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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008 02:43 pm

Public relations gone awry

Businessman pays $8,000 a month to keep his name out of murder case

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A well-financed plan to polish the public image of a wealthy businessman suspected of involvement in a notorious double homicide may have backfired this month when details of the scheme surfaced in a civil lawsuit.

The businessman, who has generally been unnamed in media reports, was once considered a "person of interest" in the murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, who were stabbed to death as they slept in their Paris, Ill., home in 1986. Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock were convicted of the crime, but both men were eventually freed due to a lack of evidence. In May 2005, Steidl filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Paris, Illinois State Police, and Edgar County, claiming those entities had conspired to frame himself and Whitlock. In May 2006, the businessman passed a polygraph administered by ISP.

Documents produced in Steidl's case this month show that the businessman had paid public relations consultant Daniel D. Curry $8,000 per month to counteract "false rumors" and burnish his image in the Paris community. Curry, a veteran journalist who spent 10 years at the Daily Herald prior to starting his own public relations firm, came up with strategies ranging from a grassroots letter-writing campaign to an elaborate proposal to hire Rick Reed — the man behind the Swift Boat ads that torpedoed John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign — to create a documentary.

"I'm quite proud of the work I did for my client in this case, because he was being viciously and unfairly smeared in the community," Curry says. "I was able to help him fight back against these false allegations."

Curry's defense of the Paris businessman included offensive tactics meant to discredit key witnesses including David Protess, the Northwestern University journalism professor whose students investigated the Paris crime; Michale Callahan, the now-retired ISP lieutenant whose efforts to reopen the murder investigation resulted in a successful lawsuit against his superiors [see "Badge of honor" Aug. 25, 2005]; as well as Steidl's Springfield attorney Michael Metnick and private investigator Bill Clutter.

Curry suggested "baiting" Callahan into making public statements that would subject him to litigation, and hired someone to record a speech the former cop gave at University of Illinois at Springfield. Curry also monitored Callahan's posts on an ISP-oriented Web forum.

Curry consistently coordinated these efforts with the businessman's financial and legal "team" and with the private lawyers hired to defend Paris, ISP and Edgar County. These attorneys retained a private investigation firm Delorto, Mazzola & Associates, and fed Curry information collected by those investigators. E-mails and letters documenting these efforts were attached to Steidl's Aug. 7 motion for sanctions against the defendants.

Curry started working for the businessman around April 2005, and advised the businessman to keep a list of supporters who could be quoted by the media and encourage them to write letters to the editor. At that point, Curry was on a one-month retainer, and so unfamiliar with the issues that he had not even learned the proper spelling of the dead couple's name.

A month later, despite the meager results of his strategizing (the businessman had garnered "a handful of positive letters" published in the Paris paper, according to Curry's subsequent memo), the businessman offered Curry a six-month contract paying him $8,000 per month plus expenses through November 2006. Since then, he has worked for the businessman "sporadically," on an as-needed basis.

Some of the ideas Curry pitched the businessman's team were for public, official actions — submitting a formal opposition to Steidl's clemency petition then pending before the Prisoner Review Board, filing a clemency petition asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich to "clear [the businessman's name] from the false rumors," and hiring a law firm to sue Callahan, none of which ever happened. Curry also suggested a variety of behind-the-scenes maneuvers, such as arranging private meetings with representatives of Blagojevich and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, providing "support" for the defense team in Steidl's civil lawsuit, and making efforts to "cultivate columnists" to report the businessman's perspective. Reporters who weren't easily cultivated were sent letters warning of legal action "if they unfairly print/air sketchy rumors, innuendos that smear [the businessman's] reputation," Curry advised.

The media outlet that concerned Curry most was CBS, whose newsmagazine 48 Hours Mystery featured the Rhoads homicides three times. In a June 2005 email to 48 Hours producer Douglas Longhini — as well as attorneys representing Paris, Edgar County, and ISP — Curry warned that the network should expect a "vigorous legal reaction" if the show implied that the Paris businessman had any involvement in the Rhoads murders. "The real story here is that those who want to set Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock free are churning up a delusional subplot that is smearing a man with not only a clean record but a remarkable one in the manufacturing world," Curry wrote.

Six months later, in an attempt to dissuade CBS from running an update on the case, Curry sent Longhini and his superiors a copy of a court pleading claiming that Northwestern professor Protess had "framed an innocent man" to gain the exoneration of Anthony Porter, who had been sent to Death Row and served 17 years in prison for a shooting in a Chicago park. The "framed" man, Alstory Simon, had confessed to the crime multiple times, but had recently changed his mind, and filed a post-conviction petition asking for a new trial. In his email to CBS, Curry wrote, "We know the attorneys filing the action, and they are highly respected in the Chicago area legal community."

Representing Simon in this pleading were James Sotos and Terry Ekl – who also happen to be the attorneys defending the city of Paris and Edgar County, respectively, in Steidl's lawsuit. Taking the Alstory case marked a change for both attorneys. Ekl, a former DuPage County prosecutor, managed Republican Joe Birkett's campaign for State's Attorney. Sotos is the attorney for Jon Burge, the former Chicago police lieutenant who led the violent crimes unit alleged to have tortured approximately 200 suspects to gain confessions. The city of Chicago recently paid $20 million to settle the claims of four of Burge's victims.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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