When Oscar Olson died in December of 1910, many Swedish friends and family mourned the young man. Oscar was well known and liked by the Rockford’s close knit Swedish Community. He was a carpenter by trade and from all accounts quite a good one.
Oscar went to Minnesota in the fall of 1910 to visit an uncle. He stayed six weeks or so before traveling to the Northern woods of Wisconsin. It was just before Christmas when the news reached Rockford that young Oscar had been struck and killed by a train in Minneapolis.
Though, as one can imagine, identification was made nearly impossible by the nature of the accident, someone identified Oscar and he was buried there in the local cemetery. The news of Oscar’s accident was reported in the paper and also wrote up in the Tribunen, a weekly Swedish paper. Many of the Swedes in Rockford had subscriptions to the Tribunen so the news made its way from Minneapolis quite quickly. The articles were quite lengthy about the accident so no one had any reason to doubt the stories.
So when rumors started to swirl that Oscar was seen walking around in Rockford, it made the good folks of Rockford very confused. Some even reported that the young man had returned from the grave. Though some of the most respectable Swedes would not listen to these stories they soon spread throughout the city.
By April 21, 1911 the truth was finally revealed. Oscar though reported dead and buried in the little cemetery outside of Minneapolis was alive and well. It seemed that it was a simple case of mistaken identity.
Oscar Olson’s relatives knew that he was in Wisconsin but couldn’t verify that fact immediately. Eventually Oscar was shown copies of the newspapers reporting his demise. It seemed that Oscar possessed a great sense of humor about the whole thing. He decided to return to Rockford and clear up the misunderstanding in person. He got quite a laugh about people’s reactions when he showed up on their doorstep!
Oscar later expressed surprise that some people took so much convincing before they would believe that he was really alive. It was much easier for his neighbors to believe that his ghost was wandering the streets of Rockford!
David Benjamin and his wife, Frances were much like everyone else that settled in the early town of Guilford, Illinois. Their parents moved here to make a better life for their families. Both families made their living by farming. When David and Frances took their wedding vows on March 19, 1861, they must have believed that their lives would mirror their parents. The birth of their son, Charlie in December of 1861 was celebrated by both of the families.
But 1861 was a turbulent time for our country and the Civil War, though fought many miles from Rockford, would invade on David and Frances’ dreams for their family.
On August 15, 1862 David was 23-years old and he enlisted in the 74th Illinois Infantry here in Rockford. His enlistment papers describe him as 5’ 11” with brown hair and blue eyes. One can only imagine what was going through David’s thoughts as he said goodbye to Frances and Charlie.
After training, David’s regiment was sent to Nashville, Tennessee to serve under General Grant. Grant chose William Stark Rosecrans to lead the regiment along with several others.
At the end of 1862, Rosecrans would be the commander of the Army of the Cumberland after Grant sent him to replace Don Carlos Buell. They were sent in to halt Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee advance. The Battle of Stone’s River was fierce and the casualties were many. The battle raged for five days with the most intense fighting from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863.
The battle would later be second only to Gettysburg for its high casualty percentage. The National Park Service’s website about the battle claims that 24,000 men from the original 81,000 that fought that day were casualties. The page also lists the rate of several other major battles. Gettysburg had a 31% casualty rate and Stones River was 29%.
Rosecrans would be considered the victor of the battle but at a heavy cost. David Benjamin was one of the casualties. The records only list that David died on February 10, 1863 from wounds he received in the battle. David was buried in the cemetery at Stone’s River Cemetery.
Frances must have been devastated at the loss of her young husband. She now faced raising her son on her own as she tried to hold on to the farm that she and David had built. Frances was fortunate to have her family so close. Her father and brothers would help work the land while her mother and sisters pitched in with the house and the care of Charlie. She would hold on to the dream that she and David had for their family.
But fate would step in once again. Little Charlie had taken ill and though everyone around her was hopeful, Frances was filled with fear. Those fears were realized on May 10, 1963 when Charlie died.
Frances’ heart broke for the second time in 3 short months. It was a blow from which Frances would not recover. She died on March 9, 1864 and was buried next to her son at Greenwood Cemetery. Though David was buried many miles away on Tennessee, he is listed on the tombstone for Frances and Charlie.
All that is left of the hopes and dreams of this family is the obelisk shaped tombstone that Frances’ family had built for them.
When Everett Hawley said goodbye to his wife Etha on February 19, 1976, they had no way of knowing that the day would not go according to plan. Everett usually spent part of his day with his business partner, Clarence Owens. The two men worked together for years buying and selling real estate. Everett owned the company and the two friends would spend their time driving the back roads of northern Illinois looking for farms to buy and sell. Everett told his wife that he would return around 5:00p.m. The 70-year old Etha was struggling with medical issues and Everett usually helped out with the meals and chores. Everett was 72 in 1976 and blessed with relatively good health. The couple had been married for 47 years and Everett was from all accounts, completely devoted to his wife.
On that Thursday morning, Clarence picked Everett at his Stockton home up in his newly painted car. The 1966 Chevrolet Impala had been painted bright gold and Clarence was excited to show it off. The two men were headed to Pecatonica where they planned to attend a political rally at the American Legion. James Thompson was hoping to be elected for governor of Illinois that year and the two men were curious about a candidate who would add the little town of Pecatonica as a campaign stop.
After the rally, the men walked over to one of their regular stops, Rocky’s Café for a piece of pie and some coffee. They lingered there a while before heading to Clarence’s son’s house. Clarence wanted to show him the new paint job, too.
Clarence’s son was not home but the men spoke briefly with Clarence’s daughter –in-law. The two men mentioned that they were going to stop at a local auction on their way to an appraisal appointment. The two men loved to visit auctions and always had cash on hand just in case they saw a good bargain. The auctioneer at the Borgmann’s farm auction would state later that he saw Everett walk up the drive-way while Clarence waited in the car. He also mentioned that both men were dressed in their usual attire of business suits. Since the February day was unusually warm, they had light over coats instead of their heavier jackets. The auctioneer would be the last person that could be verified to have seen the two men. After they drove away from the Borgmann Farm, Everett and Clarence seemed to disappear into thin air.
This case would quickly become the most baffling mystery that anyone could remember. The police were contacted the next morning by the families when the men hadn’t returned home. The authorities tried to reassure the families that the men probably had been involved in a car accident or some other scenario that incapacitated their car. They fully expected to find the men, probably embarrassed, but unharmed. The authorities began their search following the routes that the men were known to use.
Their theories changed rapidly as the case unfolded and no clues were found. Both men had families; Everett had one son and Clarence had three, including one who served as a police officer. They quickly became a driving force for an expanded search. It reached record numbers as various departments from different jurisdictions worked together to organize the search. The Civil Defense units joined the authorities to bring in man power to help with the ground search. They also arranged five airplanes to help scan the many miles of roadways between the men’s homes and where they were last seen.
The authorities expanded their proposed scenario of an accident to include the men either running away or being victims of foul play. They looked into every aspect of the men’s lives to see if someone would have a motive to harm either of them.
They were left with an impression of men who were hard working and dedicated to their families. Many of the people interviewed were upset by the thought that either of these men would abandon their families. They spoke of Clarence’s love of his sons and Everett’s dedication to his son and Etha.
The authorities also learned that men were popular with the farmers and the auctioneers they conducted business with. They had no known enemies and no one could think of a motive for their disappearance. Though the authorities worked the case from many angles, they were left with no avenues to explore.
Etha Hawley died shortly after the first year anniversary of her husband’s disappearance. Some of their family members and friends, who were still hoping that Everett was alive, lost that hope after her funeral. They believed that he would have returned for his beloved wife’s funeral.
In one of the last articles written about the case in 2005, the reporter spoke of a theory that had circulated about the case. In May of 1976, Fred Lickel, a cashier clerk from a farm auction had been kidnapped after the sale was finished. William Exline from Rockford had taken the cashier hostage and stolen the money collected from the sale (reportedly $85,000 in cash and checks). Exline forced the man at gunpoint to drive his company car away from the farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. The man was unharmed but badly shaken when Exline dropped him by the side of the road. Exline was later questioned about the incident after a tip was called into the Green County Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department involved the FBI because Exline crossed state lines during the commission of the crime. Though Exline denied any involvement with the kidnapping, the cashier’s company car was found on the property of a campground that was owned by Exline near New Milford. Exline would later be convicted to ten years in prison for the crime.
The newspaper article emphasized the similarities between the Monroe case and the disappearance of Owens and Hawley. During the research for this story, this author interviewed others who shared the belief that these two cases were related. The authorities involved in the 1976 kidnapping case also noted the similarities but no arrests were ever made.
In fact, no clues or crime scene has ever been found in the case. There was never any activity in either of the men’s bank accounts or any other indication that they left their families willingly. Clarence’s shiny, gold car was never found. The case is now 43 years old and hasn’t been mentioned in the newspapers for a while now. The authorities assigned to this case have long since retired or passed away themselves. Some granted interviews stating that this was one of the cases that continued to haunt them long after they retired. It was inconceivable that these two men could disappear without a trace or without someone coming forward with a tip. They spoke of failing both of these families by not being able to return their loved ones or at least give them the comfort of knowing of what happened to Clarence and Everett on that February day.
Anyone with information is urged to call the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Police Detective Bureau at (815) 319-6400 or Crime Stoppers (815) 963-7867.
Memorial Day was set aside to remember and honor those men and women who have died during their service to the United States Military. It became an official holiday in 1868. This area has always been filled with many men and women who joined the fight to protect this country in our times of need. Even before Illinois became a state, we had those who have bravely stood up when the call went out.
Some of those brave men fought in one of the first recorded battles in this area in 1832 during what would become known as the Black Hawk War. Some of the men involved have names that most would recognize including two that would become presidents, Zachary Taylor and Abraham Lincoln.
Black Hawk was a leader of the Sauk tribe in the early 1800’s. He joined the British during the War of 1812 after they made promises to protect the Native Americans land if they helped defeat the Americans. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, the British lost that war and retreated, leaving them to face the consequences.
Black Hawk’s tribe had been using the Rock River Valley for generations. They usually summered in the Rock River Valley and grew corn and other crops before heading across the Mississippi into Iowa for the winter. But that all changed in 1804 when some members of the Fox tribe met with William Henry Harrison and signed a treaty that turned over millions of acres of Native American land to the government. Black Hawk was infuriated by this act and though he eventually signed the treaties, he never trusted that the white man would honor them.
When Black Hawk’s tribe returned to their summer home in 1831 at the mouth of the Rock River (down around Rock Island, Illinois) they were met with an unpleasant surprise. White settlers had disregarded the boundaries set up by the treaties and claimed the land for themselves.
The settlers grew uneasy with the Native Americans return and called for action by Governor John Reynolds. He ordered the army to round up a militia of volunteers to protect the area for the settlers. By the time the regiment arrived in the area, Black Hawk had moved his people back across the Mississippi. The militia hoped to deter the tribe from returning by burning their village.
Black Hawk’s people tried to live off the land in Iowa but his people were struggling for food. He felt he had no choice but to return to Illinois where he knew they could grow the crops they would need to make it through the winter. He rounded up 700 warriors and tried to recruit other tribes to stand with him. Historians point out that they don’t believe Black Hawk really wanted a war because he also brought women and children.
The white settlers were even more frightened with their return and once again Reynolds called for volunteers. This time over 1,800 men signed up. These men, joined by the regular army all met at Dixon’s Ferry (the current day Dixon.)
Two brigades (totally about 275 men) under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman left to search the area called Old Man’s Creek the site of the present day Stillman’s Valley. They set out on May 13, 1832 hoping to meet up with the Native Americans and convince them to return to Iowa. Historians who have studied this mission say that the leaders of these brigades made two tactical errors. One, was the camp was set up with their backs to the creek and the second was that they brought a lot of whiskey. Some of the men’s hatred for the Native Americans had been fueled by that liquor. They incited others with stories of women and children butchered and mutilated by the “savages”.
Black Hawk saw the men march into the valley and set up camp. He was severely outnumbered and he had to know that a battle with the better armed soldiers would be futile. Black Hawk later told the story of the battle in his autobiography, “Black Hawk: An Autobiography”. He stated that he knew that the White Men were fierce fighters who were deadly aims with their rifles. He stated that he was shocked when he realized that some of the men were drunk.
Black Hawk sent four unarmed braves bearing a white flag in toward the militia encampment. After the devastating result of this day, some men would claim that the whole Black Hawk War could have avoided except for the actions of a few of the men. Those men, whether spurred on by the whiskey or by the horror stories, opened fire on the four braves, killing two immediately. Black Hawk saw what was happening and moved forward to protect his men.
Black Hawk’s warriors knew they were outnumbered and that they needed to make their small band of 40 seem like much more. They rode into the grove of willows whooping and slamming their tomahawks into the trees. Some even made death moans to make it seem like many of the white men were being killed.
This created chaos in the encampment. Soldiers and volunteers alike broke camp, cutting their horse’s bridles free as they leaped on their backs. The scene of the battle spread out over the once quiet area for miles as the brigades struggled to out run the attack.
Captain John Adams saw the panicked men flee and called for his men to stand with him. Some of the men from his regiment fell into line next to him. These men fired on the warriors slowing down their attack long enough to allow the retreating men to escape.
The retreating men were so frightened that they didn’t slow their horses until they had ridden all the way back to Dixon Ferry. Some didn’t stop until they reached their own homes, one made it all the way to Galena before stopping. Those that returned to Dixon Ferry reported the attack and another brigade, this one including Abraham Lincoln quickly left for the battle scene.
The reinforcement brigade quickly turned into a funeral brigade. By the time they reached hill top, they could see bodies. Captain Adams and eight of his men lay on the hill top. All of them had been horribly mutilated. All of the men on the hill were buried in one mass grave. Three others were found in the surrounding area and buried where they fell. One man’s grave located many years later and he was reburied with his fellow soldiers at the top of the hill. The other two have been searched for but so far have eluded discovery.
One witness to the battle shared a very moving story. A young soldier named Corporal James Milton was riding his horse to protect some of the men who were trying to escape. James noticed one older militia member struggling to keep up with the others. This man had been running away but became completely exhausted. James slid from his saddle and gave his horse to the man. The funeral brigade came upon James’ body next to the dead bodies of two Native Americans. James had been mutilated, his head scalped.
The other men that died that day:
Captain John G. Adams
Private Tyrus M. Childs
Private James Doty
Private Joseph Draper
Corporal Bird W. Ellis
Private James B. Farris
Private David Kreeps
Private Zadoc Mendinall
Private Major Isaac Perkins
Sgt. John Walters
The hill was soon given the name “Massacre Hill” and the story of what happened there faded in people’s memories. The land was owned by Dr. E. P Allen until 1899 when he decided to sell it. The county realizing what would be lost, purchased the land to set aside for a monument to the men who died there. In 1902, a 50 foot monument was finally built to honor those men who died that day.
There is no monument to the Native Americans who were also lost that day. But I think that Abraham Lincoln’s words that were sent to Lydia Bixby (a widow who lost five sons in the Civil War) are fitting for all who have lost family members during any battle since this country began.
“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
–Nov. 21, 1864
The Little Spring Creek winds its way through Whiteside County near the small town of Coleta. The creek has been drawing people to its banks for many years. The area once hosted hay rides through the woods along the creek for families to enjoy.
When three teenage boys began their hike alongside the Little Spring Creek on April 15, 1995, they were probably hoping to find something exciting in the woods. They had no way of knowing that their hike would begin a story that is still unsolved 24 years later.
The boys were hiking along the bank and came to a part of the creek where tree branches had built up. They spotted what appeared to be a leg in the water. At first, they believed it to be part of a plastic mannequin, so one of the boys decided to check. One can only imagine his horror when he discovered it was flesh and bone. The boys raced to Milledgeville to report the gruesome find.
Police descended on the area and 18 hours after the first discovery, they had found the other leg, two arms and a torso. The body had been mutilated and at first, police could not identify whether it was a male or female. State pathologists were called to help.
The sleepy little town of Coleta was soon over run with police and visitors who flocked to glimpse where the body was discovered. The town population was only 150 at the time but police later stated that at least another 150 people came to see the location on the Sunday following the discovery.
Almost a week after the initial parts were discovered the authorities finally found the victim’s head. It was inside a plastic bag and weighted down by rocks in 4 feet of water. Though badly decomposed, the police were hopeful that identification could be made. Whiteside County Sheriff Roger Schipper was quoted in the paper, “This was a very disturbed person-someone very angry –and by doing this they thought they wouldn’t get caught.” Schipper believed that the victim had been killed somewhere else and dumped into the fast moving creek. The creek’s current was running so quickly at the time that the body could have been transported for miles.
He also had a theory that whoever had killed Kimberly knew the area of Little Spring Creek well.
Authorities agreed stating that the area was remote and that “most people from Rockford would never even know it (the creek) was here.”
Whiteside County Coroner Joe McDonald autopsied the body and noticed that the victim had received major dental work. He was hopeful that the distinctive work, including a ceramic tooth would help identify the victim. McDonald was unable to find the cause of death because of the advanced state of decomposition and the mutilation to the body.
The body was soon identified as 27 year old Kimberly Mabry. Her family had reported her missing from Rockford in September 1994. Because of Kimberly’s life style the family did not realize she had been missing until September 23. The last time anyone could remember seeing Kimberly was around September 1.
Kimberly once had the promise of a brighter future far away from where bad decisions and circumstances beyond her control led her. She had graduated from high school, spent two years at Rock Valley College and had dreams of opening her own design and marketing business. Friends spoke of her amazing natural artistic talent. They also spoke of her love for her young son.
Somewhere along the line, Kimberly’s world became dark. She struggled with a chronic painful diagnosis of lupus which caused her to become depressed. She lost her dreams of building her own business and worked as a go-go dancer at Dancer’s Lounge on 7th Street. Then Kimberly lost custody of her little boy. Friends and family said she spoke often of getting him back.
Kimberly was last seen as she left an appointment on September 1. She seemed very anxious and afraid on that day. By the time police received the missing persons report over three weeks had passed. That is a lot of time to make up in a case like this. Police officers interviewed friends and family to establish when she was last seen. They even took the unorthodox approach of appealing to the people who frequented the seedier establishments in the city. They questioned dancers, prostitutes, drug dealers and even the homeless people trying to get someone to come forward who might have seen something. But the case went cold early on.
Police haven’t given up on the case and Kimberly’s name appears on several websites for cases of unsolved murders and missing people. One only has to visit one of these websites to see how daunting the task of solving her murder has been. Hundreds of names fill each website and it is heart wrenching to see the victims faces and read their stories knowing that their families will never receive the justice they deserve.
But hopefully Kimberly’s family can take some small comfort that authorities were able to find her and bring her home. She was buried next to family in Scandinavian Cemetery.
Twenty four years have passed since those three boys went for their hike on that remote creek miles away from Rockford. Authorities still remain hopeful that maybe someone who knows something about Kimberly’s case will step forward. They ask that anyone with any information please contact Whiteside County Sheriff’s Lt. John Booker at 815-772-4044 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Those wishing to remain anonymous can call Crimestoppers at 815-625-7867.
Susan Ilsley was very concerned on the evening of June 3, 1858. The torrential rains that started to fall around 5:00 p.m. that day were still raging by 10:00 p.m. She knew her husband Horatio was also worried though of course, he didn’t show it. As a pastor, he was always the first to calm everyone else’s fears.
The couple considered themselves lucky to live in a two story home made from brick. It was the fact that it was built right on the banks of the North Kinninick Creek that had them concerned. Horatio had discussed his fears about the family’s safety with Susan and the couple made plans to spend the night with friends that lived up the road further from the creek. But two of their neighbors stopped in for a chat and mentioned that creek had actually dropped a few inches. The men calmed Horatio’s fears and continued on to their own homes.
The couple made the decision to remain in their home and wait out the storm. They gathered their family into the living room for evening prayers. Horatio began by giving thanks for the safe return home of their oldest son Horatio Junior. The 17-year old had a job at a bank in Milwaukee and was home for the first time in almost a year. Horatio also asked God for protection for the members of his congregation that lived in the houses nearest the waterways.
The Ilsley’s were from Maine originally but moved to Dixon first before settling in Roscoe. Reverend Ilsley was a pastor at the Congregational Church in Roscoe and well liked in the little community. He was 48 years old in 1858. Horatio told many that knew him that he felt very blessed. He had his wonderful Susan and the children were all very bright and healthy. Horatio had impressed many of his congregation with his generosity, his faith and his courage. He had suffered a severe accident that would have killed a lesser man. The fact that one of his legs was amputated due to the accident didn’t seem to slow him down at all.
As the rain continued to fall that stormy June evening, Horatio couldn’t know that upstream from his little house a bad situation was about to turn deadly. When the railroad was put in, the company formed a culvert over a creek by building up the bank. The water had backed up in the creek to form a lake that continued to grow as the rain fell. Eventually the culvert gave way taking one hundred and fifty feet of the bank with it. This caused a great wave of water to crash down the creek, overflowing its banks and grabbing debris in its wake.
Susan put the children to bed right before the culvert broke. Horatio was down in his study when he heard the first roar. He had no idea the culvert had broken and was confused to what the sound was at first. He was standing in the hallway when the wall of the back of the house began to crumble. The last sound he heard was his wife’s scream.
The water hit the house with such an impact it wiped the house from its foundation and carried it down stream. The water tumbled the house over and over, crushing it and sweeping the debris along with it. Horatio felt himself swept up by the water and knew instantly what happened. His last thought before losing consciousness was to turn his and his family’s lives to God’s will.
Horatio woke later and found himself still in the raging waters. There was debris from several houses tangled up with trees and brush along the banks. Horatio was able to grab one of the tree branches as he was swept by.
He would cling to that tree for two hours before being rescued. A group of his neighbors spotted him in the tree. They tied a rope to one brave man who swam to save Horatio. Horatio’s strength failed just as the man reached him and he dropped from the branch. The man almost lost his own life as he scrambled to save Horatio. Later Horatio would state that he wished the man had failed in his rescue.
Horatio lost his entire family that night. All eight of his children and his wife were carried away by the rushing waters. His family of four girls and four boys ranging from the oldest, Horatio who was 17 to baby Charles who was just 6 months old, were gone. Susan and the children are buried together in the Roscoe Cemetery on the other side of town from where the house once stood. The site of all the small white tombstones next to the memorial gives one pause, especially when one notices that they contain the same death date.
Horatio left the area and returned to Maine. He married a woman named Ellen and had a daughter named Henrietta. According to his obituary from 1890, Horatio never lost his faith in God and remained “warm hearted, and a good minister.”
Forty one years ago, on September 27, 1977, 17-year old Louise Betts was dropped off near a shopping mall by her mother, Nancy. No one would ever see Louise alive again. When Louise didn’t come home, her parents called the police to report her missing. They could have no idea that the odyssey that began that day would continue for the rest of their lives.
The authorities filed a missing person report and followed up with a few of Louise many friends. Louise was a popular senior at Harlem High School that year. But at this time in our city’s past, 100 to 150 people were reported every month. Most of these missing people were found alive and safe. The police received reports that Louise was spotted at a local party and even seen in Texas were her grand-parents lived.
Sadly, those sightings were incorrect.
Art Hyland was 62 years old in 1978 and he owned a farm not far from the intersection of Spring Brook and Paulson Roads. Hyland was stunned when he discovered a skeleton in his field on March 30, 1978. Newspaper articles form the day of the discovery quoted Hyland. “After I saw something yellow in the field, I investigated and found the body. It really shook me up.” Hyland went on to say that Louise’s body had probably been covered up by snow.
When the police were summoned to Hyland’s property they found a bundle of clothing with identification inside. The long search for Louise had come to an end.
Though Louise’s body had been found in Boone County, the Rockford police department quickly became involved. Within a few days, they had a suspect for Louise’s murder in custody. He was Curtis J. Brownell, a 23-year-old who was married and the father of two children. An anonymous tip had led authorities to Brownell. Brownell was also wanted for the kidnap and rape of a pregnant woman that occurred on January 31, 1978. This crime had taken place only a half a mile from where Louise’s body was located.
The victim from that crime reported that she was at a laundry mat in the Rural Street Shopping center when Brownell entered. He was there a few minutes before he approached her. He hit her in the head with a pistol, forced her into his vehicle and headed to Paulson Road. After assaulting the woman, Brownell pushed her out of the car. The woman was helpless as Brownell then ran over the lower half of her body. Miraculously, the snow cushioned the young woman’s body and she was able to flee toward safety at a nearby house.
Brownell later confessed to both crimes. When speaking of the crime against Louise, Brownell said that he thought she might still alive when he left her lying in that field. The feeling grew when nothing was reported. Brownell stated that he was terrified at first but when the body wasn’t found, he began to think he might have gotten away with it. He told authorities he had even driven out to the location with his young daughter in the car to check the area.
When the Louise was found, he knew that it was all over. He confessed to his reverend and then his wife.
During his trial, other victims came forward and it became all too clear that Brownell had all the makings of what we would now call a serial rapist and killer.
Curtis Brownell was found guilty of the murder of Louise Betts in a Boone County Courthouse on September 14, 1978. One psychiatrist that testified stated that Curtis J. Brownell “could not identify with the human race.”
Brownell was sentenced to die in the electric chair on October 9, 1978.
But that’s not what happened. Brownell’s attorneys appealed and he was eventually sentenced to 200 to 600 years in prison. Now, because of the way the laws worked back then, Brownell is eligible for parole. He has been up for parole 14 times at this point. Every one of those times, the survivors, the prosecutors and the remaining family members of Louise have attended the parole hearings.
Louise’s parents are both gone now, but her siblings have taken over their parent’s mission to keep Brownell locked away. They have been able to keep the case in the public’s eye for all these years. But it does take a toll. They have shared that it is like opening a wound and losing Louise all over again.
The family can’t do it alone and they are very grateful to the Winnebago and Boone County State’s Attorneys who have gone with them to these hearings.
This week on February 13, Curtis J. Brownell will appeal to the parole board for the 15th time. Winnebago County State’s Attorney, Marilyn Hite Ross and Boone County State’s Attorney Tricia Smith plan to attend this year’s hearing and ask that people in both counties sign the petition to deny that parole. There is some concern that because he has served over 40 years of his sentenced, that he will be released.
Gary Betts, Louise brother was quoted in a recent article. ” It’s one thing to know the family is passionate, but to see the community involved also makes a profound statement to (parole board members),” .
Rockford has come through already with over 6,000 people signing the online petition. But there is still time to add to that number.
Looking back on the history of Crime Stoppers of Rockford
It has been almost forty years since the Rockford Area Crime Stoppers was formed in 1981. Former Police Chief Delbert Peterson began to develop the program in March of 1980. Though the stories vary on how Peterson learned of the program, he was intrigued by the thought of a program that united the police department, the local media and the community in order to fight crime. Rockford was the second city in the nation to adopt the program and it was quickly considered to one of the best of its kind. The Police Department rolled out the new program on January 1, 1981.
The program’s first coordinator was Charlie Jackson who was a Rockford and Winnebago County Officer. He was interviewed for a newspaper article to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the program. Jackson told of the first case solved in December of 1980, before the program even officially launched. The tip was for a man who had murdered someone in Virginia during 1979. That man, Robert Lee Word had fled Virginia and settled here in Rockford. Jackson turned the information in to the FBI and Word was arrested immediately.
Another crime that was solved with help from Crime Stoppers was the horrendous murder of Ethel Safford. Ethel had married into the well-known family of the Safford’s on December 2, 1925 when she became Mrs. Clyde Safford. The family is remembered today with a road named for it on the west side. The couple bought a two-story wooden house at 1511School Street shortly after their wedding. Clyde worked as a carpenter and Ethel worked at the D.J. Stewart Store in downtown Rockford. They would live in the home on School Street for the rest of their lives. Clyde and Ethel were members of the Second Congregational Church in downtown Rockford and it was that church that brought her comfort when she became a widow in June of 1967. Though the neighborhood had begun to change, Ethel continued to live in the home right up to her 90th birthday.
Her neighbors watched over the elderly woman who by 1983 was nearly deaf and blind. Ethel referred to herself as the “Old lady on School Street”. Later, her friends and neighbors would remember her for her wonderful sense of humor and for her kindness toward everyone. Ethel was described as never having met a stranger and folks spoke of her generosity and general belief in the goodness of people.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, two men broke into Ethel’s house. Authorities were called to Ethel’s home by her neighbor Alderman Melvin Anderson. Anderson had stopped in to check on Ethel and was horrified to find her face down in the dining room of her home. The elderly woman had been savagely beaten and had a tablecloth tied around her neck. It seemed a miracle that she was still alive. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for Ethel and she lingered for five days before succumbing to her injuries.
The neighbor who found her, Alderman Anderson was also the one who contacted Crime Stoppers and started to raise a reward to offer for tips leading to the arrest of Ethel’s killers. Anderson spoke of one man who came to donate his last $5.00. The man told Anderson he had been out of work for the past four months but that the news of Ethel’s murder touched him and he felt compelled to help. Anderson took the money and assured the man that every bit would help bring Ethel’s killers to justice.
Those donations would later lead to the arrest of 26 year old, Ivory Smith and his step brother, Charles Kidd. Smith lived on Hinkley Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Ethel. Authorities received Smith’s name in one of the anonymous tips. Both men were arrested just a couple of days after Ethel died. Ivory Smith would later be convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison while Charles Kidd was sentenced to life. Police stated later that without Crime Stoppers, Ethel’s murder might not have been solved. That was also said about another murder that took place on October 24, 1984 in the 400 block of Island Avenue. This incident, which was at the time called the most violent incident locally since the Simon Peter Nelson murders, horrified the entire community.
The Winnebago County Coroner at the time was John Seward and he would state that a strange sense of déjà vu overcame him as he first stepped into the scene of the crime. This feeling was no doubt brought about by the bodies of Betty Moore, 29 and her 8-year-old son, Jesse. Two more victims were stabbed but would live to testify about the terrible events that brought about the attacks. Peggy was a friend of the family and had spent the evening with Betty and her three children before falling asleep. She was awakened by someone pounding on the door at around 10:30 p.m.. Though Peggy was uncertain whether Betty had let the man inside or not, she was able to give the agonizing details of what had taken place. The man began yelling for money and drugs and when Betty didn’t answer him, the man began to stab her. He attacked Peggy next, stabbing and slashing at her before she broke away and ran out of the door. Peggy ran a couple of blocks to her sister’s house and they phoned the police. The man next attacked 8-year-old Jesse who police suspected tried to protect his mother from a further attack. The coroner reported that Jesse had defensive wounds on his hands and arms. The man also slashed at Jesse’s 9-year-old sister before she escaped and hid under a bed. He left after stabbing both Jesse and Betty five times in the chest.
Everyone in the community was stunned by the senseless crime. Jesse attended school at King Elementary and his fellow classmates and teachers were hit particularly hard with the news of the little boy’s murder. Children were frightened and confused by the murder of someone their own age. No one felt safe.
Hundreds of tips flooded the police department and one of these would lead to a quick arrest. Richard Kilpatrick was arrested five days after the killings. He showed no remorse for his actions even as the judge sentenced him to life with no parole.
These are just two of the crimes that would not have been solved without the help of Crime Stoppers. The program has won many awards and continues to help solve some of the worst cases in our county. I was contacted by one of the men who founded this organization so many years ago. In our interview it was obvious that though he was not involved in the Police or Sheriff’s Department and called himself “just a businessman” that he carried great pride for the assistance that he and others like him were able to offer our community. He asked me not to use his name but stated that he believed that Crime Stoppers made a difference when it was implemented and he believed that even today if more people would understand that they could remain completely anonymous and just come forward, we could make Rockford a better place to live. He emphasized that is what he valued most about Crime Stoppers, “Everyone can make a difference in making Rockford a safer place to live.”
The Crime Stoppers has a website that is filled with information about unsolved crimes and how members of the community can help. Please visit http://www.rockfordcrimestoppers.com/ for more information.
Edward Boomer was only 13 years old when the Civil War started. He tried to convince his parents, John and Margaret, that he was old enough to go fight in this war, but they asked him to wait. Edward did as they asked until 1863 when he finally was able to convince them to let him enlist. Edward Boomer was hired as a mule team driver but soon picked up a rifle to help defend his country. During the winter months of 1863-64 he was a guard stationed in Nashville.
By the spring of 1864, Edward had fought in his first skirmishes. War matures a man quickly they say and though a mere boy when he joined by January of 1865, Edward was a seasoned soldier. During that month while fighting with the Wisconsin 13th Infantry, Edward was captured at Paint Rock, Alabama. He was escorted to one of the prison camp at Cahabe, Alabama. Luckily for Edward, it had the lowest mortality rate of all the Confederate Prisons. It still contained disease, little food and inadequate shelter. In fact, the old cotton warehouse had been converted to house 500 prisoners. By the time Edward arrived at the camp, the prison population was around 3,000 men.
Edward would spend the rest of the war in the horrible conditions at the prison. He was captured in with 35 men from his regiment. Only 8 of the men survived their imprisonment.
On his way back to Rockford, Edward was spared from death again when he was chosen to ride with other men on the steam ship “Henry Ames”. It was traveling up the Mississippi River with another ship, the Sultana. The Sultana sank from a mysterious explosion, killing 1,950 soldiers on board.
Edward always felt himself blessed for making it through the war when so many of his fellow soldiers did not. He slowly regained his health and returned to the family’s farm business. In 1870, he met a beautiful young lady Celinda Weatherhead whose family lived in the nearby town of Harrison. They were married for 52 years when Celinda passed away April 1922 and Edward buried his beloved wife in the little North Burritt Cemetery.
Edward suffered with a weak heart and his health declined after Celinda’s death. But he did not let that slow him down. In December, one of his favorite musicians came to Rockford and Edward decided he would join his family to hear the Scottish singer, Sir Harry Lauder at the Shrine Temple. His daughter and son in law attended the concert as well as Edward’s son Jay. Edward was singing along with Sir Lauder and had just finished a lively tune when he closed his eyes and bent his head. His daughter thought he had tired himself out and needed a rest. But in reality, Edward passed away just as his favorite song came to an end. Edward’s funeral was held at the Veterans Memorial Hall in Rockford and he joined Celinda in the little cemetery near their home.
Edward and Celinda passed on many things to their large family. Both were considered to be hard-working, very generous and extremely proud of their community. They also were very patriotic and dedicated to their community. Their son, Stanley would serve in the World War I and their grandson, John L. Boomer would fight in World War II.
John L. (referred to as Lynn by his friends and family) was born in 1919 and had very few memories of his grandparents. He was one of five children born to Stanley and Bessie. Lynn worked as a truck driver and traveled all over the country for his job. No one who knew Lynn was surprised when the call went out for men to fight in World War II and Lynn decided to enlist right away.
He joined the 91st Bombardment Squadron and was sent to Mississippi to train to be a waste gunner inside a B-17. The 91st Bomb Group was made famous by the movie “Memphis Belle”. It suffered the greatest number of casualties of any bomber group that fought in the war.
Stanley and Bessie were very proud of their son for doing his duty but they also must have been frightened when Lynn was sent to Europe. The 8th Air Force was based at RAF Bassingbourn and would fly an amazing 340 bombing missions during the war. In October 1942, the unit was scheduled for a very important mission. The ten plane formation was assigned to bomb the German U-boat base in St. Nazaire, France.
The mission began well but soon was under fire by German Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft. These single engine aircraft were considered the best fighters in the air during the entire war. They were also considered lethal by our forces. A s Lynn’s squadron struggled to reach their target, they took heavy fire from the German planes. The fighting grew more intense as they neared the targets.
Lynn’s plane was hit several times and the pilot made the difficult decision to turn back toward the sea. Three other planes made the same decision and flew in formation with Lynn’s plane. The plane had sustained too much damage and soon lost an engine. The plane could no longer keep up with the others, and the pilot signaled for them to continue without them. The men in the other planes signaled back and continued on, knowing that they would never see the men again.
Though no sign of Lynn’s plane was ever found, it was theorized that the crew would have been forced to land at sea around thirty miles northwest of St. Nazaire. None of the crew survived the crash.
Stanley and Bessie received word of Lynn’s death on November 28, 1942. The government told them that Sergeant Lynn Boomer had been killed in action over France on October 23, 1942. Lynn Boomer was the first casualty of World War II to come from Durand. Unfortunately, he would not be the last.
The Boomer Family is just one of the many families in our community who has answered the call during war time. It is also only one of many families to lose a loved one during battle. These men and women who were laid to rest in small cemeteries scattered all through our county must not be forgotten. Take the time this week to thank a veteran who has served in our armed forces by attending a service or visiting a cemetery to honor the legacy of families like the Boomers.
In its heyday, the Wagon Wheel Resort was considered the premiere place to visit in this area. The creator of this legendary place was Walt Williamson. Walt started his quest in 1936 with a small loan and a desire to open a truck stop and root beer stand. After that business burned in 1941, he moved his operations to Rockford. He stayed there until 1946, when he shifted his sights once again to the Rockton area. Walt used recycled products to build. He used telephone poles, hardware left overs, and what he lovingly called “junk” to rebuild. He kept improving the property into a one-of-a-kind showplace. It boasted of its own bowling alley, two ice skating rinks, swimming pool, candy shop and air strip. The resort stretched over 300 acres at its peak.
The clientele included movie stars, performers and sports stars. Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan were guests. Local girl turned actress, Barbara Hale held her wedding at the Old Stone Church in 1946 and a brunch reception at the lodge.
Walt continued working on his place until the day he died in 1975. But long before his death, folks started speaking of strange things happening in the area of the resort. There were stories told of the rooms at the lodge having cold spots, lights flickering and shadows seen wandering its halls and grounds. After Walt passed away and the former grandeur started to fade, the stories and rumors grew.
Websites mention that there was a bell hop who committed suicide in the building but as often is the case with these legends, research failed to find the bell hop mentioned. However, the stories that were found prove to be stranger than any fictional one.
One story told of a horrible car accident which occurred on the curve around the resort. In fact, this curve was so deadly it earned the name “Death Curve.” The worst accident happened on March 20, 1950 when a car filled with eight people slammed into a petroleum truck. All eight victims died. Robert Rinehart, 37 years old, his wife, Patricia, 20 and their 16-month old daughter, Mary Mae died instantly. There were five other passengers in the car including Robert’s brother, Raymond. Twenty-one-year-old Betty Miller also had her 19-month old baby David along. They lived through the initial impact but died on the way to the hospital. The group was on the way to dinner in Beloit when they accident happened.
Willis Irvin Spring, twenty seven, was the driver of the petroleum truck. He stated that the car the Rinehart group was riding in swerved over into his lane and he had no time to avoid striking them. According to the article written about the accident, this was one of several at that location. The coroner was quoted saying that over 25 people had been killed there in the twenty years prior to this accident. Some people believe that might be one of the reasons that this particular area is so haunted.
There are certain conditions that seem to amplify paranormal activity in a particular area. One is running water. Two rivers, the Pecatonica and the Rock converge a short distance away from the location where the Wagon Wheel once stood. There is also evidence of Native Americans that once settled there. That too, increases the chance for activity. All of these plus an event that causes tragic deaths seems to leave an imprint of the location.
Another story from the Wagon Wheel happened on March 1 of 1979. Twenty three year old Jesus Lopez worked as a maintenance man at the resort on the overnight shift. He was due to get off around 5:00 a.m. When his replacement arrived, he could not locate Jesus. When the man began to search for Jesus, he had no idea the horrible scene that awaited him. He finally found Jesus on the kitchen floor, surrounded by blood. It was initially called a suicide but after an intensive investigation it was classified as a freak accident. Though it was almost impossible to imagine how such a thing could happen, Jesus had somehow stumbled and fell. According to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, Jesus had fallen into the band saw that was used to cut meat. He died from loss of blood from the injury to his neck.
Of course, no one can say with any certainty that these incidents mentioned have anything to do with the ghostly encounters people have experienced in this area. Some have shared their stories of hearing music coming from the area where the lodge once stood. Music, they say, that is a reminder of the grand parties that used to be held there. Others claim to hear the sounds of drumming left over from the days that Native Americans lived on the property. And some say that shadows wander the grounds where movie stars once stayed. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, most people that visit the old grounds share a sense of sadness at the loss of such a grand place.