Two months after Fred Reckling was beaten to death at his Waukegan appliance store in 1994, Hezekiah Whitfield was arrested in connection with armed robberies on the North Shore.
At the time, police did not suspect he might be connected to a more serious crime.
While Whitfield served prison time for the robberies, another inmate, James Edwards, struggled to prove he didn't kill Reckling, 71. As Edwards served a life sentence, he sometimes worked as his own lawyer, asking the courts to test blood evidence from the scene. One of his motions succeeded in 2010, and the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the tests.
On Tuesday, prosecutors announced that "forensic findings" guided an investigation that led to Whitfield, and he was arrested, charged in the Reckling slaying and ordered held on $3 million bail.
The lawyer who now represents Edwards, Paul DeLuca, said he'd never had a client whose prior legal work from prison appeared to help sink the case against him. Lake County prosecutors fought Edwards' efforts to compel testing, arguing the blood was meaningless.
"He just was insistent," DeLuca said. "He said, 'They'll never find anything on me in that murder case because I never did it.'"
The case against Edwards was one of three upended Tuesday when prosecutors simultaneously announced the new charges in the Reckling killing and a separate double slaying and dropped charges in a rape case. In all three cases, prosecutors spent years insisting the suspects were guilty despite forensic evidence suggesting their innocence.
Along with Whitfield, prosecutors charged former Marine Jorge Torrez, 23, with killing Laura Hobbs, 8, and Krystal Tobias, 9, in a Zion park in 2005. Laura's father, Jerry Hobbs, sat in jail for five years awaiting trial for that crime before he was cleared.
Prosecutors also dropped charges against Bennie Starks, 52, who spent 20 years in prison for the 1986 rape of a woman in Waukegan. Starks had been freed on bond in 2006 after appeals judges ordered a new trial, citing DNA evidence pointing away from him.
In Edwards' case, prosecutors had always known blood at the crime scene didn't come from him or Reckling, but they argued the blood could have dripped from a store employee with a minor wound. Edwards had confessed to the killing but later said he was coerced.
The man prosecutors now blame for the crime carries a long arrest record.
Whitfield was in prison for armed robbery until he was paroled in July 2009.
His landlord, James J. Shepherd, said he was "shocked and hurting" to learn of Whitfield's arrest. Shepherd described Whitfield as a devoted Muslim who asked him to remove a picture containing an alcohol bottle in the apartment in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.
"He was real honorable, real humble," Shepherd said.
In the wake of Whitfield's arrest, Assistant State's Attorney Steve Scheller said "common sense" dictated charges would be dropped against Edwards. Edwards will not be released because he still faces a 15-year sentence for a separate robbery and a life sentence for a 1974 Ohio murder.
DeLuca said he hopes a judge will apply the time Edwards spent in prison for the Reckling slaying to his robbery conviction. And Edwards' lawyers will likely use the new revelations in the Reckling case to attack his confession in the Ohio case, DeLuca said.
Hobbs had also confessed to murder. He learned in a phone call from his mother late Tuesday that Torrez had been charged.
"I'm just glad they're all going in the right direction with it now," Hobbs said.
Defense lawyers knew by 2007 that semen in Hobbs' daughter didn't match him. But prosecutors argued that didn't clear him because couples sometimes had sex in the woods, and the girl could have touched some semen and then wiped herself.
Hobbs was released in August 2010 only after the DNA was linked to Torrez, according to court records. Along with the new Lake County charges, Torrez, formerly of Zion, is serving five life sentences for a string of brutal attacks on women in Virginia in 2010. He's also charged with killing a Navy petty officer in her barracks in 2009.
Hobbs is suing Lake County authorities. His attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said the charging of Torrez strengthens his civil case.[...]