it odd that he had paid the bill in person, while mailing all his other bills, and that he had paid the tax bill in August though it wasn’t due until October.
Without ever saying in a straightforward manner that Dr. Little had committed the murder, Schippers tried to raise the thought in the jurors’ minds. In his closing argument he pointed out that blood was found in the bedroom, and that it was Little who had been sleeping in the bedroom that weekend. He said that when Eyler told Dobrovolskis that Little was still in the apartment, it was no ruse–Little was indeed still in the apartment. He had not left at his usual time, Schippers said, because the professor did not have to be back early on Monday morning after this particular weekend–he had just started a sabbatical.
Schippers went on to say that Little’s payment of his tax bill was an example of someone who was building an alibi, and that his use of a passing freight train to back up his claim that he had left Chicago by 10:15 was ludicrous, as the train went by that crossing at the same time every day of the year. Schippers argued that the freight train story was the equivalent of saying, “I killed a lion on the way in today with a stick and here’s the stick to prove it.”
The argument didn’t wash with the jury. They voted Eyler guilty on their first ballot, and Judge Urso gave him the death penalty not long thereafter. Eyler appealed and lost in both the Illinois appellate and supreme courts, and it seemed as though he was on a fast track to the lethal-injection machine when attorney Kathleen Zellner was asked to take on his case in November 1990.
Zellner–tall, thin, black haired, and aggressive–was asked to take the case by the Capital Resource Center, a branch of the Illinois Appellate Defender’s office that specializes in defending indigent clients in death penalty cases. The Eyler case had earlier been given to another attorney who, after reviewing the file, declined to take it on. Zellner is an outsider in Cook County legal circles, having spent most of her career in Du Page County, and is in some ways a very unlikely defender of Larry Eyler: she admits to being a conservative Republican and a supporter of the death penalty.
When Eyler first appealed his conviction, his appellate attorneys minced no words in arguing that Dr. Little had killed Bridges. When Zellner first met Eyler, she told him that she had no intention of pursuing “that crazy theory”–she considered it a waste of money. She intended to mount a psychiatric defense instead. Eyler, however, stuck to his claim of innocence.
Zellner also met with Eyler’s trial attorney, David Schippers, and found him cordial and helpful. As a result of that meeting, she says, she came to believe that the state’s attorney might have withheld documents that could have been beneficial to Eyler’s defense. She began pursuing a second defense based on prosecutorial misconduct.
Zellner’s orderly plans were disrupted in fairly short order, however, when she learned that a prosecutor and a sheriff in Vermillion County, Indiana, had reopened the investigation into the murder of Steve Agan, a 23-year-old car-wash employee who had been stabbed to death on December 19, 1982. Eyler was the chief suspect, and Zellner had it on good authority that he would soon be indicted.
At that point, Zellner had been meeting with her client in Pontiac penitentiary about three times a week, and she says that a certain bond had developed between them. She encouraged Eyler to cooperate in the Agan investigation, and on December 4, 1990, Eyler dictated a 17-page confession to the Agan murder.
Eyler’s account of the killing, as told in his confession and later in open court, was horrifying, sensational, and remarkable for its detail. He said that on the night in question, he and Dr. Little had been cruising around Terre Haute looking for a sexual partner when Little asked him if he would be willing to “play a scene.” Eyler explained that the professor liked to play at being a director, creating and photographing sexual scenes. He testified that both he and the professor understood that such a “scene” involved someone dying. The two picked up Mr. Agan, a stranger, and Agan agreed to be tied up and have fellatio performed upon him. According to Eyler, Little suggested that Agan might be paid for his participation.
After a brief stop at Little’s condominium to get cameras and an already-packed bag of bondage gear, Eyler said that the three men went to an abandoned house off Indiana Highway 63. Eyler said he tied Agan’s hands to a beam that extended from the house, that he bound Agan’s feet, and that on a signal from Little he covered Agan’s mouth and eyes with duct tape and an Ace bandage. Eyler said that Little took pictures as this progressed. Eyler took a knife from the bag, held it to Agan’s bare stomach, and said, “Make your peace with God.” (“I wanted to give him a chance to say a prayer,” Eyler said.) A photo was taken, and then, according to Eyler, Little said “OK, kill the motherfucker,” whereupon Eyler stabbed Agan. According to Eyler, Little then stabbed the victim, masturbated, and took more photos. The body was left under some leaves, Eyler said, and the two men cleaned up the scene and departed. “I am giving this statement so that the Agan family will know the whole truth about what happened to their son,” Eyler said. “I ask God to forgive me because I can never forgive myself for this.”
With that confession, Zellner worked a deal with the Vermillion County prosecutor. Eyler pleaded guilty and was given a 60-year sentence. In return, he agreed to testify against Dr. Little.
The library science professor was charged with the murder not long thereafter and was brought to trial in April 1991 in Newport, Indiana. The prosecution was able to establish that Little had an attraction to young men. A man from Madison, Wisconsin, testified that in 1969, at the age of 17, he had posed for nude photos at Little’s request and that sexual activity had taken place during the photo sessions. The man went on to say that he had moved in with Little and had been supported by him for two years. A man from Chattanooga described a similar photography session during which Little allegedly kept saying “That’s a good scene.” Some of the nude photos, taken from Little’s house, were produced as evidence, but no photos of the Agan murder were found.
Eyler took the stand and reiterated his confession. There was no physical evidence linking Little to the murder, so Eyler’s account was crucial. Little’s attorneys attacked quite well. They pointed out that the professor had testified for the prosecution in the Bridges case, making it seem as though Eyler was now accusing the professor just to get revenge. Little’s lawyers also asked Eyler about 15 men who had been found murdered; Eyler exercised his Fifth Amendment privilege 19 times. They asked about the dismemberment of Danny Bridges, and Eyler admitted that he had cut off the boy’s legs, arms, and head. They argued that if Eyler won his postconviction appeal in Illinois and walked away from the Bridges conviction, he would have worked out a good deal in the Agan case, getting 60 years instead of death. (In fact Larry Thomas, the original prosecutor on the case, had not intended to ask for the death penalty because he did not believe Eyler was eligible.)
Little did not take the stand, but his mother claimed in videotaped testimony that her son could not have killed anyone on December 19, 1982, because he had been visiting her in Florida at the time, though she could not remember the exact dates he was present. Two of his mother’s neighbors also testified via videotape that Little came to visit his mother every Christmas, but they couldn’t remember his arrival and departure dates either. A garage manager’s testimony about the repair of Little’s Pontiac Trans Am, however, seemed to put Little in Indiana at the time of the murder.
The jury did not seem to have a great deal of trouble with the conflict of dates. After seven hours of deliberation, they found Dr. Little not guilty.
Although Zellner was disappointed by Little’s acquittal–she thought the prosecution made several key errors–the trial proved to be a gold mine for her. While Eyler was in the Vermillion County Jail awaiting the trial, Zellner was able to get Fred Hunter, a polygraph operator, inside the jail. Hunter, who has given more than 17,500 polygraph tests in his career, strapped Eyler to a lie detector, asked him about the Agan murder, and concluded that he had not been lying when he dictated his confession. Hunter also asked Eyler about his charge that Dr. Little had killed Danny Bridges in Chicago. Eyler passed that test as well. Zellner was rapidly coming around to the notion of presenting the “crazy theory” as a defense.
Of course lie detector tests are not evidence, and by themselves would do little to improve the odds of Eyler getting a new trial. Those daunting odds improved considerably, however, when Zellner gained access to evidence taken from Little’s house in a raid. Among the boxes carted off by police were some containing financial records, and among those records were invoices from David Schippers sent to the professor. Zellner had always assumed that Eyler’s mother and stepfather had paid for his legal counsel. But armed with the invoices taken in the raid, and canceled checks found later, she began to argue that Dr. Little was in fact paying a substantial portion of Eyler’s bills.
On the face of it, it seemed incredible–the lawyer of the accused being paid by the prosecution’s lead witness, Schippers being paid by the man he was suggesting was the real killer of Danny Bridges. The checks and invoices seemed even more incredible in light of a passage Zellner found in the case’s transcript: Schippers told Judge Urso that he was not being paid a nickel for his work on the Bridges case and that he would inform the court if that situation changed. As a result of Schippers’s claim, Urso allowed two public defenders to be retained as part of Eyler’s defense team.
When Zellner reflected upon Schippers’s cross-examination of Dr. Little, she found it lame. Schippers had failed to ask, for example, if Little was gay or if he had had any sexual interaction with male teenagers. If Schippers had been able to establish either of those two facts, as prosecutors had in the Agan case, Little might have come across as a more likely suspect in causing Bridges’s death.
Zellner concluded that Schippers made his most egregious error after the jury came back with a guilty verdict. At that point, many lawyers produce psychiatric testimony to show that the accused was psychologically deficient in some way and therefore undeserving of the death penalty. Eyler had a clinical record as a disturbed child and a documented record of having been so abused that authorities thought he should be removed from his house. Schippers had access to that information, Zellner argues, but presented none of it. An associate of his went so far as to phone the psychiatrist Dr. Rossiter about the case, but after that initial contact the doctor did not hear from Schippers or his associate again.
Schippers declined to be interviewed for this story. Given his reputation, which is formidable, his apparent acceptance of payment from the prosecution’s lead witness is a mystery. The canceled checks and invoices released in court proceedings indicate that Little paid Schippers for his work on Eyler’s behalf in the Ralph Calise case in Lake County, and it appears that that financial relationship simply continued when the Bridges case was added to Eyler’s docket.
According to Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern who ranks among the foremost experts on legal ethics in the United States, Schippers labored under a severe conflict of interest and “had a duty to withdraw from the case.” Lubet, an expert witness sought out by Zellner, explains that Schippers had contradictory obligations–a financial relationship with the prosecution’s lead witness and a legal duty to his client. The financial relationship, Lubet says, “compromised the vigor of Mr. Schippers’ representation of his client.”
Thus far the state has not disputed that Schippers was paid by Little, but it has denied that there was a conflict of interest and has argued that Schippers’s cross-examination of the professor was “meticulous.” But even if Judge Urso ultimately comes to believe that Schippers did a marvelous job, the question will remain–would an attorney unburdened by a financial relationship have done better? Zellner argues that the case law is very clear, that a conflict of interest of this magnitude will without question result in a new trial; if Judge Urso doesn’t order it, she says, the state supreme court or the federal appeals court will.
It may be that State’s Attorney O’Malley recognized this possibility when he was offered the original deal but felt that even if Eyler won a second trial, the state could convict him a second time and put him back on death row.
But there, too, O’Malley may have a problem.
Zellner’s prosecutorial misconduct investigation may produce more trouble for the Cook County state’s attorney than her claims of conflict of interest. In the course of trying to determine whether state documents had been withheld from the defense in the Danny Bridges murder trial, Zellner subpoenaed Chicago Police Department files on Bridges. The subpoenas, issued in late March 1991, received no reply. A second set of subpoenas, issued in early May, brought some documents, but they raised more questions than they answered.
The documents revealed, for example, a stark contrast in the Police Department’s treatment of the two men in Eyler’s life–his lover (Dobrovolskis) and his financier (Dr. Little). Dobrovolskis was arrested simultaneously with Eyler (the two were asleep together when police burst into Eyler’s apartment). Dobrovolskis was held overnight, questioned at length, and given a lie detector test. Hair samples were taken, and an attempt was made to take fingernail scrapings.
But the police seemed to have no suspicions about Dr. Little. Their evident lack of curiosity seems odd given that the professor had been in the apartment all weekend and that he must have seemed a strange presence–a librarian, an intellectual, who was a close friend of a sporadically employed beer-drinking weight lifter.
Any detective whose curiosity was aroused might conceivably have made a few phone calls to see if Little’s name had come up in any of the other cases involving Eyler. Had a curious detective called the police investigating the Agan murder, he or she would have learned that both Little and Eyler were suspects. Moreover, in 1983 the FBI had produced an uncanny profile based on its investigation of three Indiana cases. The profile speculated that there were two killers involved: one was supposed to be fairly intelligent, middle-aged, middle-class, overweight, with a solid job, outwardly normal, and likely to be married but only for appearances (a profile that fit Little but for the fact that he was not married). The other killer was believed to be in his late 20s or early 30s, a laborer who liked to look like a tough guy, a man with a strong upper body, a beer drinker who drove a pickup truck. It seemed likely that the Chicago police had seen that profile, details of which were published in Indiana newspapers. A detective from Area 6 Violent Crimes–the same unit that investigated the Bridges murder–had attended a meeting in Indiana the previous November, during which police agencies from many jurisdictions compared notes on Eyler and their long string of unsolved murders.
Yet in the Chicago documents turned over to Zellner, there is no indication that anyone had given Little a second thought. Fingerprint experts, who had failed to find any indication that Bridges had been in Eyler’s truck, do not seem to have been asked to check Dr. Little’s Trans Am. No one seems to have asked the professor for hair, blood, or fingernail samples, and there is no indication that a lie detector test was called for. Police seemed to have taken Little’s property tax alibi at face value, while Zellner was able to discover, with relatively little effort, that the professor had no previous history of paying his property taxes early. She also points out that Little could have left Chicago by 7 AM on that Monday morning, with Bridges already dissected, and still have made it back to Terre Haute with plenty of time to pay his tax bill by noon.
Other police documents turned over to Zellner raised further questions. Zellner had asked for the files on cases in which Bridges was supposed to testify, and among the files turned over was an arrest report connecting Bridges with Mr. B, the bondage aficionado with whom Bridges had lived briefly in 1983. In trying to raise doubts about the ligature marks on Bridges’s wrists in his closing argument to the jury, David Schippers had pointed out that in general, homosexual prostitutes engaged in bondage and that the rope found in Eyler’s apartment was so common that some of the jurors probably had some at home. Had Schippers known of the relationship between Danny Bridges and Mr. B, he could have argued much more specifically that Bridges had a history of willing participation in bondage scenes and that the ligature marks therefore did not indicate that he had been tied up against his will. The Illinois Supreme Court specifically cited Bridges’s lack of history of bondage as a key factor in upholding Eyler’s kidnapping conviction. The issue is crucial because without the kidnapping conviction, Eyler is not subject to the death penalty.
Zellner, armed with the Mr. B file, took the theory even further. She asked Dr. Hartmann Friederici, a forensic pathologist, to examine photographs of the ligature marks on Bridges’s body to estimate how long they had been there. Friederici concluded that the marks could have been inflicted up to 36 hours before Bridges died. Given that time frame, it was possible that some other customer had picked up Bridges and inflicted the marks.
And lo and behold, such a customer emerged. In a police document–which again had not been turned over to Eyler’s original defense team–Zellner learned that on the morning of the day Bridges was murdered, the boy had been seen with Mr. B. Zellner can now present a history of willing participation in bondage, a theory of ligature marks inflicted by someone else, and a suspect other than Larry Eyler.
Another question, perhaps a larger one, arises from the police notes obtained by Zellner: why were they not turned over to Eyler’s defense attorney before the Bridges murder trial?
Prosecutor Mark Rakoczy, now in private practice, says that he is not certain that he reviewed every case in which Bridges had been a witness; there was no computer on which he could type “Danny Bridges” and have a list of cases appear on a screen. He is also not certain that the cases he did review were turned over to Schippers. He hastens to add that in the cases he examined he could see no connection to the Eyler case; the law, however, does not give a prosecutor discretion in determining whether a document is relevant–what a prosecutor thinks is extraneous may prove to be crucial to the defense. (The Mr. B arrest report seems to be just such an example.) Rakoczy maintains that Schippers didn’t ask for the material, but Zellner claims that Schippers’s discovery motions covered all of the cases in which Bridges was involved.
Zellner also finds something peculiar about the files that were turned over to Schippers: the homicide investigation reports written by Area 6 Violent Crimes detectives treat Bridges as a complete stranger. Bridges may indeed have been a stranger to the writers of the report, but he was very well-known to the officers of the Special Investigations Unit, who operated out of Area 6 headquarters and participated in the investigation of the murder. None of the police reports originally turned over to Schippers make any mention of the fact that Bridges had been an important witness in other cases for the SIU.
Even today, after the failure to turn over documents has become a crucial issue in the case, the Police Department has failed to produce some crucial pages–pages that Schippers evidently did not know of–obtained by Zellner from Gera-Lind Kolarik, author of Freed to Kill (Chicago Review Press, 1990), a book about Eyler.
The alleged witholding of documents identifying Bridges as an important witness for the police, the lack of any acknowledgment of his role as a witness in the files that were turned over, and the still-missing police notes may amount to nothing more than a series of coincidences. Zellner, however, does not believe in coincidence, at least in this case. She believes the state has been trying to hide something.
She suggests that one thing the police might want to hide are indications that the SIU may have been asking child prostitutes to have sex with pedophiles in order to make arrests. In a sworn statement taken by Zellner, one former prostitute says that as a juvenile in 1983, he was told by police to engage in sexual relations with a client and to signal the police to enter the house in order to catch the man “in the act.” A second former child prostitute says in a sworn affidavit that he “set-up” pedophiles under threat of being arrested on drug or weapons charges. A third former prostitute, who admits that he “turned tricks” with Bridges as an adolescent and who is now an inmate at Joliet Correctional Center, recalls in an affidavit that he once called a client on the telephone at the instruction of an SIU officer; when the setup fell through because the client could not be reached, the SIU allegedly charged the prostitute with a crime. Two of the three former prostitutes say that Danny Bridges also participated in such setups. None of the three seem to have anything to gain in publicly admitting they were prostitutes and accusing the SIU.
The Police Department’s News Affairs office and members of the SIU have declined to comment on any of Zellner’s allegations, saying that they do not want to affect Eyler’s effort to get a new trial. Mike Corkell, one of the assistant state’s attorneys who is fighting Zellner’s postconviction petition, says he finds the charges “ridiculous” and unsupported by any evidence. He discounts the testimony of the three former prostitutes, pointing out that “most are convicted felons, and one is doing time for armed robbery.”
One member of the Special Investigations Unit, however, seems to have acknowledged that the unit did encourage child prostitutes to have sex with adults in order to make arrests. The acknowledgment appears in a chapter on sex crimes in the book What Cops Know (Villard Books, 1991), by Connie Fletcher, an associate professor at Loyola. Fletcher quotes one SIU investigator saying, “Our opinion is that you should go out and find the crime. What better way to prove the crime than to get it in-progress or to follow somebody home and have him go to bed with a kid? My opinion is it’s the only way to do it.” Fletcher’s list of sources at the end of the chapter names three police officers who have worked in the SIU, but it is not clear who exactly is quoted in the text.
It may be that the missing files on Bridges would have led to exposure of the setups, tarnishing the image of the Police Department but shedding little light on the Eyler case. Zellner suggests, however, that the files are missing because of a direct link between Bridges and her client, namely that the boy had been recruited to set up Eyler and that something went wrong.
Zellner points to an enigmatic passage from Fletcher’s book that might–or might not–indicate that the police had sought out Bridges in order to set up Eyler. Fletcher quotes a police officer saying “Danny was a runaway. . . . We got back in touch with him in 1984, when this Larry guy was a suspect in a series of killings in Indiana. . . . We found Danny in High Point, North Carolina. . . . We brought him back. . . . Danny was subsequently back on the street, where he met Larry and was dissected into eight pieces.”
Zellner also points to the timing of Bridges’s return. On February 6, 1984, Larry Eyler was released from jail in Lake County, Illinois, after Judge Block threw out the illegally gathered evidence on the Calise case. At that point, Danny Bridges had been missing for eight months. Within two weeks, however, the SIU decided to go out and bring the boy back from North Carolina, allegedly to testify in some pedophile trials. Zellner contends that the police had known for several months that Bridges might be in North Carolina.
If there was a connection between Bridges and Eyler, if the boy was brought back to set Eyler up, what happened? Perhaps the setup never took place. Perhaps it did happen on the night Bridges was killed, but that would mean that the police somehow failed to intervene and that Bridges managed to get in and out of Eyler’s truck without leaving any fingerprints behind. A third option–and this is the theory that Zellner advances–is that the police were following Eyler that night, but Eyler did not pick up Bridges, and the reason the police notes vanished is that they would have been exculpatory–they would have shown that at least some policemen knew that Eyler had not kidnapped Bridges.
Zellner’s contention that Eyler was under surveillance is based largely on a mixture of hearsay and speculation. Eyler had been under sporadic surveillance by Indiana state police during the summer of 1983. When he moved into his apartment in Rogers Park in February 1984, he was a suspect in more than 20 murders and had just walked away from the Calise charges in Lake Forest. Given that, Zellner asks how likely it is that Chicago police would let him go about his business without some attempt to monitor his behavior. Eyler claims that he periodically saw cops following him and that Schippers told him he was being watched, the lawyer allegedly having been informed by a Lake County detective. (In a recent interview, however, the detective denied having said this.)
Former prosecutor Rakoczy dismisses all of Zellner’s speculations. He says that there was no surveillance of Eyler, and also that there was no connection between Eyler and Bridges that predated the murder. Rakoczy maintains that he searched hard to find such a connection, believing that it was quite possible that Eyler had conned Bridges as he had conned his lover, his mother, and many other people. Today Rakoczy still believes that if a connection between Eyler and Bridges turns up, it will be favorable to the prosecution, not to the defense.
Despite Rakoczy’s confidence and the lack of hard evidence to back up Zellner’s surveillance allegation, Eyler’s case presents some major difficulties for State’s Attorney O’Malley.
Judge Urso, who in sentencing Eyler denounced him as an “evil person,” has not allowed that opinion to sway his decision-making thus far. On April 15 he ruled against the state, deciding that Zellner’s arguments in Eyler’s behalf had enough merit to hold an evidentiary hearing this summer. In Illinois death-penalty cases, about four out of five such postconviction petitions fail to get that far.
At the evidentiary hearing, Zellner will present evidence and question witnesses on the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, on Schippers’s alleged conflict of interest, and on his alleged failure to present expert testimony on Eyler’s psychiatric history. Schippers will take the stand and tell his side of the story, as will members of the Police Department and the state’s attorney’s office. When all the evidence is in, Judge Urso will decide whether Eyler’s defense was compromised. If he decides it was, Eyler will get a new trial. If he decides it wasn’t, Zellner will take the case back to the Illinois Supreme Court. If she is rejected there, she will make her arguments in federal court.
If a new trial is scheduled, States Attorney O’Malley will face a difficult course. The state has at its disposal a lot of evidence about the location of the murder and the finding and disposal of the corpse, but Eyler will not be disputing that the murder occurred in his apartment or that he disposed of the body. He has already served his sentence for concealing a homicide and cannot be given more time for the offense.
That leaves the murder and kidnapping charges. The latter depend at least in part upon the ligature marks; if Zellner can suggest that they could have been put there by Mr. B, or if she can even show that Bridges had willingly submitted to bondage with his clients, she may beat the charges of kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping, and unlawful restraint. If she does that, Eyler cannot be given the death penalty. Even if she loses that battle, Eyler might not get the death penalty if his history of being abused as a child is found to be relevant and mitigating.
On the murder charge, the state’s case does not look as sound as it did years ago. In a new trial, the credibility of Dr. Little will be severely tested; it is not likely the prosecution will be able to present him as a college professor who helped young students out of the goodness of his heart. And John Dobrovolskis, who testified for the state about his lover’s whereabouts and behavior on the night of the murder, will not testify–he died of AIDS two years ago. Whether all or part of his past testimony will be allowed in a new trial will be up to the presiding judge; some of the testimony is beneficial to Eyler, while other portions–mostly his comments about Eyler’s demeanor–can be interpreted as damaging.
If Zellner can raise reasonable doubts, if she can get a jury to wonder whether it was actually Little who did the killing, Larry Eyler could be acquitted of the murder.
If he is acquitted, he will only go as far as Indiana, where he would begin serving his 60-year sentence for the Agan murder. But in Indiana’s overcrowded penal system, a prisoner gets two days’ credit for every day served. Eyler could walk free before he is 70.
All of this raises questions about O’Malley’s great pride in Eyler’s death penalty, the pride that stood in the way of the deal that would have kept Eyler in jail for the rest of his life. O’Malley’s decision to keep Eyler on death row has thus far cost taxpayers approximately $100,000, and by the time the legal battles are over taxpayers will have shelled out far more than they would have paid to keep Eyler in jail for the rest of his life.
It might be argued that economic factors should not be taken into account when considering a deal with a serial killer. But better reasons for questioning O’Malley’s judgment continue to turn up in creek beds and ditches in Indiana and Ohio.
A possible 12th reason turned up last April 3. In a trash heap off a rural road in Putnam County, Indiana, a man and a woman who were looking for aluminum cans found a naked corpse instead. The body was not long dead and was missing head, hands, and feet. It has not yet been identified, but it appears that the victim, a white male aged somewhere between 17 and 35, died as a result of stabbing wounds. As he was not strangled, there is some question as to whether he should be added to the list of the current killer’s victims; dismemberment would also be a new twist for the strangler. The site where the corpse was found, however, resembles the other 11 sites.
And the body turned up just off U.S. 40, the highway that runs between Terre Haute and Indianapolis.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sharon White.