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Local Column

Olson: Looking back on a decade of DeKalb County news

Looking back on a decade of DeKalb County news

We make a big deal out of the end of each year, but it’s when you get into decades that you really see change starting to happen.

Personally, I have a different job, more children and more gray hair today than I did 10 years ago. I also have a lot of memories.

I joined the staff here in July 2012, just in time to cover the most eventful part of the decade’s most eventful year.

2012 was the year the IHSA awarded the bid for the high school football championships to Northern Illinois University. A 57-year-old homicide case was (temporarily) solved. A public scandal at NIU was exposed. The Huskies’ football team rose to national prominence.

It also was the year we reelected Barack Obama as president, but did not reelect Clay Campbell as state’s attorney. The latter decision would prove more important than most of us imagined at the time.

So as the decade draws to a close, here are some local stories from the 2010s that were both memorable and broadly influential in our area. There are others, of course. I’ll never forget covering the tragic fire at the St. Albans Greens apartments in Sycamore this summer, which will be among our 2019 top stories, a list we’ll share next week.

If you’d like to share your own, feel free.

Jack McCullough’s conviction and exoneration

This is the story of the decade.

When the 2010s began, Illinois State Police had revived their investigation into the December 1957 kidnapping and slaying of Maria Ridulph, who was abducted near the intersection of Center Cross Street and Archie Place in Sycamore, near her home.

In 2011, McCullough was arrested by Seattle police, who sent him back to DeKalb County to face charges. After his acquittal on rape charges for an alleged attack on his half-sister in 1962, McCullough was convicted in September 2012 in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of Maria, making it the oldest cold case solved in U.S. history. He was sentenced to life in prison.

There was solemnity and jubilation. The case was the subject of books and TV shows. Investigators, prosecutors and others connected to the case had their 15 minutes of fame, whether they wanted it or not.

Then it slowly unraveled. Campbell, a Republican who had won the historic conviction as DeKalb County state’s attorney, had rubbed some people the wrong way. Democrat Richard Schmack defeated him in an election less than two months after the conviction.

McCullough had always maintained his innocence and Schmack was skeptical of his guilt. Schmack eventually would work with DeKalb County Public Defender Investigator Crystal Harrolle to find a decades-old telephone company record showing a call had been made from a Rockford train station to McCullough’s family home the night of the killing, giving credence to McCullough’s alibi that evening.  

“The people are ethically compelled and constrained to admit the existence of clear and convincing evidence showing Defendant to have been convicted of an offense which he did not commit,” Schmack wrote to the court in March 2016. McCullough was released from prison in April 2016. Now 80, he has returned to his home in Seattle.

Schmack was voted out of office months after McCullough’s release, winning less than 40% of the vote.

McCullough received a certificate of innocence from a DeKalb County court in 2017. He has since filed a lawsuit against DeKalb County, Sycamore, Illinois State Police and Seattle police. Only Sycamore has reached a settlement.

People have spoken with strong sentiment about their belief in McCullough’s guilt or innocence in this case.

When did we do the right thing? I thought I knew once. I don’t anymore.

The Coffee Fund

In August 2012, the Daily Chronicle unearthed evidence that Northern Illinois University employees had been selling state property for scrap and depositing the proceeds into an account at a local bank they called “the coffee fund.”

Canceled checks obtained by the Daily Chronicle showed more than $13,000 worth of galvanized clips, metal shelving and other materials that had been scrapped from 2005 to’12, had been made out to the fund. When the account was closed, it had more than $2,100 in it.

NIU police launched an investigation the day after we broke the story, and in October 2012, Campbell announced felony charges against eight NIU employees and a retired NIU vice president for offenses including theft, violation of the state property control act and in one case, concealing evidence.

After Schmack’s election, he dropped the charges against six defendants. Three others pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in 2013, with the offenses coming off their record if they completed supervision.

Don Grady, the longtime NIU police chief who had been lauded for his handling of the tragic campus shooting in 2008, would later allege that he was fired in retaliation for his department’s investigation of the matter.

Charging the employees with felony crimes was too aggressive, Schmack said. Yes, they were taking state property for their own personal use, but it was for office functions such as retirement parties.

Why does it matter how the money was spent? I’m still not sure.

What the allegations – and others – did make clear was that there was a culture of people commandeering state property for their own use. I was surprised that our story led to high-level charges against so many people, many of whom may have just been going along with what was accepted as OK.

Lynch leads NIU to Orange Bowl

Quarterback Jordan Lynch was something special.

After Lynch and the Huskies beat Kent State, 44-37, in double-overtime in the Mid-American Conference Championship on Nov. 30, 2012, at Ford Field in Detroit, the Huskies were ranked No. 15 in the nation and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl. It was the first Bowl Championship Series bowl bid for a MAC team.

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit later complained about NIU earning a shot at the big time, prompting the creation of a memorable T-shirt that read “Kirk Herbstreit can bite me … ‘cause every dog has its day!”

Herbstreit’s comments weren’t the only affront. Head coach Dave Doeren bailed on the team before the big game, which remains a sad commentary on the NCAA. Doeren watched from the stands as the Huskies lost, 31-10, to Florida State in Miami on New Year’s Day.

Lynch continued his stellar play in his senior year. The Huskies missed another BCS bowl bid after a stunning loss in the MAC title game in 2013, but Lynch was a first team All-American. His third-place finish in the race for the Heisman Trophy that year was another first for a player from the MAC.

Lynch holds NCAA records for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season (1,920 in 2013), most 100-yard rushing games by a QB (12 in ‘12) and most rushing yards a game by a QB (137.1 in ‘13).

He was cut by the Bears during the preseason in 2014 and won a Grey Cup with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos in 2015. He spent a year as a running backs coach at NIU, then returned to Huskie Stadium as the head coach of the Mount Carmel Caravan in November, and his team won the IHSA Class 7A state title. His younger brother, Justin, played quarterback.

DeKalb School District 428 superintendent scandal

This is a story so bizarre that, when old-timers recall it in broad terms years from now, people may think it’s an urban legend.

It started in February 2016, when hundreds of DeKalb High School students were absent from school or left mid-day after racial tensions flared after a student-led assembly in February 2016. Blame was placed on Tamra Ropeter, the principal at the time, who was placed on leave from her job the next day. Her contract was not renewed.

In hindsight, it seems she was scapegoated.

Then-Superintendent Doug Moeller had a successor in mind – Michelle Albano, whom he’d worked with at Elgin School District U-46.

Things took a jaw-dropping turn only a few weeks into the next school year, when Albano sought an emergency order of protection against Moeller in Kane County Court. In it, she claimed Moeller – a married man – had become upset with her after she spurned his romantic advances. Albano claimed Moeller threatened to ruin her career and she was intimidated because he carried a gun. She also filed a sexual harassment complaint with District 428, in which she said he would call her while drunk, would send disturbing texts and offered to pay off the mortgage on her home by way of apology.

Moeller would be placed on paid leave for five months, and Albano finished the school year as principal at DHS before moving on.

DeKalb County prosecutors allege in court records that on Feb. 8, 2017, the day after Moeller and the district agreed on a separation deal, Moeller had a former student buy a cellphone, which Moeller used to send compromising photos of a woman to two District 428 Board members.

In April 2018, Moeller was arrested at his Elgin home and charged with violation of the state’s “revenge porn” law. He’s pleaded not guilty and has sought to have the charges dismissed.

Although scandalous and titillating, this story is sad, too – it derailed the careers of three people and caused a lot of unnecessary embarrassment.

An unsolved double homicide

Patricia Wilson, 85, and her son, Robert, 64, were by all accounts well-liked members of the community. Investigators have yet to identify any suspect or motive for their homicides.

What DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott and his deputies have said is that someone broke into the Wilson house on Old State Road outside Sycamore sometime between 7:45 p.m. and midnight Aug. 14, 2016, and beat them to death.

The only thing of value taken from the home appears to have been Patricia Wilson’s 2010 Chevrolet Impala, which was found parked in a space near Lincoln Park Zoo – where Route 64 ends in Chicago. The killer left behind DNA evidence, which was used to create a rendering of the suspect’s face. He’s white, fair-skinned, with blue eyes and blonde hair. They think.

The two most important faces – of Patricia and Robert – have become familiar to many of us from the posters that still can be seen around the community seeking information. There’s a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

The police were at a major disadvantage in their investigation. The vehicle wasn’t found for more than a week after the crime. There were no eyewitnesses. The crime wasn’t discovered until almost a full day after it occurred.

Someone out there must know something, however. We can only hope they talk one day, and the Wilsons’ family and the community will see justice done.

No stopping the ‘Mega-Dump’

It was a connection that was implicitly understood: DeKalb County needed the money from a landfill expansion to finance construction of an addition to its jail.

Voters already had rejected the idea of paying for a bigger jail with a property tax hike, so leaders set their sights on revenue from “tipping fees” at Waste Management’s landfill south of Cortland. The dramatic expansion of the landfill was not universally popular, however.

In May 2010, the DeKalb County Board approved the expansion after a contentious hearing process. The expansion would allow the landfill to accept up to 500,000 tons of solid waste a year from 17 surrounding counties.

The vote survived a legal challenge and the work began. There was a high-profile mishap in January 2014 when odors from the landfill forced the evacuation of nearby Cortland Elementary School and led to more than 60 people being treated for carbon monoxide exposure, but that was blamed on old refuse being unearthed.

Since 2015, the landfill has been taking in close to the limit of trash each year, and in 2017, the County Board voted to allow them to accept up to 200,000 tons of “special waste” a year in addition to the 500,000-ton limit.

The expanded county jail, built at a cost of about $36 million, opened in September 2018. Most of the cost is being covered by tipping fee revenue.

Today, the landfill is a towering – and sometimes pungent – landmark as you approach Sycamore and DeKalb on Interstate 88.  Although it long will be a monument to decisions made this decade, I hope it’s a not metaphor.

An evolving DeKalb

DeKalb County’s largest city had to make the biggest adjustments during the decade.

Enrollment at NIU fell by 30% during the 2010s, with the university going from 23,850 students in fall 2010 to 16,609 students in fall 2019. The goal of President Lisa Freeman’s administration is to get to 18,000 by 2023 – and sustain that level.

On the northwest side of DeKalb, there are more condemned buildings and empty lots. With so much available rental property, what was once student housing has become home to low-income families and children.

As the decade has progressed, local police have confronted more and more gunplay. There was a period in fall 2017 when gunshots were a regular occurrence – and in November 2017, DeKalb police made 11 arrests.

DeKalb long will remain the home of the Huskies, but the area at large may not be able to depend on the university to be the economic engine that it was when there were thousands more students attending.

DeKalb also made a lot of progress during the decade. The 2010s saw the opening of a new high school and a new library. There are several building projects underway downtown that should revitalize the area, and local officials are actively courting a major employer that could create 1,000 new jobs.

A new employer might help to kickstart housing growth, which has stagnated in DeKalb while neighboring communities such as Sycamore have seen slow and steady homebuilding in the past several years.

How our area diversifies its economy and grows will be one of the top stories of the 2020s.

The future is bright. Let’s embrace it and move forward.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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