The summer of 1971 was a violent one in Rockford’s history. It would later be labeled “The Summer of Fear” by the local newspapers. By summer’s end, there were ten homicides in Rockford, the most for that early in the year in over a decade. This statistic was made even more chilling by the fact that three of those murders were unsolved during the time and two of them remain that way today.
What made some of these crimes so hard to solve was the fact that they appeared to be completely random acts. This meant that no one was safe and that fact terrorized the city. The other staggering fact was that five of them happened within six weeks.
In a news article dated August 22, 1971, the Morning Star described the police’s frustration and the community’s fear. The random attacks began with the killing of William Shoemaker on July 8, 1971. The murders that came before were horrifying but a little less frightening because they were committed by people who had a connection to the victims. The random killings that came that summer terrified and ultimately changed this community.
William Shoemaker was a 44 year old retired Marine. He was hired as a caretaker and guard at the First Presbyterian Church on North Main Street. There had been a string of burglaries in churches that year and Shoemaker was hired to watch over the place. He lived in a small apartment in the building so the arrangement worked for everyone.
Until July 8, when the church housekeeper found Shoemaker’s beaten and bloodied body. According to the Coroner Collin Sundberg, Shoemaker had been beaten and then strangled with his own belt. The motive was thought to be a burglary gone bad. The crime went unsolved until two brothers, James and Charles Pritchett were arrested and convicted of the crime.
The second and third murders of that summer came on July 25th when the bodies of Herman and Mary Kasch were discovered by their neighbor. Mrs. Herman knew that both Mary and Herman were in their eighties. She grew concerned when the Kasch’s son called her and asked her to check on the couple. Mrs. Herman called the police when she found the front door standing open and broken glass on the porch.
Police entered the home and were shocked by what they found inside. The elderly couple was found dead. The condition of the bodies told the police that the couple had struggled with their attackers. Autopsies would later prove that Herman had been stabbed numerous times and Mary had endured severe blows to her head. Her facial bones were fractured and there were also wounds to her arms and hands proving she had tried to defend herself.
The police were able to piece together a theory of what they believed happened. They thought that someone had come into the house while the couple was watching television. The attacker then ransacked the house looking for money and valuable items.
While the police were questioning neighbors they learned that just two weeks prior to the murders a man had broken into the Kasch’s home. A stranger had knocked on the door of the home and Mary answered. The man asked if she would like him to mow their lawn for a small fee. She declined the offer and the man left. But he returned a short time later and broke in the door. He grabbed Mary and put a knife to her throat. The couple pleaded with the intruder and finally were able to convince him that they had nothing of value to steal. The couple was shaken by the attack and left to stay with a relative. They had only been back in their home a few days when the murders occurred.
Neighbors and family members were baffled by the murders and could offer no clue to who might have wanted the couple dead. Herman had worked as a farm hand all of his life and had lived his life simply. Mary was Herman’s fourth wife when the couple married in 1962.
The police questioned the Kasch’s neighbors and every one of them claimed that the elderly couple were kind and generous. No one had a bad word to say about them and there were no rumors about hidden money or valuables that would attract a break in.
Police extended their search several blocks and within a week, there was a break in the case. A fourteen year old boy that lived a few blocks away from the Kaisch’s was arrested for the crime. The entire community was shocked by the fact that someone so young could commit such a brutal act on the couple. The teen was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 35-70 years in prison.
Unfortunately, two more murders quickly followed. Roger Thompson’s body was found just a few blocks away from the Kasch home on the 500 block of Concord Avenue. The nineteen year old’s bloody body was found by boys playing in an empty lot on August 3,1971. Roger had been stabbed at least twelve times and his head was badly damaged.
Roger had moved to Rockford from Los Angeles six weeks prior to his murder to live with his mother and step-father. He was hoping to get a job at the Chrysler plant. Roger was described as a “quiet boy, who didn’t get into any trouble.”
The last newspaper article that mentions Roger’s murder was in December of 1976 when Detective Captain Richard Anderson stated that the police “ knew who did it but we can’t prove it.”
That same article also mentioned the murder of Kimberly McMillan in Sunset Park on August 17, 1971. While the other murders during the summer of 1971 put the community on alert; the murder of this little girl terrified everyone. People started locking their doors and parent’s became stricter with their children. The fact that this ten year old was at a supervised park surrounded by dozens of people when she was viciously stabbed in the back was beyond comprehension to everyone. Another aspect that continues to frighten people today is that this murder was never solved.
Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events