The Mysterious Death of Theodore Lakoff

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Theodore Lakoff had dreams like many who came from far away to call Rockford their home. He traveled from his home country of Bulgaria to Liverpool England in 1911. He was only 18 years old when he stepped off the passenger ship, Baltic in the New York harbor.

Theodore traveled to Chicago and was living there in 1913. He would spend the next several years working a variety of jobs and moving around quite a bit before settling in New Diggins, Wisconsin. One article mentioned that the young man worked at several Supper Clubs in Wisconsin before arriving in the Roscoe area in 1930.

Theodore operated his own roadhouse resort on North 2nd Street from 1930 to the beginning of 1931. The resort was long suspected of hosting illegal operations from serving alcohol (this was during Prohibition), to gambling and girls. Theodore also used several different names by early 1930. Tony Evanoff must have been a favorite. It appears in the newspaper articles as often as Theodore Lakoff.

On Saturday, January 3, 1931, Theodore had a full house. People were still celebrating the New Year and the card games were in full swing as well as the liquor sales. George Farmer from Beloit would later testify that he was one of the last to leave just after midnight. Theodore lived at the resort and he followed the stragglers outside to wish everyone a Happy New Year before heading back inside.

On Sunday, Ted Manley showed up for an appointment with Theodore at around 10:00 a.m. He thought it strange that the doors were still locked. He knocked but Theodore did not answer. Manley decided to check in with Theodore’s manager, Charles Smith to see if he knew of the man’s location. Smith was so startled to hear that the doors of the resort were still locked that he decided to accompany Manley back to the roadhouse.

They later stated that they both had an eerie feeling as they unlocked the door and stepped inside. This feeling grew as they made their way to the back portion of the place where Theodore was known to sleep on a couch. That is exactly where they found him. Theodore was curled up on the couch with his hands under his head. Or what was left of his head.

It wasn’t long before Sheriff William C. Bell and Coroner Walter Julian arrived. They theorized that whoever killed Theodore had hid in the roadhouse sometime during the evening’s festivities. The assailant waited in the dark until Theodore was asleep before he crept from his hiding spot and fired the gun into the top of Theordore’s head. The shot killed him instantly.

A thorough search was made but only deepened the mystery for the authorities. Theodore’s wallet was laying on the floor completely empty. Witnesses from the night before stated that Theodore had around $100.00 in the wallet. But the search proved that there was a lot more money on hand that was not taken. They believed the wallet was only emptied to make it appear that robbery was the motive for the shooting.

Of course, being a resort owner during the turbulent years of Prohibition opened the possible motives up tremendously. There were often rival gangs that used strong arm tactics to convince the owners to purchase their liquor from their particular stock. Authorities focused on this theory pretty quickly.

But after questioning several of Theodore’s closest friends, they began to change their minds. These friends told of a young woman who was giving Theodore some trouble. Viola Hunsficker may have only been 20 years old at the time of Theodore’s murder but she had earned the reputation of being very street smart. Viola had worked for Theodore at the roadhouse for a short time. But something must have happened between Theodore and the young woman. The witnesses told the authorities that Viola was extorting money from Theodore. They heard horrible arguments between the two and stated that Theodore had stated he wasn’t going to pay her any more money.

When Viola was picked up by the Sheriff’s deputies and her apartment searched, they found two guns. One of them was Theodore’s gun that many people had seen him carry. The other gun was of the same caliber of the weapon that was used in the murder. Viola stated she had never seen the guns before. Sheriff Bell arrested the young woman but continued to question acquaintances of the slain man.

Bell also sent the slug retrieved from Theodore and the gun found in Viola’s possession to Chicago. The results came back after two weeks. They did not match and Viola was released.

As the police delved into Theodore’s personal life they were astonished to find 5 other women who were under the impression that they were Theordore’s only girlfriend. Some of these women also had boyfriends and even husband’s that added to the potential motives for wanting Theodore dead.

The authorities developed many other theories in the days following Theodore’s death and followed many leads. They always believed that whoever had killed Theodore was probably close to him. But like several other killings during Prohibition, Theodore’s murder was never solved. He was buried in the Eastlawn Cemetery in Beloit.

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

A Scary Personal Paranormal Encounter At Tinker Swiss Cottage

This article is written by Dean Thompson from Ghost Head Soup and Kathi Kresol from Haunted Rockford.  It describes an encounter that was experienced by the both of them at a public Paranormal Investigation at the Tinker Swiss Cottage hosted by Samantha Hochmann.

 

Dean Thompson:

In the new normal “feeling chills” could be a sign you have COVID, or in the paranormal field it means something else, but similarly sinister.

That’s how the evening began for Kathi Kresol from Haunted Rockford, along with three members of Ghost Head Soup, and Psychic Medium Sara, as they began their first public investigation session.

“I felt a chill behind me.” Kathi Kresol said.

The thirty or more people in attendance that evening broke apart into three smaller groups. Kathi and I remained in the barn with our first group. A small team from Indiana, stated that when Kathi announced that she had felt something he panned his video camera over in her direction.

“I know a lot of the paranormal themed television shows claim orbs could be dust and stuff, but while I panned my video over to you, I was surprised to see a pretty bright orb.” The investigator explained. He stated that the orb had circled Kathi and went into the chair next to her.

 

Kathi Kresol: 

I have been hosting these Paranormal Events in the Rockford area for 17 years now.  We offer these Ghost Investigations so folks can join in with an actual Investigation team.  They can use the equipment and see what a real investigation feels like.

We spilt the participants into three groups so that there are smaller groups.  Samantha, Sara and I usually sit in on the sessions in different areas.  For this particular event, I was stationed in the barn with Dean.

Dean begins the session by explaining  the equipment that we will be using for that session.  Then we turn out the lights. I need to make something very clear before I go on with this story.  I have worked with Sara Bowker for 15 years now.  She is the psychic pne and I rely heavily on her impressions. .  I sometimes get feelings but rarely do I get details.  I was just settling into my chair when I got the coldest feeling on my back.  And when I closed my eyes- I saw one of the scariest things I had experienced in a long time.  I could clearly picture a young lady -possibly a teenager or a little older.  She wore a long white gown that appeared to be wet.  She had dark, long hair but had her head down and I couldn’t see her face.  She looked for lack of a better description- like the little girl from the movie, “The Ring”.

 

Dean Thompson:

“I got Cold Chills!”

As the first session completed, Kathi ran and grabbed Sara over to the barn. Some whispering took place as a worried Kathi was not sure what to think about this vision she was receiving. Later we would learn what the “whispering” was all about.

The second team came in and the room changed. It became darker, but playful, people started to hear a meow sound though their devices.

“I can use a laser pointer and really get that cat going.” I casually announced.

While all the cat and mouse games were being played, Kathi and Sara sat in the backroom with their hands on their heads. They would join in the cat hunt briefly but the concern of chills still kept Kathi’s mind preoccupied.

 

Kathi Kresol:

I did run to get Sara.  I just knew that she usually could tell me what was happening.  Only this time, she couldn’t.  Sara could sense the girl but this spirit did not want to communicate- AT ALL!  This made it so much scarier to me.  Sara can usually figure out what the spirit wants to say and helps them by communicating.  But this girl just lingered there.

 

Dean Thompson:

The final session was now entering the room, which included a quartet of women who were eager to start a dowsing rod session. After several Tinker Family related questions, the rods started to move without notice.

“Okay who asked a question?” Megan said.

Megan was in charge of the rods and felt a secret question was asked.

“There’s somebody different tonight, that’s here.” Kathi stated. “That’s why Sara is sitting next to me.”

This is when Kathi started to not whisper and spoke aloud about her vision.

Divine Inspiration is a means for the supernatural world to reveal information into certain people. The person receiving the communication would experience a “creative desire” which would explain what Kathi was feeling this evening.

She described the cold chill, and seeing a girl, who was wearing a wet gown, dark hair covering her face, but nothing else was coming though. Sara was next to her the entire time and was not receiving any such contact with this young girl.

“I was just wondering if she is still here.” Kathi said

As the dowsing rods continued Kathi had mentioned a few key details regarding the thoughts. She stated that the girl was not part of the Tinker Family. That she was somebody new here tonight. The words drowning and car were mentioned from the women with the dowsing rod.

“Did someone bring her with them?” One of four quartet asked.

This is when I started to wonder if my previous days research had anything to do with this new entity. I was researching the Forest City Knitting company of Rockford and had discovered some gruesome deaths that had taken place.

“Is your name Emma?” I asked

Sara stated that she also got an Emma in the first session in the red room of the main building.

“Is your name Amy?” I asked

Oddly, one of the four quartet was named Amy.

My own Divine inspirations started to pull forward. I thought that the girl couldn’t remember her name, but after listening to the audio I felt that maybe she was able to validate one of the girls present that night.

“I think I know who the girl is.” I spoke up.

On May 18th 1909, which is a week away from me writing this, the Newspaper article headline read: GIRL SWEPT UNDER TRAIN TO DEATH.

Miss Alma Johnson, aged 26, an employee of the Forest City Knitting company, Rockford, was killed instantly Saturday night by being run into by a St. Paul passenger train due in Rockford at 6 o’clock.

At the time Miss Johnson met her death she was in company with three young women friends on their way to the East Side station of the Illinois Central railway company, at which place one of the young women was to purchase a ticket for Sweden, for which place she intended leaving Sunday.

This is why it took to the third session of the evening to discover the Spirit of Alma Johnson. She waited for the Megan and her three friends to come and speak to her.

Miss Alma Johnson, Alma Englund, Amanda Larson and Alvina Rosander were on their way to Seventh street and it was when the quartet had reached the cross-tracks that they were run down.

I quickly noticed that each of the four girl’s names began and ended with the letter A.

The train was a trifle late but was running at a slow speed and was not going over the regulation speed. The girls had cleared the track it was thought and Miss Johnson’s clothing must have become caught in a part of the engine and she was drawn under the wheels for the other girls were unharmed and all seemed to be at about the same distance from the track.

Earlier Kathi had mentioned that the girl was drenched in a gown and her hair was covering her face. The description of the way Alma was killed is pretty graphic, but would explain why her spirit would remember her name and would appear to Kathi the way that she did.

Miss Johnson was drawn under the engine and the top part of her head was cut off, the left hand cut off just above the wrist and the right foot was severed from the leg just above the ankle.

Keep in mind that Robert Tinker had also lost a foot when he was caught under a train and dragged.

The remains of the body was thrown about ten feet from the right of way and the train was stopped within a double car length of the place where the mishap occurred.

As I read Alma’s story for the first time, I was a little alarmed at the nature of the description, however without these facts, Kathi and I would never had been able to validate young Alma’s story.

 

Kathi Kresol

I don’t pretend to understand how the ghost thing works- Dean’s thoughts on Divine Inspiration are as good as any I guess.  But I am not entirely convinced that this girl is the Alma in the story.   Sara validated that Alma was there for Dean and I could tell Sara could communicate with her to get a little more of her story.

My research into Alma’s story showed that Alma was born on January 15, 1882, making her around 27 old when she suffered her horrible accident. She was born in Boros in Vastergotland, Sweden.  She still had family back in Sweden, though one brother did live nearby in Shirland.  She moved to America about six years prior to her death. She lived in a boarding house at 245 Catherine Street and was hosted by the Swan Sanden family.  They held her funeral in their home before carrying her body to the Scandinavian Cemetery.

But since the girl I experienced never spoke, never raised her head or tried to communicate other than the picture of her in my head- I cannot say for certain that it was Alma.  I have researched many stories from Rockford’s past.  Some were ghost stories, some were horrible murders.  Some were the stories of the young women who have thrown themselves into the Rock River that is very near the Tinker Swiss Cottage.

I have spent many years telling these stories trying to be the one who  makes sure these people are remembered. I have visited where they were killed or where their bodies were recovered or where their family buried them.  I always hope that  by telling their stories, that it might bring them some sort of peace.  Sara and Samantha help me by talking to them to let them know what we try to do.  The spirit could have been Alma- but it also could have been someone else.  Maybe it is this thought that made me so frightened during this actual investigation. Maybe I was feeling  her fear.  It was all very unsettling.

Like I said before, I have been doing this a long time.   I always take precautions before we do any of our events.  I pray and ask for protection.  I have traveled all over the United States visiting haunted locations and have had some truly frightening experiences.  But this time was completely different.

Sara, Samantha and I know that sometimes it takes a few times for certain spirits to feel comfortable enough with us to tell their stories.  I am posting this on the Haunted Rockford website and will post it on our Facebook page.  I sincerely hope tha it was Alma and that by telling her story – that Dean and I can help her move on.  And if it wasn’t Alma, then we will find that out too.- with the help of Sara, Megan (who was the one with the dowsing rods that night) and Samanatha.  But I will stick close to Sara and Samanatha at the next investigation – just in case I start to sense that horrible, frightening feeling again.

 

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Tragedy In The Sky – John Wallace Blair

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Today the Goodyear blimp is well known, especially to sports fans.  According to their website the airships fly over events like the Daytona 500, PGA Championships, and the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Goodyear built its first balloon in 1912 and started its production in America when the U.S. Navy ordered nine airiships.  SInce the hangar hadn’t been completed in Akron, Ohio, the production took place in a Chicago amusement park building.

After World War I, Goodyear built the airships for its own use. These blimps were mainly used for advertising and marketing for the Goodyear Company and soon the airships were spotted all over the United States.  The first, “Pony” was built in 1919.  The dirigibles traveled from city to city, offering fifteen minute rides for a few dollars per person.

Rockford had several visits from these dirigibles during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  The Register Star featured a great picture of the airship “Vigilante” that was taken from a plane flown by Fred Machesney. The airship visits were a huge draw for the folks in Rockford and the surrounding area.

In the early 1930’s Goodyear was unveiling a new generation of dirigibles.  The “Vigilante” was one of the first built of these airships.  Unfortunately, the Vigilante crashed in November of 1931.   The gondola car and fins were used in the production of a new airship, the  “Columbia”.  The airship was written about in dozens of newspapers.  One article described the dirigible as 144 foot long and stated that it cost $65,000 to build. It also mentioned that it  had walnut woodwork and leather chairs. It carried six passengers and it flew at an amazing 60 miles per hour.

One of Rockford’s own was hired as the Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia”. John Wallace Blair had only lived in Rockford for a couple of years.  He and his wife Betty married in 1926. John worked as an auto mechanic and a driver for the Blue Line Transfer Company during his time in Rockford.  John’s brother, Roland was hired at the same time as a pilot.

John must have thought it was the chance of a lifetime when he was hired by Good Year.  As Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia” John would be in charge of maintenance for the dirigible. He would also be riding in the airship.  John and Betty left Rockford to begin their new life in New York.

The “Columbia’s” christening ceremony was scheduled for July 14, 1931 at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airlock near Akron Municipal Airport. The people in Akron welcomed the new airship with a 200 piece band and a huge chorus.  The Vice President of the Goodyear Fred M. Harpham’s wife broke a bottle over the cabin.  The bottle contained liquid air instead of champaign.  Mrs. Harpham was joined by other executive’s wives for the first flight.

In August 1931, the “Columbia” traveled to the home base at the Holmes Airport in the Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.  The airship ran as a sight seeing service.  People paid $3.00 for a 15 minute flight around New York City.

On February 13, 1932, John was with the pilot Prescott Dixon flying over Long Island.  The wind was bad that day with gusts over 40 miles per hour.  The airship was being tossed around and the pilot struggled to keep control.  John and Prescott tried to keep control of the dirigible as the wind pushed it toward the ground. The men’s efforts became frantic when they noticed they were approaching electrical wires and a large gas tank.

John Blair suggested that they should “rip the ship”. This was a defensive measure that called for the mechanic to grab a rip cord and yank it.  The cord was attached to the top of the airship.  When the cord was pulled, it would tear the section open and allow gas to escape.  This move would lower the airship quickly to the ground without (hopefully) putting the men in danger.  The major problem with this maneuver was that the rip cord was just beyond the gondola.

John reached for the rip cord. Just as he touched the rope, the wind surged and the large bag rolled. The rope wrapped around John’s arm and pulled him from the gondola. Time seemed to stand still as the rope caught and held.  A full minute passed then the rope broke and John’s body fell many feet before smashing into the ground.  John never knew that he had been successful in causing the “Columbia” to fall to the earth before it ran into the wires, saving the craft from catching fire and the pilot from certain death.

Thousands of people had gathered to see the “Columbia” in action. Almost all of them watched as the horrible tragedy played out in front of their eyes. The newspapers stated that there was an audible gasp from the crowd when John’s body slipped from the gondola.  John’s body was found 100 feet from the wreckage of the airship.

John’s brother, Roland accompanied John’s wife Betty and John’s body back to Rockford for burial.  Betty returned to Rockford to live and eventually married again.

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Hidden Wounds – Charles Schultz

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

 

On Friday, May 11, 1877, Winnebago County would experience one of the worst disasters it had suffered up to that time.  While constructing a new courthouse, the time came to lower the new dome onto the limestone walls.  The men were all in place as they lowered the elaborate piece onto the walls. Folks in town had been fascinated with the whole process and they lined the streets.  Suddenly, there was a loud cracking sound.  No one could believe it when the walls began to crumble under the weight of the dome.

Men and limestone blocks tumbled everywhere. Towns folk worked together for days to dig out men both alive and dead.  Newspapers from those days were filled with the graphic descriptions of the wounds suffered by the men.

They laid the bodies of the dead on the lawn and rushed the injured to the City Hotel where they were treated by the doctors gathered there.  One of the injured men was Charles Schultz.  He had serious injuries including a bad head wound.  His friends and family all said that he must be the luckiest man they knew.

Though Charles’ wounds healed quickly, his wife Elizabeth grew worried about him.  There was something different about Charles after the accident. The news articles through the years gave clues to these changes.  Charles was arrested numerous times for drinking, for fighting, and for disturbing the peace.

The drinking and violence increased until finally in 1884, the decision came that something must be done with Charles.  There must have been an incident with the family because it was given as the reason for his “confinement”.  Authorities were concerned about Charles’ hurting someone, especially his family members.  The correlation between personality changes and brain injuries was years away.  But it was easy to see that Charles had changed after his accident.  The people who knew Charles before the accident no longer referred to him as lucky.

Charles was escorted to the Winnebago County Poor Farm and Hospital on North Main Street.  He was confined to a wooden cage in the basement area.  It was an area used only for the most “demented” patients.

John Atkinson was the Superintendent of the Poor Farm in 1884.  He had held the position since 1876.  It was a prosperous time for the Poor Farm. Atkinson had earned the reputation of a kind, patient keeper.  But the treatment of the insane was archaic during this time and consisted more of confinement than treatment.  In the daytime during warm weather the inmates were confined in large wooden cages outside.  They were brought inside and locked in large wooden cages during inclement weather and during the night.

Superintendent Atkinson’s day began early and by 5:00a.m. on May 12, 1884 he began his rounds of waking the inmates.  He worked his way from the top floor where most of the residents were just there because of their financial situations. He saved the basement patients for last.  Atkinson unlocked the main door and began to make his way to the first cage which housed Charles Schultz.  Atkinson was surprised to see Charles standing by the cell door.  The fact that Charles did not move when Atkinson greeted him alarmed the superintendent.  He rushed back to his office for the keys to the cells.

When he opened the door to Charles’ cell it was obvious why he hadn’t answered.  Charles had a noose made from cloth wrapped around his neck. His beard had hidden this fact from Atkinson at first.  Lifting his beard, Atkinson saw the black bands that proved his fear to be true.

Atkinson backed out of the cell and called the coroner.  Coroner McCaughey arrived in short order.  Schultz’s body had been cut down by Atkinson and his assistant.  They laid him on a small bed inside his cage.

McCaughey would later testify that Schultz must have planned his suicide from the day he arrived.  He ripped strips from the bedding.  Then Charles took the time to weave these strips together to form a rope.  When confronted with the fact that it was too thick to fit through the small opening above the door, Charles had removed a piece of wire from his mattress.  He used this to attach the woven rope to the doorway.  Charles then placed the noose around his neck, climbed on his bed and hurled himself from the bed.  One of his feet was still on the bed when Atkinson cut him down.

The headlines from the day carried the story under the head line “Schultz Shuffles off this Earthly Coil with a Coil of Rope.”  Charles was laid to rest in the Poor House Cemetery.  His wife Elizabeth married again and stayed in the area with her new husband.  One can only hope that she and Charles’ children remembered their father the way he was before the horrible accident that changed his life and theirs forever.

 

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

 

Warner “Varney” Samuel Anderson

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.

Warner Samuel Anderson was born in Geneva, Illinois June 18, 1866 to parents Swan and Frederika. Later records would state that his parents had both been born in Sweden.  According to records in Ancestry, Swan and Frederika Anderson came over from Sweden on the ship Lucia in May of 1852.

Varney was the fourth of seven children born to the Anderson family. Swan worked as merchant tailor and Frederika took care of the children.  By 1880, the family had moved to Elgin where Swan worked at the watch factory.  Frederika passed away in November of 1879 and the oldest daughter Emily was still living at home helping to care for her younger brothers and sisters.

Varney would follow his father’s footsteps and work in the Watch factory. But Varney had bigger plans.  He knew that Rockford also had a Watch Factory that had gained quite a reputation for their quality watches since their opening in 1875. Some might argue that this is what lured the young man to move here.  But they would only be half right.  There was another reason why Varney chose to make Rockford his home.

Besides having a Watch Factory, Rockford also had a Minor League Baseball League.  Varney came because Rockford had been making a name for itself on the baseball field.  He loved the game and hoped that Rockford would help him make his dream of playing in the Major Leagues a reality.  The newspapers from the day are filled with headlines and articles about Varney’s success here in Rockford and eventually beyond.

In 1887, when he was only 21 years old, Varney was playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the Minor Leagues.  He played for two different teams during the 1888 season; the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Apostles.

In 1889, Varney’s dream finally came true when he was chosen to be a player for the Major Leagues.  Rockford hailed Varney as a hometown hero when it was announced that he had secured the position of pitcher and outfielder for the Indiana Hoosiers.  He only played in 2 games that year.  In 1890, he became a player and the manager of the Burlington Hawkeyes in Iowa.

Varney wasn’t only noticed by the men who attended his games.  The women in the area would gather on Ladies Day to watch the handsome young man pitch against team after team.  Varney would eventually fall for one of his fans and he married Florence Doughty in 1891.

Florence would always claim to be his biggest fan. The happy couple would have three daughters over the years.  Varney would travel during the season and Florence and the rest of Rockford always made a big deal of welcoming him home again when the season ended.

Varney was hailed as a great team manager and continued to climb the ladder of success.

In 1895, Varney was invited to join the Washington Senators.  He must have felt like all of his hard work paid off during his time with the Washington team.

The local newspapers were not the only ones talking about Varney’s skills on the baseball field.   He was mentioned in the 1894 issue of Sporting Life.  “Varney Anderson, surprised by his wonderful work in the box against them.  His main strength appeared to be in his deceptive drop, which he has completely under his control.”

Varney continued to play for the Washington Senators and 1895 was his best year.  Varney had achieved his lifelong goal of playing in the Major Leagues but he also knew that he was getting older.  He returned to Rockford to help manage the team and to play for the town that helped him achieve his dream.

Headlines in 1897 told of Varney’s successes.  One from August 23, 1897 claimed, “(Varney Anderson) Contributed to the Most Sensational Finish Ever Seen in Rockford!”

Varney and his wife Florence raised their three girls in their little house on South Main Street here in Rockford. Varney wanted to give back to the community that had given him so much.  He became a Freemason and joined the E.F. Ellis Masonic Lodge. Varney was as successful as a Freemason as he was on the field.  He became Master of the Lodge in 1902.

Varney and Florence purchased a house on South Main Street where they would finish their days.  Varney lost Florence to illness on January 24, 1931. He laid her to rest in Willwood Burial Park.  He would join her there after his death on November 5, 1941.

 

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events.

Just An Ordinary Day

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Looking back later there was nothing to indicate the day would be any different from others.  It started out as just another typical day.  It was June 9, 1966 and the weather that day was overcast with an occasional drizzle.

Edwin Lyons and his wife, Lauretta had breakfast together before he left for work that day.  They had been married in Dubuque, Iowa on October 20, 1939. Lauretta was only 20 when they married. She had been born and raised in Rockford and it was here that they decided to make their home.

Both Lauretta and Edwin were considered successful.   She had been a secretary but quit her job at the Block and Kuhl Department store to open her own pet accessory store.  Edwin and Lauretta were partners in this venture.  They had a little shop on Mulberry Street in downtown Rockford called the Lyon’s Den.  They also traveled to fairs to display and sell the fancy dog collars from their shop.

Lauretta was a member of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Rockford Women’s Club, Rockford chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.  She was also a member of the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Club.  She had been a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Association. Lauretta also volunteered in her spare time.  She was a pink lady at Rockford Memorial Hospital.

Edwin worked as a chemist at the Rockford Drop Forge Company.  Edwin’s father was well known in Rockford.  He owned the  Brown’s Business College.  Edwin and Lauretta had operated the school for a while before it was sold in 1942. The school would eventually become the Rockford School of Business.

Edwin left shortly after breakfast, right around 7:30a.m.  The Lyon’s house was a little off the beaten path out on Latham Road where it intersects with Owen Center.  It sat back a little ways from the road and was surrounded by trees and cornfields.  It was not visible to any of the other houses.

Later that day when they were interviewed, the Lyon’s neighbors claimed that they did not know them very well.  Richard T Hare stated that he very rarely saw them.

Before Edwin left, he and Lauretta made plans for lunch.  He was going to meet her at the shop.  When Edwin left for work he had no way of knowing that this seemingly ordinary day would turn out to be anything but that.

Lauretta was next seen by Julian Cwyman, a 38 year old telephone repairman.  He told deputies that he saw Lauretta with her three dogs walking around her yard.  They had spoken briefly and Lauretta even showed Cwyman some of the tricks she had taught the dogs.  He left the area around 9:20a.m.

Edwin went to the shop for his lunch date with his wife.  He was surprised when she wasn’t there.  He tried to phone but received no answer to his attempts.  So he decided he better check on her to make sure everything was well.

He arrived home around 12:30p.m. Edwin noticed that the doors were locked and the dogs were all inside.  He stated he walked into the living room and saw his wife lying on her stomach on the floor in a pool of blood.  There were several of his neckties around her, one was even clenched in her hand.

He immediately called the sheriff’s department and an ambulance.  In the long moments it took help to arrive, he desperately searched for a pulse.  Lauretta’s favorite dogs was curled up next to her and Edwin had to pick him up to get close to her.  He noticed that its fur was still damp from an earlier walk.

Help finally arrived but even though Edwin pleaded with the ambulance crew to “Save her, save her” there was nothing to be done.  They loaded Lauretta in the ambulance and drove her to Rockford Memorial where she was pronounced dead.

Police arrived in full force with the lead investigator, Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Iasparro,(father to Dominic Iasparro) over seeing the investigation.

Police noticed that the doors were all locked and that nothing was taken even though there was a large amount of money in the home and a valuable stamp collection.

There were signs of a struggle.  Furniture had been disturbed, a curtain was ripped down and there was blood on the floor by the front door.  This told investigators that Lauretta had fought her attacker.  When Coroner Carl Sundberg conducted the autopsy on Lauretta he reported that her jaw was swollen and that her lips and tongue were cut.  She had not been raped.  But she had been brutally strangled with one of her husband neckties.  The tie had gouged into her neck.  Lauretta had another tie in her right hand and police discovered it had been cut off cleanly apparently with scissors.  They searched the entire house looking for the missing tip.  It was never located.

Police theorized that someone might have come into the house while Lauretta was out walking her dogs and was there waiting when she returned.  They fought in the living room and Lauretta broke free and made it to the door.  She was then strangled from behind and left there for hours until her husband found her.

Neighbors were questioned. Edwin was interrogated but his alibi of being at work held up.  He told investigators that he had pulled his wife’s car out of the garage for her before he left for work at 7:30 a.m.  Sheriff Kirk King was surprised when five people came forward to state that while they were driving by the home the morning of the murder, they had seen another car in the Lyon’s driveway.  It was described as a 1957 maroon ford.

This case was never solved.  The closest the police came was a few weeks after the murder when there was another attack on a woman.

Charlene O’Brien had finished her shopping at the Colonial Village Mall and walked back to her car.  It was there that 43 year old Sanford Harris forced her into the car and kidnapped her.  She was found 40 hours later, brutally beaten and abandoned along a farmer’s lane near Perryville Road.  Charlene was able to describe her attacker as a middle aged negro man and police quickly picked up Harris.

He was living with his common law wife, Mary Ann Walker.  Walker told police she was 21 but they found out later she was only 15 years old.  Harris was on parole from the state of Michigan.  Harris had killed a 41 year old woman and received a life sentence but was later paroled.

When people were asked to look at Harris and his car, they identified him as being the one they saw around Lauretta’s house the day she was killed.

This story has made the paper several times, always listed as one of the unsolved crimes of this city.  According to the latest article written in the Rockford Register Star in 2007, Rockford had formed a new cold case squad and Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro has a special tie to this case.  Sheriff Lt. Michael Iasparro was his father.  Dominic Iasparro is quoted in the 2007 article.  He states that “There was significant focus on one suspect but there was never enough evidence to charge that one individual.”

It has been 47 years since Lauretta Lyons was killed in her own home.  Almost as much time has passed since her death as she was on this earth.  The chances are very slim now that her killer will ever be brought to justice. Her family must feel a little comfort that she has not been forgotten.  It must bring them a little peace that the torch has been passed from the original officer to his son who has now made it his mission.

 

Copyright © 2020, 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Horrendous Crime Still Lingers In Stateline Memory

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Most people in Northern Illinois wouldn’t have recognized the names Catherine Rekate, Carl A. Reimann, or Betty F. Piche.  But that would change on December 29, 1972.  It was a Friday night and the Christmas lights were still up in the Pine Village Steakhouse and Tavern in Yorkville, Illinois.  The dinner rush had ended and 16 year old Catherine Rekate was finishing her shift as a dishwasher.  Her father, Donald, was already out in the parking lot to give her a ride home.  Catherine had begged her parents to let her get the job only a few weeks before.  She wanted extra money to buy Christmas presents.

There were only a few other people inside the restaurant when Carl A. Reimann walked in with his girlfriend, Betty F. Piche.  The staff knew the couple but one waitress, Harriet thought it odd that Betty was wearing a blonde wig that night. Harriet was working in the back a few moments later when the terrifying sounds of gunfire rang out. She ran out the back door and across the yard to the owner’s house.  Wendell Flint couldn’t quite understand the hysterical girl that pounded on his door that night.  He only understood the words “gunshots fired”.

Catherine’s father, Donald Rekate was an amateur radio buff and he quickly called the police on his scanner when he heard the gunshots.  He was able to give a description of the couple that came running out of the steakhouse. Donald also managed to notice the direction the car headed as it sped away from the parking lot.

Police Officer Richard Randall and owner Wendell Flint arrived at about the same time. They were horrified by the scene.  “There were bodies all over the place.” Flint would state later. Officer Randall would describe it as the most heinous crime scene of his career.  There were three bodies behind the bar and one victim was on the floor in front of the bar.   Another man who tried to flee made it to the dining room before he was shot.

Carl Raimann

Kendall County Coroner, William Dunn would later describe the scene as a “bloody massacre.” Everyone was astonished to find one of the victims clinging to life. John Wilson was a bartender at the restaurant.  He had been shot twice in the head. Though all efforts were made to save him, Wilson succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

The officers’ horror at the brutal scene quickly grew when they realized that there was a couple with two small children hiding under one of the tables near the bar.  They rushed the hysterical family to safety.  The family told officers they had entered the restaurant just as Reimann and Piche were gathering the money from the cash register.  Reimann told them to sit down and not to look at them.  Later police would find out that Reimann had planned to shoot the family but he ran out of ammunition.

Coroner Dunn made his way through the restaurant examining the dead.  The victims were: 35 year old Dave Gardner, who stopped by the restaurant to get his family dinner, Robert Loftus a 48 year old retired Navy Veteran, 73 year old George T. Pashade, a chef at the Pineville for 11 years and 16 year old Catherine Rekate.  One doesn’t even want to think about what was going through Donald’s mind as he waited outside the scene for news about his daughter.

Forty minutes later near the small town of Morris, Illinois a police cruiser spotted the 1959 Chevrolet and pulled it over. Carl A. Reimann still carried the .32 caliber chrome automatic revolver that he had used in the shooting spree. The police were also able to recover the money that was taken. The $500.00 amount seemed too small for the death of five people.

Authorities learned that Reimann had served two years in a Nebraska prison for armed robbery.  He came to live with his mother in Sandwich, Illinois upon his release.  They theorized that maybe this time Reimann decided not to leave any witnesses.

Betty Piche

This crime changed life for everyone in Northern Illinois. People found it hard to believe that the slight, young man could shoot five people in cold blood.  The defense team argued that there was no way that Reimann and Piche would receive a fair trial in Kendall County.  The lawyers won their argument and the case was shifted to Winnebago County.

The week-long trial began in May of 1973.  Seven men and five women listened to all the horrendous details of the crime. It was the first time that the details were released to the public.  Some of the victims had been shot more than once but they had all been killed with shots to the head.

Carl A. Reimann was sentenced to a 50 to 150 year for each of the 5 counts of murder and a 20 to 60 year sentence for the robbery charge. Betty F. Piche was sentenced to serve a 20-60 year term for each of the 5 murders and a 10 to 30 year term for the robbery charge.

This case has continued to gain headlines even though 49 years have passed.  Piche served her sentence and was released in 1983.  She died in 2004. Carl A. Reimann was paroled under a lot of protest in 2018.  In fact, people in the towns where he tried to settle protested three times before the state could find someplace for him to live.

Officer Randall kept in touch with Catherine Rekate’s family through the years. The Rekate family’s greatest fear was that Reimann would be released from prison.  Donald passed away on December 30, 1995, long before Reimann walked free.  Randall remembered that people in Yorkville were grateful for that.  “There is only so much heartache one family can take.”

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Fire And Ice

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

February 15, 1911 was a day that many people in Rockford would remember for a long time. It was an unusual day for a couple of reasons. One, the ice had started to go out on the river about a month early. The winter had been a hard one and there were large pieces of ice that had broken away and started to grind their way downstream. These large ice rafts would get snared on bridges and other things until an ice jam was created. This caused the water behind the ice jam to back up and flood over the banks. The ice jams were so bad in 1911 that the Rockford Republic labeled it the worst year for ice since 1881. Many bridges, small buildings, and docks were destroyed by the flow while the flooding damaged many of the buildings that lined the banks.

City officials decided that the situation had become desperate enough to authorize the ice jams to be blown apart by dynamite. Blasting continued throughout the night of February 14 and 15th. This situation may have contributed to the second reason February 15th would remain in the memories of the all those who lived here during that time.

When an explosion happened at 12:45 a.m. on February 15th, most people mistakenly thought it was the work being done on the river. Of course, the people who lived around the 700 block of Corbin Street knew differently. All of the windows of the house that faced the two storied home at 711 were blown out by the explosion.

Joseph Vitoli, and his wife Rena and their two children had been in bed for hours at the time of the explosion. Rena was on the side of the bed closest to the window. She preferred that side because it made it easier for her to get up in the middle of the night without disturbing Joseph. Rena was eight months pregnant and made frequent trips to the bathroom. Their one year old son Phillipi slept in his parents’ bed cradled in his mother’s arms. Their young daughter had a cot next to the bed.

The bomb was placed on the window sill just two feet from Rena’s head. The next door neighbors, the Giacolone family, heard footsteps in the area between the houses a couple of minutes before the explosion took place. The police later determined that a long fuse had been used to give the bomber ample time to escape before the explosion occurred.

The blast blew inward and the iron head board of the bed was twisted nearly in half. The debris was blown right into Rena’s head and arm, causing extensive damage. One piece of debris ripped through her arm and struck the sleeping child she held. It caused a compound break in the one year old child’s arm. Rena was scalped and her head crushed so badly that everyone who saw her found it unbelievable that she was still alive. The entire family was rushed to the hospital.

Doctors hurried to do what they could for the injured mother but the damage was just too extensive. Joseph stayed by his wife’s side until she took her last breath at 7:15 that night. The reporters of the day stated that Joseph was crushed by the death of his wife. They had been married ten years that February. They left two of their older children behind when they moved from Italy around 1905. The couple spent three years in New York before settling in Rockford.

Authorities struggled right from the beginning with this case. They began with the theory that the dynamite might have been stolen from the efforts to unblock the ice jam but that lead went nowhere.

Unfortunately, during that time, the Italians in Rockford mistrusted the police and refused to talk. This was partly due to the fear of the organization called the Black Hand. From January through March of 1911, there were at least eighteen murders, scores of stabbings, over one hundred bomb explosions, and thousands of dollars reported paid out to black mail rings. All of these crimes were attributed to the men who ran the Black Hand organization in Chicago’s Little Italy. The men would send families warnings that included a black handprint. These warnings included an offer for a type of insurance that would protect these families from becoming victims of the Black Hand. It was an “offer they couldn’t refuse” that would become famous in the later mob organizations that were created. When families wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, bad things would happen to one or all of the members. The Black Hand Crew committed these murders in the most brutal and highly public ways to deter others from refusing payments.

The authorities worked that angle hard as well as looking into the past of both Joseph and Rena, searching for some clue why someone would want this entire family dead. Joseph had been out of work for a time and the family took in some men as boarders. Two of these men had been asked to leave because of their habits of carrying guns and their late hours. Police followed several of these leads but without the assistance of any witnesses and no real physical proof there was little they could do.

Tensions ran high in the days that followed the bombing. Everyone was frightened about further violence and men armed themselves in order to protect their families from danger. It was so bad that during Rena’s funeral at St. Anthony’s Church, Father Marchesano pleaded with everyone to let the authorities do their job and stop any vigilante action. He spoke of the escalating violence in Chicago as the grip of the Black Hand crew tightened there.

Rena’s family laid her to rest in St. Mary and St. James’ Cemetery. Police Chief A.E. Bargen and State’s Attorney Harry B. North were so desperate in this case that they offered a reward for any clue leading to an arrest. This and the fact that Rena was pregnant captured the attention of the nation and the news spread from coast to coast. Unfortunately, no one stepped up to offer any help and the reward was never claimed. The last local article about the case was carried in the May 6, 1945 edition of the Morning Star. What reporter Bill Garson wrote in the article remains true to this day. “The identity of the dark figure who scuttled into the shadows after placing the dynamite bomb on the Vitoli’s window sill is still as shrouded in mystery as it was on the cold February night in 1911.”

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Liberty Of Others – Spanish-American War Heroes

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The Spanish American War has been referred to as the “forgotten war” but for the families of the men who died during that time, it can never be forgotten.

The war took a heavy toll on Winnebago County. It took some of our best and brightest boys. Most of them didn’t die on the battle field. In fact, only one man from here died of injuries received during battle. The others were taken down by diseases that were running rampant in the camps.

The first man from our county to die in the war didn’t even make it to Puerto Rico. He fell ill during training. Charles Almond was only twenty five when he enlisted to join the fight. He still lived at home with his parents, mostly to help take care of his beloved mother. Charles worked at the Ulriel Box Company for over twelve years by the time the call came for men to fight. It was early spring in 1898.

Everyone who knew Charles spoke of his kindness and care he showed for anyone who needed help. He graduated from high school and joined the Rockford Greys, a local military group. Charles was in the Greys for over five years by 1898 and had worked his way up the ranks to First Lieutenant.

Charles marched away to training camp in Chattanooga full of promise. But within weeks, he grew ill like so many of the men. The hospital ward was so full that there were not enough beds to go around. When Charles saw a younger man who was very ill carried in and put on the floor, he told the orderlies to place the boy in his bed. Charles slept on the floor with only a thin blanket.

When Charles fever spiked dangerously high, he became confused and delirious. He kept telling the nurses and doctors that he just wanted to go back to his regiment to be with his men. They decided to place a guard by his bed to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. Private William Severson was assigned to watch over the very ill Charles. But Severson was exhausted and ill himself and he fell asleep. Charles wandered out into the chilly night air and in his weakened state, it proved too much for the young man.

Forty two men under the command of Lieutenant W.H. Sarver from Illinois Company H traveled from Rockford to Chattanooga to accompany Charles Almond’s body home.  They attended a funeral held in the livery barn of the camp before loading Charles’ body on a train.

When the train arrived in Rockford, it was met by 20,000 people at the Illinois Central Depot. The people lined up in a procession that went from the train depot to the Church.

Charles was only 25 years old.  Though Charles was denied a death during battle, Rockford still honored this fallen soldier and the others that followed.

Six other men from our county died during that short war. One, Herman Huffman was the only Rockford man to die of injuries that he received during a battle. He was shot on August 6, 1898 while on duty at Arroyo, Puerto Rico. It was an ambush that occurred while he was on a picket line during heavy fighting at Guayama. Herman would linger for a few days while all of Rockford prayed for his recovery. But the sad news came by telegram. Herman was buried in a national cemetery in Arroyo.

Another young man who was killed in the war had a name more familiar to those in Rockford. William A. Talcott Junior was considered one of our golden boys. His family settled this area early in Rockford’s history. William grew up here, graduated Amherst College and then turned his sights toward law. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1897 and moved to New York City when offered a position in a law office there. William made it all the way through the war and proved himself to be a leader in every way. He was First Lieutenant during the famous charge up San Juan Hill serving under Colonel Dow. When the call came to charge the hill, Dow froze and refused to give the order to his men to fight. Some of the men, including William, knew that they could be seen as defying orders but they charged ahead anyway and helped take the hill.

William was returning from that campaign to Camp Wykoff, Long Island when he fell ill with malaria and dysentery. His parents were at a resort a short distance away when they received the news. His father rushed to William’s side to bring him back for treatment. But because of the quarantine, he was held for eleven days. His father never left his side during that time and would speak later of the feeling of utter helplessness he experienced as he watched his son weaken. William lived long enough to hear that he had gotten the promotion to Second Lieutenant and to see his mother again. He died at Watch Hill in Rhode Island.

His devastated parents brought him home to be buried in the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery where the newspapers stated that his death “cast a gloom over the whole city.”

The other men that were mentioned in the Morning Star article from November 12, 1898 edition were Private Burt Lindell, Private Rinus Nelson, Corporal Luman B. Lillie, and Sergeant Harry Potter. The paper called them the Forest City Boys. All of these men are honored on a plaque at the Veterans Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

No Regard

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

William Sayles was looking forward to the end of his shift on that rainy Saturday. It was August 29, 1931 and William was just about finished with his shift as a conductor for the Interurban railway on School Street. It was 11:30p.m. when William spotted a young man running alongside the car. He brought the car to a stop so that the teenager could climb aboard. William had no way to know that he only had a few minutes to live.

The young man fumbled around in his pockets as though searching for change when suddenly he pulled out a long barreled pistol. He pushed the gun right into William’s face and demanded all of his money. William only had about $13.00 on him but he handed it over willingly. The man ordered the eight passengers to turn over their valuables as well. They gave the man what they had but that only brought his take to $14.00.

The man then commanded the passengers to walk to the rear of the car while he told William to open the doors of the car. The passengers looked on in horror as the young man struck William and then opened fire with his pistol and shot him five times at close range.

The interurban car was parked close to the intersection at School Street and Forest Avenue. The young man left the car and ran to his vehicle parked a block away. He jumped into the car and raced away. He hadn’t gone very far when he wrecked his car on Jefferson Street by Fairgrounds Park. The desperate man, his face now smeared with blood from an injury he received in the accident went door to door to try to gain entrance into a house or an apartment. He was planning to steal a car and kidnap the owner to use as a driver. He finally knocked on Miss Juanita Columbus’s apartment. Juanita and her boyfriend had just returned from a night out and had no idea about the murder that had just taken place a few blocks away.

The man forced them into their car and the three of them drove off into the night. The man directed them to drive into Freeport. Once there, he waited until they were stopped and then he slipped away. The couple immediately drove to the police station. The young bandit was next spotted at a service station. He approached the attendant to ask if they could take the tow truck to the location where the stranger’s car had stalled. The attendant doubted the young man’s story but agreed to tow the car. The attendant had other plans in mind and drove to the nearest police station where the police, alerted by the young couple, arrested the stranger.

The young man was quickly identified as Russell McWilliams. McWilliams was a 17 year old boy who lived in Rockford with his parents. He worked a steady job and as far as anyone knew, had never been in trouble with the law before. Once Russell started talking, police soon realized that this had not been the boy’s first robbery. In fact, McWilliams had been on a six-week crime spree in Rockford. He robbed other interurban cars, stores, and gas stations. When the police discovered that McWilliams held down a steady job with good pay, they asked him why he was committing these crimes. McWilliams shrugged his shoulders and said that he like to buy booze and guns. He also needed money to entertain the women in his life though he wouldn’t share any of their names with police.

The police were stunned that someone so young could be so callous about murdering a man. Sheriff Bell mentioned that McWilliams showed little emotion when notified that he was being arrested for the murder of William Sayles.

In October of 1931, McWilliams was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Everyone was surprised that Judge Arthur E. Fisher would sentence a mere boy to death. Almost immediately protests against the death penalty sprang up. Eventually Chicago juvenile agencies and concerned Rockford citizens joined together and contacted the famous Clarence Darrow, a defender against the death penalty. By 1932, Darrow was staying at the Nelson Hotel in Rockford and gathering facts to defend his client.

The trial was held in Springfield and William Sayles’ widow, Alice attended every day of the trial. Darrow argued that McWilliams could not be held responsible for his actions because he was so young and had come from a rough upbringing. “Given the proper treatment and encouragement, he can be reclaimed into society.” Darrow argued. All that witnessed Darrow’s speech called it “conversational eloquence.”

Illinois Governor Henry Horton agreed with Darrow. He commuted McWilliams sentence to 99 years to be served at Joliet Penitentiary. In a sense, Russell McWilliams proved Clarence Darrow right. He learned to grow flowers and vegetables while in prison. McWilliams was released in 1950 after serving 19 years of his 99 year sentence. He was issued an out of state release. McWilliams moved to Massachusetts where he married and grew orchids.

The newspapers from the day covered the story and spoke of all the young men that Clarence Darrow had saved from death row. Some of the newspapers shared the stories of those left behind by those young men who killed. The Rockford Register Republic wrote an article in December of 1932 that spoke of Alice Sayles’ grief. While others considered Darrow’s win of the McWilliams case a victory for human rights, Alice had received a life sentence of her own.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events