Three students track down killers

Four men wrongfully convicted for double murder are freed after 18 years when three college students goad the real killers to confess

18-year-old Murder Case

June 27, 1999|By Laura Sullivan

Ira Johnson was unlike anyone I had ever met. Something about him left you uneasy, as if he knew who you were without asking. He could look right through you, dismiss you, even as you sat in front of him. He was a strange mix of danger and aloofness, the way his legs twitched under the table, the way he leaned so far back in his chair. He would smile, then jingle the handcuffs hanging from his wrists. Something about him, about the way he stared at your back when you turned around, something about him was evil.

He had killed, and he watched while his friends killed. And yet months later this same man would lean across a table in an Illinois prison and confess to an unspeakable crime so that four men wrongfully convicted -- two sent to death row -- wouldn't die for what he had done.

Ira Johnson, 36, with dark eyes and calloused hands, was already serving time for murdering a woman in a drug deal gone bad. But this was different. He could get the death penalty for acknowledging what happened one night in early May 1978. And he knew it.

My partner and I, two students from Northwestern University, were there hoping to find information about a brutal kidnapping, rape and double murder of a man and his fiancee. It was 1996, 18 years since they had been killed, and yet nothing about the case seemed settled. It lingered in the courts like a bad taste no one wanted to talk about and no one wanted to remember.

Ira Johnson was the only person alive who could put the pieces together. And as he sat at the table struggling between good and bad, between doing the right thing and telling us to go to hell, it struck me that he was the final paradox in a story that began in violence, corruption and racism on the South Side of Chicago, and ended in the hands of the unlikeliest heroes.

For the three of us -- Stacey Delo, Stephanie Goldstein and me -- the case started as a senior-year class project.

Our investigative journalism professor, David Protess, an anti-death penalty advocate experienced in examining wrongful convictions, instructed us to pick a case from a stack he had collected, and learn something about the criminal justice system.

It consumed us, from the minute we began reading, and quickly led us from the comfortable world of academia to Chicago crack houses, sheriff's offices, public housing and Illinois' death row.

On the first day of class, January 3, 1996, we chose the 1978 murder.

Twenty-six-year-old Larry Lionberg, a clerk at a South Side gas station, and his fiancee, 23-year-old Carol Schmal, a student, had been kidnapped from the station at about 10:30 p.m., the yogurt she brought him half-eaten on the counter. Their bodies were found the next day in Ford Heights, a poor, predominantly black neighborhood south of Chicago. Carol's body lay on the floor of an abandoned townhouse, Larry's in a creek bed 100 yards behind the house.

In the course of our six-month investigation, those were the only details of the crime that never changed.

Within hours of the discovery, the Ford Heights Police Department and the Cook County Sheriff's Office picked up four black teen-agers, walking them before television cameras, promising Chicago that the people who killed Larry and Carol were behind bars. According to court records, the reason for their arrest was that they were from the neighborhood and had visited the crime scene.

But four days after the teens' arrests, police said they had found an eyewitness and had taken her before a grand jury.

Within a year, the suspects -- Dennis Williams, Kenny Adams, Verneal Jimmerson and Willie Rainge -- were tried and convicted. Good kids from a rough part of town, they were loved by their families and friends. Only one of them, Williams, had a juvenile record, for setting a motorcyle on fire years before.

Now Williams was on death row, and Adams and Rainge were serving life terms. Stephanie, Stacey and I decided to visit them, and went to meet with lawyers from a small Chicago law firm representing Jimmerson, also on death row.

The men said they didn't do it and didn't know who had. I wasn't entirely convinced. Could so many people -- police, prosecutors and the jury -- all be wrong? My mind changed after we interviewed Paula Gray, the officers' eyewitness, and the heart of the state's case.

With the help of a paralegal working on Jimmerson's case, we found Gray in a South Side public housing complex. She was 17 at the time of the slayings and mildly retarded, with an IQ of around 65.

When we went to Gray's apartment, we found a 34-year-old woman sullen and withdrawn. Stacey and I stood outside her apartment door and told her how we had met Dennis Williams and Kenny Adams, who a lifetime ago had been her close friends. We said they had a message for her. She said we could come in.

Williams and Adams had told us to tell her that they didn't blame her, that she was a victim, too. Paula began to cry. She stared at the shag carpeting and kept pulling at the loose string on the armrest of her couch.

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