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Wednesday, May 13, 2009 06:00 am

A tale of heroism in the fight against Illinois corruption

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Too Politically Sensitive, by Michale Callahan. Land of Lincoln Press. 416 pages. $24.95.

Who among us would have thought of the little east central Illinois town of Paris as a major location for drug dealing and criminal activity? It is hard to believe Paris, Ill., is the site of the national Mafia Pizza Connection Case, in which Rudy Giuliani prosecuted Paris resident Joe Vitale and others. Paris is a place where numerous unsolved murders and suspicious arsons seem to be commonplace.

Yet Paris is where the story begins that leads former Illinois State Police (ISP) investigator Michale Callahan to write his book, “Since When is Murder Too Politically Sensitive?” The opening scene is the 1986 murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the middle of the night in their Paris house. The police eventually focus on local men Randy Steidl and Herbert Whitlock. Both are convicted in 1987 primarily on the testimony of an individual known as the “town drunk” and a woman known to be “a schizophrenic, alcoholic, drug addict.” Steidl’s death penalty sentence results in his case gaining the greatest publicity, and over the next 20 years it becomes one of Illinois’ most noteworthy wrongful convictions.

Little did an ISP commander of investigations, Michale Callahan, know that the results of the Steidl/Whitlock convictions would shape his entire career as he looked at their cases. He became convinced after an examination of the convictions and accompanying evidence that the case was badly flawed, that the convictions were unwarranted, and the investigation of other prominent suspects was necessary to yield justice. Much of his assessment was based on information generated by Bill Clutter, a private investigator and director of investigations for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project. Callahan approached his ISP superiors and requested that he be allowed to reopen the investigation, but was told that to do so was “too politically sensitive.” Thus arose the title of the book he will unveil on Monday, May 18, at a reception of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.

In language sometimes reflecting his anger and angst, Callahan writes about the retaliation against him for wanting to reopen the investigation and the psychological and social pain that he and his family endured in the aftermath. While the Steidl case is a central event, it is Callahan’s narrative of retribution and corruption that drives the detailed story in the book. Recounting the corruption that he first encounters by the Paris police, state’s attorney, and local judges, Callahan describes a system of power and money that shape judgments in the approach to crime and punishment. Callahan describes the Illinois State Police command as having become politicized under George Ryan, with the ISP director and other high-level officers tied to recently indicted power broker Bill Cellini. He alleges that corruption continued with Ryan, whose decision not to pardon Steidl and Whitlock in 2003, Callahan contends, was based on influence by ISP resistance and monetary contributions made to Ryan led by a prominent Paris businessman, the state’s attorney and even the judge in the Steidl case.

Callahan’s story remains without an ending at this point. He was driven out of the ISP for pressing the reinvestigation. He is fighting to change that and won a court judgment that the ISP violated his rights. Yet, in 2008 that decision was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeals. He is presently appealing that decision to the United States Supreme Court.

We are used to hearing about criminal cases gone awry, occasional police misconduct, or mistakes by lawyers. What sets this story apart is the corruption running from the local community to the highest levels of state government. The book is compelling because few law enforcement officers are willing to suffer the consequences of telling the whole story, including little known interactions within the police bureaucracy. Callahan is one of those rare individuals who is fighting the corruption, who is going public in his attempt to remedy the problem, and who is continuing to bear the social, economic and personal consequences of the courage of his convictions.

Larry Golden is an Emeritus Professor of Political Studies and Legal Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is also a director of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and participated in the exoneration of Herbert Whitlock. He can be reached at lgold1@uis.edu.

Michale Callahan will be selling and signing his book for the first time at a reception held by the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project on Monday, May 18, at the Governor’s Mansion between 5-7 p.m. Reservations may be made by calling 206-7989.

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