SYCAMORE – Clay Campbell will walk into the DeKalb County Courthouse today for the final time as DeKalb County State’s Attorney after a two-year tenure that included winning landmark cases and ruffling the feathers of those in power.
Campbell leaves office with unfinished business as William “Billy” Curl awaits trial for the October 2010 slaying of Northern Illinois University student Antinette “Toni” Keller and Patricia Schmidt faces charges of reckless homicide in the February 2011 vehicle crash that killed Maple Park resident Alexis Weber and Sycamore resident Timothy Getzelman.
But it is not missing out on participating in the trials of those crimes that pains Campbell most as he prepares to leave. It is the closure he will not be able to give to the victims’ family members he says he now considers friends.
“One of the most humbling aspects of the job is to sit with families and try to get some understanding of what they’re going through,” Campbell said. “I’ll never forget how gracious they were to me. It’s extraordinary to share their lives and sorrows. That will leave an indelible imprint on the rest of my life.”
The biggest imprint was left by the Ridulph and Tessier families, whom Campbell came to know during his successful prosecution of Jack McCullough in one of the oldest cold cases ever brought to trial in the U.S.
Campbell said his proudest moment was Sept. 14, when the 72-year-old McCullough was found guilty of the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.
“It was amazing to have achieved some measure of justice for the family and to hold Mr. McCullough finally accountable after half a century of being free,” Campbell said.
Major court victories and moments of justice were only part of Campbell’s experience as state’s attorney, which also was marked by controversy and criticism.
Campbell came under fire for freezing operations of the county’s drug court program, a decision that came on the heels of a loss for his office in a separate rape trial for McCullough. In giving the not guilty verdict, Judge Robbin Stuckert was highly critical of the state’s attorney’s lack of preparation and execution in the rape case.
Campbell said this week that he did not regret either decision. He said there was an inappropriate relationship between a drug court staff member and participant that needed to be addressed and it was his duty to bring charges of rape against McCullough after accusations from his half-sister.
The only regret, Campbell said, was the often contentious relationship between his office and judges as well as some county officials, especially DeKalb County Board members.
“Some of these disagreements I might have had with the County Board or the court might have been better resolved had there been a better atmosphere that existed here,” he said.
Although he will no longer be state’s attorney, Campbell said he planned to resume his private practice in Sycamore and would continue to speak out against injustice.
Campbell specifically pointed to Northern Illinois University as an institution on which he hopes incoming State’s Attorney Richard Schmack will focus. The recent discovery of mishandling of evidence by the NIU Police Department is only an example of some of the red flags the university has shown, Campbell said, adding it would be tragic if Schmack turned a blind eye and the university failed to “clean house.”
“There are some serious issues in regard to the integrity of that institution,” Campbell said. “The challenge of trying to clean up Northern is just becoming clear to us. The more we looked into the university, the more concerned we became.”
Still, Campbell remained optimistic about the future of the county and said it would take a community effort he plans to be a part of in addressing the issues of crime, corruption and violence in the county. And that change has to start by empowering those with the best opportunity to make a change – police officers.
“The single most important investment that could take place is giving more resources to the city of DeKalb Police Department,” he said. “Police officers can’t just ignore the problems they see happening around them ... those are my heroes.”