DIXON – Byron Adams made many choices on Sept. 11, 2009, prosecutors said Monday.
He chose to go to Margaret Atherton’s home with a realistic-looking pellet gun, to rob her for gas money to get back to Chicago.
He chose to force her upstairs to her bedroom, bind her hands with a black necktie, stuff two rolled-up socks in her mouth, and put a pillowcase over her head, suffocating her.
He chose to take her purse, wrap it in a towel, and throw it in a trash bin behind a local store before heading back to Chicago.
Those choices led Lee County Associate Judge Charles Beckman to sentence Adams to the maximum 60 years in prison with no possibility of parole.
He gets credit for more than 3 years already served in the Lee County Jail.
“Margaret Atherton was not safe even in her own home,” Beckman said. “Her home, which she has a right to feel safe and secure [in], as we all do.”
“Your intent was to silence her and shut her up,” the judge told Adams. “You are the one that invaded her residence and destroyed her world and the world of her family.”
Adams, 54, showed no emotion as the sentence was handed down. His attorney, David Mandrgoc, immediately filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence.
Newly elected State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said she was “thrilled” with the sentence.
“Justice has been done today,” she said.
On Oct. 9., a Lee County jury convicted Adams of first-degree murder after deliberating less than 2 hours.
Adams initially told police he had nothing to do with Atherton’s death and said he was not even in Dixon that day. He later changed his story and said he was having an affair with Atherton, went to her house to break up with her and things got out of control.
In a later interview with Sauk Valley Media, Adams said he lied about the affair and about killing Atherton so police would let him make a phone call.
The day he was found guilty, Adams told Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Buh and investigating officer Lt. Clay Whelan that he went to Atherton’s home to steal gas money, and that her death was an accident, Whelan testified.
Adams said the same thing in a letter he wrote to the court that Beckman read Monday. “There are no words to express how sorry I am,” he wrote. “I can only tell you how I feel for 3 years. I have laid in bed and cried without any sleep because I didn’t mean to harm Ms. Atherton.”
Adams wiped his eyes and sniffled as the letter was read. He declined to make a statement before being sentenced.
Atherton’s husband, Ryan, and their oldest daughter, Hailey, 16, read statements during the emotional 90-minute hearing.
Ryan Atherton, 38, said his wife was a caring, loving woman who loved to entertain family and friends and was very involved in her church. She also supported Hailey and her sisters Hannah and Madison in all of their extracurricular activities. She had recently finished schooling to become an EKG technician.
Now, she will never see her daughters graduate, walk down the aisle at their weddings, or see her grandchildren, Ryan said.
“Mr. Adams took the sacred part of life from her and them ... imagine having to tell a 7-, 10-, and 13-year-old that their mother wasn’t coming back. She didn’t just die ... she was taken by a stranger for no reason.”
Hailey said Adams robbed her family of a mother, wife, daughter, and sister.
“And if that wasn’t enough, you dragged my mother’s name through the dirt by saying you had an alleged affair with her,” Hailey said. “You made us wait 3 years to get any kind of closure, and even then, you still tried to deny your guilt. But, you can’t deny your guilt any longer.”
Adams already has served two stints in prison for two rapes in Cook County, in 1978 and 1982. In one case, he forced his way into a woman’s home with a gun, bound her hands, and tried to suffocate her with a pillow, Buh said.
Another woman testified Monday that Adams had raped her at gunpoint in October 2007, then let her go.
Police have said they believe Adams went to Atherton’s home to rape her.
Adams’ crimes have escalated over the years, and he has become more dangerous. The minimum 20-year sentence the defense sought was not enough, Buh said.
Mandrgoc noted that Adams was not charged with the 2007 rape and hadn’t served any prison or jail time since his last release in the the 1980s. The police, not Adams, claimed he was having an affair with Atherton, he said.
Adams has diabetes and heart problems, so even the minimum sentence “is probably a life sentence,” he added.
After the hearing, Mandrgoc said 60 years was more than he expected.
“I think he was truly remorseful in his letter,” Mandrgoc said. “It’s hard to see remorse after all the things that have gone on in this case, but I think he was truly remorseful. I know he’s changed dramatically since I’ve come in contact with him.”