Millions of visitors continue to flock to Starved Rock State Park, which has seen increased interest through the advent of social media and the sharing of photos depicting its picturesque waterfalls and canyons.
But at the start of the 1960s, attention on the park was instead due to the media coverage of the infamous Starved Rock murders and Chester Weger’s court case.
Weger, 80, is currently the longest imprisoned person in Illinois and is once again set for a parole hearing on Thursday, Nov. 21, after serving nearly six decades for murder.
The crime made the cover of Life and Time magazines and was a regular feature on the front pages of Chicago newspapers, but today, many visit the park’s beautiful St. Louis Canyon to appreciate the landscape created by glacial meltwaters while having no knowledge of the murders committed decades earlier.
“And I think it’s good to move on,” said Starved Rock State Park Superintendent Kerry Novak. “That’s not any kind of a milestone we want to be proud of, obviously. And I think there’s no sense in drawing out the macabre in all of this.”
‘Younger people’ don’t know the story
Novak has been at the park for five years but clearly remembers the media fallout from the event.
Weger was convicted of killing Lillian Oetting, one of three women bludgeoned to death in 1960 at Starved Rock State Park. He also admitted to killing Oetting’s two companions in a recanted confession.
Novak estimates he would have been in seventh grade but the social stigma of the crime at the park lasted for a while. He recalled dating his wife, originally from Chicago, and how her mother was concerned about the area and park due to the crime.
“I know in this area in the county and even in town, people never locked their door and all of a sudden they were locking doors and worrying about stuff like that. Which is pretty normal when something like this happens,” Novak said. “Everyone had theories or stories that they were happy to share.”
Pam Grivetti, president of the Starved Rock Foundation, often works the front desk at the park’s Visitor Center and said she hears questions about Weger perhaps once a week.
“Younger people for the most part – unless they’ve seen a newspaper about it – they have no idea,” Grivetti said.
“I had friends that said they were scared to go to bed. Stuff like that at the time,” Grivetti added.
“Myself? I was oblivious,” she said with a laugh but acknowledged she would have been about 10 years old.
She said author Steve Stout’s “Starved Rock Murders” is no longer in the park’s bookstore due to being out of print but occasionally someone will bring his other book “Starved Rock Stories” to the front desk and asked about the Weger excerpt.
The increased tourism interest in the park in recent years isn’t at the national level it was in the 1960s, but the interest in Weger’s connection has long since faded.
“You’ve got to wonder, did it stir up a lot of interest that may not have been there back in the ‘60s and such for people to come here?” Novak wondered. “But again, I’m glad it’s in the past and we don’t have to focus on that anymore.”
Weger up for 24th parole hearing
Lillian Oetting, Mildred Lindquist, and Frances Murphy, all 50 years old, visited Starved Rock from Riverside on March 14, 1960, for a vacation. They stayed at the park’s Lodge and hiked a few miles into St. Louis Canyon.
Two days later, the trio was found beaten to death.
Following an investigation that lasted months, a young dishwasher at the lodge — Weger, a married father of two from La Salle — was eventually charged.
He was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of Oetting’s murder on March 4, 1961 – Weger’s 22nd birthday. Weger was never tried for the other two murders.
Since then, he’s had 23 parole hearings with his 24th planned for Thursday, Nov. 21.
La Salle County State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly has continued this year a tradition that other state’s attorneys had in speaking in opposition to his parole.
“I set forth all the reasons they have denied his parole consistently since he became eligible, asking them specifically what has changed – besides his age. And nothing has changed,” Donnelly said on her department’s Facebook page.
Weger’s older age is one consideration that has seemingly led to closer votes in recent years, his last two hearings came short by one vote.
Is time a factor?
The passing of time may have led to some emotional disconnect from the murders, which was a fear of Weger’s prosecutor Anthony Raccuglia, who passed away in May.
Raccuglia wrote letters to the parole board prior to every hearing. In a 2015 letter, he detailed a concern that in a world where larger mass murders occur, the severity of the Starved Rock murders and the intention of the jury’s decision to send Weger to prison for “the rest of his life” would be forgotten.
“I raise these issues because I believe that in the minds of some of you, or maybe many people, a killing of three ladies pales in comparison. I urge you, however, not to be misled by the recent tragedies and keep in mind that Weger’s murder occurred in 1960,” Raccuglia said to the Parole Board in 2015.
Raccuglia argued the jurors, “if not all of them,” felt Weger locked in prison for the rest of his life was a greater punishment than death.
“Unfortunately many members of the parole board are too young to remember Weger’s conduct and his background prior to committing these murders. I believe that I may be one of maybe two survivors of that era, and believe me, though it was many, many years ago, the sight of those ladies is something I never have forgotten,” Raccuglia said. “Weger should die in jail as a jury of his peers intended. Believe me, when he does, his soul will be delivered to the devil.”