SYCAMORE – Dylan Stephens cannot understand the pain Antinette “Toni” Keller’s family and friends are feeling, but he tried to offer a healing hand Monday.
The Marengo resident brought his acoustic guitar to the front lawn of the DeKalb County Courthouse and played songs such as “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles and “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd as roughly 20 people gathered to honor Keller’s memory and peacefully protest the plea agreement reached in her murder case.
William “Billy” Curl, 36, of DeKalb was sentenced to 37 years in prison last week for killing Keller, an 18-year-old college student from Plainfield. She was last seen Oct. 14, 2010, when she told friends she was going for a walk in Prairie Park. Her burned body was found in the park two days later.
Stephens said DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack’s decision last week to support the plea agreement was comparable to a “timeout” and an injustice. He said he wanted to come to the gathering to show his support to the Keller family and help people in the healing process.
“I can’t do much to ease the pain, but I can try,” he said. “Music always helps.”
Thelma Holderness, who helped organize the event, said the plea deal was a painful resolution to the slaying of a girl whose family she has come to care for over the past two and a half years. Holderness was a janitor at Neptune Hall where Keller lived.
“People want to voice their disapproval,” Holderness said. “I just pray for strength and peace for everybody in this.”
Many at Monday’s event did not know Keller or her family, but were concerned with the future of the local justice system.
Sycamore resident Sindy Edwards said she was sad to see the Keller family was not able to get the justice her own family experienced just a few months ago. Edwards’ sister Kathy Chapman was the key witness in the Jack McCullough trial for the 1957 kidnapping and murder of her childhood friend, Maria Ridulph.
McCullough was sentenced to life in prison.
“I think this family got robbed a little bit,” Edwards said of the plea agreement. “I just think the Kellers would have gotten a different outcome if it went to trial.”
Schmack said each case is different and so are the sentencing possibilities. He said while McCullough was eligible for the life with parole sentence he received, Curl could only be sentenced to a term of between 20 and 60 years in prison.
Based on that range and the evidence in the case, the 37-year sentence in appropriate, Schmack said.
“Would I have liked a longer sentence? Yes, I would have,” Schmack said. “But I believe this was a proper and right result.”
Some were concerned with what the agreement meant for other high-profile cases.
Cortland Town President Robert Seyller is close friends with the parents of Alexis Weber and Timothy Getzelman who were killed in a February 2011 car crash. Patricia Schmidt, 48, of Sycamore, is charged with reckless homicide and driving under the influence of drugs in connection with the crash.
Seyller said it is impossible not to think a plea agreement could be reached in that case as well. He thought the risk of an acquittal at trial was a risk worth taking.
“You have to let the system work,” he said. “There are always going to be concerns.”
Schmack said each case is examined on its own circumstances, but there is never the promise of a trial. He said everyone has a right to plead guilty, and if they do, nothing can be done to stop it.
While the outcome to Keller’s case was not what some wanted, Kelly Haas said she hoped the family could find peace. Haas, who has attended multiple events in memory of Keller in the last two years, said she hopes Monday’s event is a sign to the parents their daughter will never be forgotten.
“I hope they find [peace] in their own time and in their own way,” Haas said. “But it’s hard to move forward when injustice has been done.”