Screams In The Night

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

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The police didn’t know what they would find when they arrived at the old building on South Main Street. It was around 1:00 a.m. on October 24, 1972, when they got an anonymous tip that there was screaming coming from the old Capri Theater on South Main Street. The theater was not in use anymore but the upper floors of the three-story building had been converted into apartments.

It was inside one of those apartments that the police found a horrific sight. On the floor just inside the door was a nude body of a young lady. The woman had been beaten so badly that there was a 2 foot puddle of blood surrounding her head. The coroner would later state that her cause of death came from trauma with a weapon (such as an axe or hatchet) that was “wielded by a strong hand”. That weapon had shattered the girl’s skull.

The police did not find very many clues at the apartment. The young woman had some hair clutched in her hand and there were bloody shoe prints leading out of the door and down the stairs.

The police were able to identify the girl quickly as 18-year old Karen Camper. The manager of the apartments recognized the body. He told police that the girl had lived there in the same apartment with her boyfriend for over a year but the couple had moved out weeks before.

Karen had broken off the relationship with that boyfriend, Lawrence Mathis, Jr. She moved back into her parent’s house which was located on nearby Knowlton Street. The police went to break the news to her family. Albert and Mattie Camper were distraught on hearing the news of their daughter’s murder. Albert had to fight back the tears as he tried to give the police the information they needed.

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Albert proudly pointed to the art pieces scattered around the room. “She did all of this herself”. He went on to tell the officers of how impressed Karen’s teachers were with her artwork and grades. Karen attended school at Muldoon High School until it closed in 1970.  She tried Boylan for a time, then transferred to East High School and that seemed a better fit. “They (the teachers) did everything they could to keep her in school. One teacher at East was working to get Karen a scholarship for college.”

But Karen had fallen for an older man and dropped out of high school just months before she would have graduated. Albert told the police that it was like this man controlled Karen’s mind. Karen’s mother stated that it was like she was two different people. Sometimes Karen enjoyed spending time with her family bowling, playing tennis and baking wonderful desserts. And other times, Karen spent time with the older man and made bad choices, doing things her parents never thought she would do. They could not understand the hold this man had on their daughter.

The older man was 27 year old Lawrence Mathis Jr. Karen’s parents didn’t like the fact that he was so much older than their daughter. But against their advice Karen moved into the apartment over the old Capri Theater with Mathis. Mathis was an unemployed painter and the couple struggled to make ends meet. They couldn’t pay their bills and soon began to look for other ways to get money.

In May of 1972, Karen was arrested when she was caught with U.S. Treasury checks that had signatures that had been forged. She entered the Wayne Western Auto store and cashed one of the forged checks. Karen was accompanied by a man but he had taken off running when it was obvious that the cashier was suspicious. Witnesses saw the man toss something into a trash can. When the police searched the can and found 7 more U.S. Treasury checks and 5 identification cards.

When the police found Mathis, they recovered four more checks in his possession during the arrest. Mathis and Karen were supposed to be in Federal Court in Freeport to face those charges before Karen’s murder but failed to show up. Bench warrants had been issued for both Karen and Mathis. The police wondered if that could be a possible motive for Karen’s murder and decided they needed to question Mathis.

It took police 19 hours to find Mathis and bring him in for questioning. He was bound over for a Grand Jury by Judge John Nielsen. The judge made his decision after he heard the statement of a man who was with Karen and Mathis on the night of the murder. This man stated that he dropped Mathis and Karen at the old apartment and was supposed to pick them up an hour later. When the man returned, he heard a scream as he approached the apartment. He knocked on the door and it opened. He didn’t see anything at first because the room was dark. But then he stepped in the room and his feet kicked something. When he looked down, he saw Karen’s naked body on the floor. When asked if he recognized the girl on the floor the man said it was Karen. The attorney then asked what she had on. The man stated, “She didn’t have nothing on her but blood.”

Though Mathis originally claimed he was innocent of the charges against him, in March of 1973, he changed his plea to guilty. Chief Circuit Judge Albert O’Sullivan sentenced Mathis to 20 to 40 years in prison for the murder of Karen Camper.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Gemignani laid the case out for the judge and stated that he believed the motive in the murder of Karen might be that Mathis feared that Karen would testify against him in the trial for the forgery charges. Since the checks were U.S. Treasury checks it was a federal case and could carry serious consequences for Mathis. Mathis was given the chance to respond to Gemignani’s statements but he declined.

The pretty, talented, young girl who showed some much potential that her parents were sure she would make her mark on the world was laid to rest in a grave on a small hill in Cedar Bluff Cemetery. Albert would join his daughter in the family plot in 2006.

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