Man charged in Illinois, Missouri deaths faces first trial

This Aug. 6, 2008, file photo shows murder suspect Nicholas Sheley being led from the Knox County Courthouse in Galesburg, Ill. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, for Sheley in the killing of Ronald Randall. (AP/The Register-Mail, Ken Exum, File)

This Aug. 6, 2008, file photo shows murder suspect Nicholas Sheley being led from the Knox County Courthouse in Galesburg, Ill. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, for Sheley in the killing of Ronald Randall. (AP/The Register-Mail, Ken Exum, File) Photo by The Associated Press.

Police believe Ronald Randall's killer was only in Galesburg, Ill., long enough to find the 65-year-old retiree, beat the life out of him and steal his truck before driving back onto I-74 and out of town.

Randall was one of eight people in Illinois and Missouri who died over a long few days in June 2008 at the hands, investigators say, of a killer who bludgeoned his victims into bloody submission.

More than three years later, Nicholas Sheley, a 32-year-old Sterling man accused of slaying all eight, will go on trial in Galesburg Monday in Randall's death, the first of what could be three separate trials in the killing spree.

A father of two with a criminal past, Sheley will be outfitted in court with a stun belt, a device worn under his clothes allowing bailiffs to deliver a sharp electrical shock by remote control. That is to prevent the outbursts like those with which he's disrupted earlier courtroom proceedings.

The trial is expected to take weeks, perhaps more than a month. It will include several days or more of jury selection to find enough people among Knox County's 52,000 residents who haven't already formed an opinion about the defendant.

News about Sheley has been a staple of local headlines and radio newscasts since his July 1, 2008, arrest outside a Granite City, Ill., bar, including stories about dozens of hearings in Knox County's 127-year-old courthouse, his violent past and his in-court outbursts.

"You're stupid and ignorant and are full of false stupidity," Sheley yelled at one judge in a September 2009 hearing, his shouts echoing through the courthouse as he was dragged out.

For a time Sheley did serve as his own lawyer, and was separately convicted of assaulting local jail guards, an offense for which he's now in prison.

Sheley has pleaded not guilty in all eight killings but told a judge in Sept. 2009 that he wanted to admit guilt in Randall's death, only to change his mind two months later.

Sheley's current attorney, Jeremy Karlin, has argued that there's no way he can get a fair trial in Galesburg.

"If a change of venue is not justified in this case, then there is not (a) case in which it is justified," Karlin, one of several attorneys who've represented Sheley off and on, argued in one court filing.

A judge disagreed.

Police who investigated the eight killings say Randall was probably not the first to die. The trial in his death is the first only because local authorities filed the first charges. Trials in the other deaths have yet to be scheduled.

People who knew Randall say the gentle man who spent decades on a refrigerator factory assembly line, died a needless death.

"There's no doubt in my mind if the guy had said, 'Give me the keys to your truck,' Ronnie would have given them to him," said Dave Bevard, who worked with Randall for years at the now-closed Maytag plant. "It was all so completely unnecessary and sad."

None of the attorneys involved in the case agreed to talk with The Associated Press ahead of the trial. But police say they believe the first person to die was 93-year-old Russell Reed. He was found dead on June 26, 2008, in the trunk of his car in Sterling, Sheley's hometown.

Four days later the bodies of four people — 29-year-old Brock Branson, 25-year-old Kenneth Ulve, 20-year-old Kilynna Blake and her 2-year-old son, Dayan — were found in an apartment in Rock Falls. That same day, a Sherwood, Ark., couple attending a graduation in Missouri, Jill and Tom Estes, both 54, were found behind a gas station in Festus, south of St. Louis.

Randall was found June 30, too, behind a Galesburg grocery store.

According to police, Sheley was acquainted with some of those killed in the Rock Falls apartment, but the rest of the killings appeared to be random — people whose paths crossed with that of a man on the run.

Sheley had been wanted since not long after a June 14 home invasion in Sterling in which a 90-year-old woman was robbed. In Randall's case, his killer appeared to want the truck, a charcoal gray 2007 Chevrolet.

Randall apparently stopped at a car wash on Main Street in Galesburg where, police say, he allegedly was approached by Sheley, driving a stolen petroleum truck that was later found at the car wash.

Randall's truck was found June 30 in St. Louis. Police found blood, a lot of it, in the cab and bed. They said some matched Randall and some matched Sheley.

After the manhunt, Sheley was arrested, spotted by a patron at the bar in Granite City who thought the thin, short-haired man with a mustache and goatee ordering ice water could be the guy in the mug shots he'd seen on TV.

Sheley faced the possibility of the death penalty until Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers abolished it in Illinois this year. He still could be executed in Missouri if convicted there.

Sheley's criminal history includes an aggravated robbery conviction that landed him in prison between 2000 and 2003. He's been in prisons in Pontiac and Joliet since the 2009 conviction for assaulting jail officers in Galesburg.

Relatives have said Sheley struggles with drug addiction, though they had seen no evidence he was capable of anything like a killing spree.

"He's been in trouble many times over the years, but something like this, yeah, it's out of character," an uncle, Joe Sheley, told the AP after his nephew's arrest. "He's got a temper like anybody else. Just doesn't want to be messed with. Won't back down."

But Sheley, when sober, could be another sort of person altogether, people who know him say. He and his wife, Holly, have two young children. He has volunteered to help re-roof a homeless shelter run by his church. And since the 2009 conviction, he hasn't caused any trouble in prison, according to Illinois Department of Corrections records.

"He spends most of his time reviewing his current case in his cell and in the Institutional Law Library," corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.

But Sheley's mother-in-law, Marcia Frey of Mount Morris, is among those ready to see him convicted. Drug problems are no excuse, she said, for what she believes he's done.

"He should go to prison," Frey said by phone from her home as her husband listened in the background. "My husband just said he should hang."

Key dates in Nicholas Sheley murder cases

Nicholas Sheley of Sterling, Ill., has been charged with murder in the deaths of eight people killed in Illinois and Missouri in June 2008. Some of the key dates:

June 14, 2008 — Someone forces way into the home of a 90-year-old Sterling woman robs her.

June 23, 2008 — Warrant is issued for the arrest of Nicholas Sheley in the June 14 robbery.

June 26, 2008 — Body of 93-year-old Russell Reed is found dead in the trunk of his car in Sterling.

June 30, 2008 — The bodies Jill and Tom Estes of Arkansas are found at 10:30 a.m. behind a gas station in Festus, Mo. Less than two hours later the body of Ronald Randall of Galesburg, Ill., is found behind a grocery store there. The same day, the bodies of Brock Branson, 29, Kenneth Ulve, 25, Kilynna Blake, 20, and her son Dayan Blake, 2, are found in an apartment in Rock Falls, Ill.

July 1, 2008 — Sheley arrested at bar in Granite City, Ill.

July 3, 2008 — Sheley is charged in Randall's death.

July 10, 2008 — Sheley is charged in the Estes' deaths.

Aug. 6, 2008 — Sheley pleads not guilty in Randall's death.

Sept. 18, 2008 — Sheley is indicted in the Rock Falls killings.

Sept. 24, 2008 — A judge issues a gag order after a jailhouse interview with Sheley.

Dec. 22, 2008 — Sheley is found fit to stand trial.

April 17, 2009 — Sheley attacks jail guards at Knox County jail in Galesburg with legs removed from metal chairs.

Oct. 30, 2009 — Sheley is sentenced to seven years in prison after conviction for assaulting jail guards in Galesburg.

March 29, 2011 — Prosecutors formally drop pursuit of death penalty for Sheley after Gov. Pat Quinn abolishes the sentence in Illinois.

April 25 2011 — Judges grants Sheley's request to represent himself.

July 20, 2011 — Judge agrees to Sheley's request to again work with a lawyer in his defense.

Aug. 29. 2011 — Sheley is scheduled for trial in Randall killing. Other trials have yet to be scheduled.

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