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He has taken his fight to print

April 25, 2009

SPRINGFIELD — Michale Callahan may have lost his legal battle against Illinois State Police superiors, but the former lieutenant isn’t letting his First Amendment fight go down without a few more jabs.


By Bethany Krajelis
Law Bulletin staff writer

In a book slated for a May 18 release, Callahan gives a personal account of his review of a 1986 murder case that he says showcases a series of cover-ups and corruption by police and prosecutors that led to the wrongful conviction of two men and, eventually, the end his career.

Just days after ”Too Politically Sensitive” is set to hit the bookstores, Callahan said, the Supreme Court will decide whether to take another look at his case, which could involve a review of the 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

Cover of "Too Politically Sensitive" by Michale Callahan

Cover of "Too Politically Sensitive" by Michale Callahan

”The big question in my case is two-fold,” Callahan said. ”Who’s going to police the police if they refuse to police themselves? And when you look at the facts of my case, does Garcetti mean that governments don’t have to be accountable?”

Callahan said he hopes the country’s highest court will agree to narrow what he said is a broad decision in Garcetti, which held that public employees’ speech is not protected by the First Amendment when the speech is pursuant to their job duties.

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, Callahan said. The issue arose long before Callahan’s court proceedings, which includes the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals May 2008 decision to overturn a jury verdict and $260,000 award in favor of Callahan.

In fact, Callahan claims, the alleged corruption began even before he was assigned to review the murder case of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. Shortly after producers of the television show ”48 Hours” contacted police about an upcoming episode set to highlight the double murder, Callahan was assigned to review the case, he said.

At that time, Bill Clutter, a private investigator, had already been in contact with state police in his investigation into the cases of Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, both of whom were convicted in the couple’s murders. Callahan is convinced that, if it were not for the television show and Clutter’s questioning, police might have never reviewed the case.

On July 6, 1986, the Rhoadses were found dead after the fire department responded to a blaze at their Paris, Ill., home. Karen, 25, was stabbed 26 times and Dyke, 28, was stabbed 28 times, Callahan said.

Six months and the announcement of a $25,000 reward later, Callahan said, two eyewitnesses, both of whom he said had documented mental health and addiction problems, came forward and implicated Steidl and Whitlock. Steidl and Whitlock were convicted; Steidl was sentenced to death and Whitlock got life in prison.

While Clutter may have had his doubts, Callahan said he initially had no reason to question the work of the Illinois State Police, where he began his law enforcement career in 1980. But, even before he started his review, Callahan said, red flags were raised when original investigators called him to say they got the right guys and not to make them look bad.

Once he began digging deeper into the case, Callahan said, the flags kept popping up.

Callahan said testimony given to police implicating others was never documented and that inconsistencies in eyewitness testimony showed a lack of credibility. And forensic testimony was able to prove that the believed murder weapon could not have been used in the stabbings.

His doubts filled a 10-page memo to his superiors that basically concluded that it would have been impossible for Steidl and Whitlock to have killed the newlywed couple.

Through their investigations, Callahan and Clutter believe there were more likely suspects, including a businessman who contributed to the campaigns of then-Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and then-Gov. George H. Ryan, as well as a pair of brothers.

It was also a possibility, Callahan said, that Whitlock and Steidl were framed because they had gone to the FBI with accusations of corruption by the police department and prosecutor in Paris, a town that played home to one of the pizza parlors involved in the infamous Pizza Connection case, which involved a Mafia plot to distribute heroin and launder the proceeds through a number of independently owned pizza parlors.

Callahan said that, in addition to the red flags he found in his review of the murder investigation, he was even more concerned when his superiors told him to stop investigating. He contends that one of his former superiors — Diane Carper — told him the case was ”too politically sensitive.” He eventually reported his concerns to the internal investigations unit about Carper and Steven M. Fermon, who Callahan accuses of blocking the reopening of the Rhoads case among, other ISP policy violations.

Shortly after his visit to the Department of Internal Investigations, Callahan was transferred from investigations to patrol, he said. He soon retired and brought suit against Carper and Fermon, claiming that they retaliated against him for speaking out on the case he says is plagued with cover-ups.

In April 2005, a jury found in Callahan’s favor, awarding him nearly $700,000 in damages, which were later reduced. But Carper and Fermon appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that according to Garcetti, Callahan did not have First Amendment rights when he spoke about the murder case because he was speaking about it in connection with his job duties. The appeals court agreed in May 2008 and overturned the lower court’s decision and award. Michale Callahan v. Steven M. Fermon and Diane Carper, Nos. 05-4313, 05-4335 and 06-1098.

”Based on the record as a whole, we conclude that Mr. Callahan was speaking pursuant to his official duties — not as a citizen — when he spoke” at a state police academy meeting and to the Internal Investigation Division, the court held in its decision.

Callahan said he obviously was disappointed with the appeals court’s decision, but said he is more ”frightened” that Garcetti is controlling case that sharply limits freedom of speech.

”Never in my wildest dreams, never, did I fathom that when I put on that gun and badge to protect the citizens of Illinois that I stopped being a citizen,” Callahan said. ”The courts have effectively made employees too afraid to speak out when they see corruption … That’s scary, especially with everything happening in Illinois now.”

Looking back, Callahan said, there was at least one positive that came out of the case that continues to haunt him as it remains unsolved.

”They freed them,” Callahan said of Steidl and Whitlock. Steidl was released in 2004 following a U.S. district court order. Assistance from Clutter and the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project was cited in a 4th District Appellate Court opinion that led to Whitlock’s 2008 release.

Callahan said it is not his intention to bad-mouth state police in his book. Rather, Callahan said, he hopes his story will not only stress the need for justice in the Rhoads case, but also to open the eyes of the public to a situation that is tarnishing the reputation of the criminal justice system as a whole.

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