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Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 02:20 pm

Suffer the children

Kolten Slover already lost one mother. Now the state takes another.

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ON THE COVER: Kolten Slover (May 1995). Photo by Mary Slover.

Murder has never been a strong enough word to describe what happened to Karyn Hearn Slover. She was young and beautiful, just 23 and on her way to becoming a model. One fall Friday in 1996, after she got off work at the Decatur Herald & Review, she shopped for a dress, ran some errands, maybe got an ice cream cone. Hours later, the car she was driving was found abandoned on Interstate 72 with the driver's door open and the engine running. Karyn's remains were discovered a few days later.

She had been shot in the head seven times. And as if that somehow wasn't enough, her body had been butchered, packed into plastic trash bags and tossed off a bridge into Lake Shelbyville. Some parts of her body were never recovered.

This kind of crime doesn't have just one victim. Because Karyn was so young, she left grieving parents, grieving siblings, a grieving toddler, and countless friends. And because the offense was so odious, it also left an entire community clamoring for vengeance.

But the grisly crime wasn't easily solved. Despite an intensive investigation, police never located a splattered crime scene. No murder weapon or bloody power tool ever materialized. No witnesses ever came forward to claim the $10,000 reward for information on the killer or killers.

Finally, more than three years later, police arrested Karyn's ex-husband, Michael Slover Jr., and his parents, Jeanette and Michael Slover Sr., and charged them with murder. A Macon County jury found all three guilty, and a judge sentenced them each to at least 60 years in prison.

Still, there was one lingering legal dilemma: What would become of Kolten Slover?

The entire case revolved around the little boy, Karyn's only child. Her pregnancy with Kolten was the reason she married Michael Slover Jr. And according to prosecutors, Kolten was the reason the Slovers killed Karyn: The family had learned that Karyn had signed a contract with a modeling agency in Georgia, and they were afraid she would take Kolten away.

After her death, Kolten lived with his father and his father's sister, Mary Slover. Mary adopted Kolten in 1999, about nine months before her relatives were charged with murder.

But although Mary has never faced any criminal charge, prosecutors eventually concluded she was somehow involved in Karyn's death. During the couple of days Karyn was missing, Mary made several phone calls from her home in Springfield to her parents in Decatur. At some point, she babysat Kolten at her house, probably so her family could perform the gruesome work necessary to dispose of Karyn's body, prosecutors said.

Consequently, the notion of Mary ending up with sole custody of Kolten seemed horribly unfair to Karyn's parents, Larry and Donna Hearn. So the first chance they got after the Slovers went to prison, the Hearns delivered Kolten to child welfare authorities and asked that both Mary's and Michael Jr.'s parental rights be terminated. The Hearns also filed a petition asking for guardianship of Kolten.

Kolten has now spent almost a year and a half in foster care, waiting for the court to decide his fate.

_______

Then came two women unto the king and stood before him. And the one woman said, "O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I had a child, and this woman also had a baby. But her baby died during the night. Then she got up and took my son from beside me and laid her dead child in my arms and took mine to sleep beside her. And in the morning, when I tried to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn't my son at all."

The other woman interrupted, "It certainly was your son. The living one is mine!" And they argued back and forth.

_______

Unlike the infant in this Old Testament story, Kolten Slover is old enough to have his own opinion. Now 10, he has told his attorney, his psychotherapist, various psychologists, and an assortment of Department of Child and Family Services workers exactly where he wants to live. He recently spent about an hour in Macon County Associate Judge Scott B. Diamond's chambers, giving him a list of possible guardians, ranked in order.

And every time anybody asks, Kolten's response is the same: What he wants more than anything is to go "home" to "mom"--Mary Slover. If he can't live with Mary, then he wants to live with her cousins, Kellie and Tony Crnko and their kids, in the same St. Louis suburb where Mary lives. If not the Crnkos, then perhaps his current foster family or his maternal uncle, Kevin Hearn. Last on his list: his 62-year-old grandparents, Larry and Donna Hearn.

At the hearing on parental rights, state prosecutors admitted Kolten has a close bond with Mary. They acknowledged that the two love each other like mother and son. But their relationship is rotten at its core, prosecutors said--the result of Kolten being "kidnapped" by Mary Slover and "brainwashed" into believing that his dad and grandparents might not be guilty of the brutal slaying of his mother.

For years, the Slovers have maintained their innocence, and Mary has stood steadfastly by her brother and their parents. Even on the witness stand, as Diamond was poised to terminate her parental rights, Mary demonstrated quiet defiance, saying the State of Illinois has a "despicable history" of convicting innocent people.

"I know the things you say about me aren't true, so why should I believe anything you say about my family?" she asked Jack Ahola, the prosecutor who helped send her relatives to prison. "What you have done to Kolten is damaging and harmful and you should be ashamed of yourself."

Even though this hearing was about custody of Kolten, the crux of the matter was still the guilt or innocence of the Slovers. If they are truly guilty, and Mary helped conceal the homicide--as Diamond ruled that she did--then arguments to take Kolten away from her make sense. If, on the other hand, the Slovers are actually innocent, this custody mess removing a child from the woman who has raised him since 1997 is nothing short of a crime itself.

It's not hard to find true believers on either side of the question. Most of Decatur knows the Slovers are macabre monsters. They believe it with a passion that goes deeper than any shade of reasonable doubt, and they can point to the jury's verdict to prove it.

But the Slovers, who all plan to appeal, have their supporters, too--including a handful of University of Illinois at Springfield alums who researched the case in a legal studies seminar known as the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.

Amy Wilson, who lived in Illiopolis at the time of the crime and read the Decatur Herald & Review coverage daily, says she believed the Slovers must have murdered Karyn.

"I thought they were guilty. No doubt about it--guilty. There was an article in there at least every week," Wilson says. "And every news article made the Slovers seem guilty."

Toshinori Isoai, who is now in law school, knew nothing about the case when he first started working on it, but felt certain the Slovers couldn't be innocent. "I was just of the opinion that they would have been guilty because they had been arrested and indicted; they must have done some stupid stuff," Isoai says.

But after combing through the 20,000-page trial transcript, both students were surprised that the jury had convicted the Slovers.

"As I read the transcript of the case, I just saw that there was no evidence at all to connect the defendants to the murder," Isoai says.

"We felt the jury was a very prejudiced pool because they had been exposed to the media," Wilson says. "And the fact that they didn't find any real substantial evidence made us lean toward the innocent side."

Only one of the defendants, Michael Slover Jr., had a verifiable alibi for the Friday night Karyn was last seen alive. Beginning about 5 p.m., he was in a meeting that included a police officer, a shoplifter and the manager of Cub Foods, where he worked as a security guard. Around 6, he gave a 45-minute karate lesson to a family who had been his students for more than two years. After going home to shower, he arrived at Ronnie's Tavern around 8, where he worked as a doorman until 2 a.m.

His parents' alibis depended on each other. Michael Sr. arrived home around 5 from his job as a pipe insulator at Clinton Powerhouse, and found Jeanette babysitting Kolten. She soon left for Kmart, taking Kolten with her, to shop for a certain toy he wanted. Around 6, Michael Sr. went to Miracle Motors, a used car lot he owned, to feed his dogs and work on cars. Around 8, Jeanette and Kolten came to the car lot, and they all left together intending to go to McDonald's to let Kolten play on the playground. When he fell asleep in the car, they simply went home. Around 10 that night, Larry Hearn called to tell the Slovers that Karyn's car had been found. When Jeanette told him Kolten was still with her, Larry sobbed with relief.

Police interviewed the Slover men within hours after Karyn's remains were found, and searched Miracle Motors about a week after her funeral. Michael Sr. and Jeanette testified before the grand jury, and Michael Jr. took a polygraph. But investigators seemed more suspicious of various men Karyn had dated just before her death.

By March of 1998, a shift in focus toward the Slovers became apparent. More than 20 officers and at least one member of the State's Attorney's office spent three days conducting an archaeological-type dig of Miracle Motors.

Eventually, investigators came up with a couple of metal buttons and rivets that matched Karyn's jeans, plus a generic cloth-covered white button that could have come from her blouse. They found broken pieces of concrete, similar to those found inside some of the bags with Karyn's remains. And on a piece of duct tape meant to seal one of the bags was a dog hair that appeared to match one of the Slovers' dogs.

At trial, the prosecutors offered a vague theory that the Slovers shot Karyn and then decimated her body in the repair shop at Miracle Motors.

It seems likely that using power tools to dismember a human body would produce quite a mess. Yet investigators using luminol--which can reveal blood droplets many years later--never found any trace of blood in the repair shop, which wasn't even equipped with running water.

The morning after Karyn disappeared, neighbors noticed Michael Jr. trimming weeds around the outside of the car lot fence. But the Slovers had just received a citation from the Village of Mt. Zion ordering them to cut the weeds.

And even though the neighbors heard the sound of the weed trimmer, they never heard gunshots, never heard a chainsaw, and never saw Karyn's car at the Slovers' lot.

Prosecutors spent hours presenting dog DNA evidence (recently excluded as unreliable by another state appellate court). But even if the dog hair on the tape was from a Slover dog, it could have come from Karyn's clothing or Karyn's car, courtesy of Kolten, who spent most days with his grandmother Slover and often played with the family pets.

As for the mass-produced metal buttons and rivets, they surfaced after officers were told exactly what kind of hardware to look for before they began their gridded "dig." All the dirt excavated was stored for two months in open buckets inside a warehouse. The Slovers also claimed that they routinely purchased used cars, cleaned them out, and burned whatever trash they found--including random pieces of clothing.

Judith Bullock, another graduate of UIS's legal studies program, says there was no shortage of potential suspects. After poring over 10,000 pages of documents and photographs offered by the prosecutors in this case, Bullock came to know a side of Karyn Slover that wasn't presented at the trial--a side that enjoyed life in the fast lane.

Karyn had a habit of falling for physically abusive men (including, Bullock says, Michael Slover Jr.,), and moving through them in quick succession. She sent sexy photographs of herself to complete strangers in hopes of landing modeling work. And she had other risky habits.

"There was quite a list of people who were violent and dangerous and obsessed with her," Bullock says. "She had all sorts of strange, freaky people in her life--boyfriends, photographers, drug dealers--all sorts of people who were dangerous and scary."

Bullock attended the Slovers' trial from jury selection to sentencing. The journal she kept during that experience shows her confusion about the case.

"Although there are thousands of pages of discovery and years of investigation, most of the information is useless in determining the moral innocence of the Slovers," she wrote. "Perhaps they were involved, and perhaps not. There is simply no clear evidence on either side.

"I have never been able to form an opinion on this case. I journal my dreams and have dreamed about this case on many occasions. The Slovers are never Karyn's killers in my dreams, thus I can only conclude that on some deep level I believe these people are innocent."

_______

One woman cried out, "Oh no, my lord! Give her the child. Please do not kill him!"

But the other woman said, "All right, he will be neither yours nor mine. Divide him between us."

_______

The first time the Hearns turned Kolten over to DCFS was in March 2000--his first visit with his grandparents after the Slovers' arrest. At that time, Judge Theodore Paine ruled that Kolten was not in imminent danger and returned the child to his legal mother, Mary Slover, who continued to drive Kolten to Illinois to visit the Hearns despite the obvious risk involved.

The second time the Hearns turned Kolten over to DCFS was in May 2002--his first visit with his maternal grandparents after the Slovers' trial. That time, Judge Scott B. Diamond kept Kolten in state custody by declaring Mary a flight risk, even though no evidence was presented on that question.

Kolten has been in foster care ever since. Mary drives from St. Louis to Decatur at least once a week for visits always supervised by DCFS workers. She has had a psychological evaluation, a "bonding assessment," and regular counseling sessions with Kolten. According to Kolten's case manager's testimony, "She [Mary] has cooperated with everything."

Before he could remove Kolten from Mary permanently, Diamond had to rule that she was somehow "unfit." Earlier this summer, Diamond issued a ruling declaring Mary Slover "depraved" because there was "clear and convincing evidence" that she was complicit in "the concealment of a homicide."

In September, Diamond presided over another hearing ostensibly to determine whether Kolten's best interest would be served by terminating both Mary and Michael Jr.'s parental rights. Because Michael Jr. was convicted of killing Kolten's mother, his rights were easily terminated. With Mary, though, there was conflicting testimony.

Three DCFS workers refused to recommend termination. Kolten's psychotherapist, Geniel Rabowski, insisted that unless Mary is convicted by a criminal court jury, Kolten deserves to continue living with his legal mother.

"It's my opinion that 'clear and convincing evidence' leaves room for reasonable doubt," Rabowski said. "A lot of people in this room don't think 'clear and convincing evidence' is enough. So how can it be enough for Kolten?"

Joe Vigneri, the public defender who represented Michael Slover Jr., in the criminal trial as well as this hearing, accused Diamond of simply following a plan to give Kolten to the Hearns.

"I know more about the evidence [in the criminal case] than you will ever know," Vigneri said, arguing that no evidence ever implicated Michael Jr., or Mary. "From the moment my client was indicted, this moment was pre-ordained."

The guardian ad litem, appointed to represent Kolten, also asked the judge to return the child to Mary.

The only witnesses who recommended terminating Mary's rights were a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate, who would later reverse her opinion, and Judy Osgood, a psychologist hired by the State to do a bonding assessment on Kolten with Mary and with the Hearns. In arguing that Mary should lose parental rights, Osgood cited the court's depravity ruling and the idea that Mary had tried to prevent Kolten from visiting the Hearns in order to "completely disconnect him from the life he had." That argument would sound more ironic at the subsequent hearing, when Diamond considered who should get custody of Kolten after he terminated Michael Jr.'s and Mary's rights.

_______

Then the king said, "Do not kill him, but give the baby to the woman who wants him to live, for she is the real mother."

And word of the king's decision spread quickly throughout the land, and the people were awed as they realized the great wisdom of God was in him.

_______

In the Old Testament story, Solomon had only two choices for who should get the coveted child. Judge Diamond has four--Mary Slover, the Hearns, the Crnkos, or DCFS. At press time, he still had not issued his ruling.

It's unlikely that he will consider Mary Slover, having just gone to great legal lengths to terminate her rights. Her cousins, the Crnkos, spent more than two hours on the witness stand showing him pictures of Kolten's bedroom in their house (Kolten and Mary lived with the Crnkos in 2000 and 2001), talking about soccer and parochial school and Disney World, and promising to cooperate with any counseling or testing necessary to act as Kolten's guardians. The Crnkos also said they would cut off all contact with Mary Slover if the court requested, and continue to bring Kolten to visit the Hearns.

Larry Hearn testified that he would "sever that whole relationship" with the Slovers and Crnkos, who, he said, "are all interwoven." His reason for seeking guardianship of Kolten? "To try to provide some stability in his life," Hearn said. "I think that's reason enough."

A report filed by a CASA who interviewed the Hearns' sons quotes their oldest child, 36-year-old Craig Hearn, recommending against placing Kolten with the grandparents, citing Donna Hearn's "controlling personality."

Donna Hearn did not take the stand. The Hearns' attorney, Jeff Justice, did not return repeated phone calls.

As for DCFS, the agency wants Kolten to stay where he is until all potential guardians have undergone psychological evaluations. But case manager Janice Nicholls testified that she didn't expect the judge to heed DCFS's advice.

"We're just going through the motions," Nicholls said. "Decisions have already been made."

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