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Journey to Hawaii part of cold case murder probe

Cost of $5,086

DIXON – In recent years, Lee County authorities revealed little about their investigation into the 1983 beating death of Gary D. Dawson of Peoria. Even disclosing the costs would compromise their work, they said.

This week, Steven A. Watts, 56, of Arkansas, was arrested in connection with Dawson’s death. Dawson’s battered body was found in Franklin Grove on Aug. 29, 1983.

In September 2011, two Lee County sheriff’s deputies and an assistant state’s attorney traveled to Hawaii as part of the investigation.

The price tag: $5,086.

Click here to see expense receipts from the trip to Hawaii

That’s information the Sheriff’s Department said it didn’t want the public to know while the case was still being investigated.

In an interview in November, Sheriff John Varga, Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Buh and Detective David Glessner told Sauk Valley Media that releasing information about the Hawaii trip would tip off their suspect.

So the newspaper held off, as it did a year before when it first inquired about the trip.

According to county records, Buh, Glessner and Detective Jeff Dallas went to Hawaii from Sept. 11 to Sept. 16.

Varga said Wednesday that the three visited Hawaii to do a surprise interview with a major witness. They needed several days in case problems developed, he said.

The investigation also involved trips to Iowa and Arkansas, he said.

In November, then-State’s Attorney Henry Dixon declined to release expense records associated with the trip.

Buh later indicated to Sauk Valley Media that his office would release the documents after all, although he didn’t.

Varga said the county didn’t resist releasing information because of the price of the trip. He said a $5,000 bill would be justified in helping to solve a murder.

Buh agreed.

“In a murder investigation, we are required to go where witnesses take us, whether it be Arkansas, Iowa or Hawaii. Murder is the ultimate crime that needs to be investigated,” he said.

Sauk Valley Media emailed Dixon’s office a public records request on Oct. 30. Under the state Freedom of Information Act, the office had a week to respond.

On Nov. 6 – the day that he lost his re-election bid for state’s attorney – Dixon denied release of the records.

“You have asked for specific information in your one current FOIA request,” Dixon wrote. “In doing so, our response to your request and your publication of that information would in my view not simply jeopardize the investigation, but would compromise the prosecution’s case. Thus, the perpetrator of a gruesome murder would be able to avoid prosecution – all in the name of FOIA.”

According to the Freedom of Information Act, all public agencies’ financial records are open for public inspection.

The previous year, Dixon told Sauk Valley Media that he didn’t want to make public that his office was working on the old murder case. He said public knowledge of the investigation would compromise it, so Sauk Valley Media agreed to delay publication.

But in a campaign advertisement that the newspaper published in October, Dixon referred to his office’s investigations, including “an over-20-year-old murder cold case.” Because he released that information, the newspaper decided to again seek the travel records.

In a Nov. 8 letter to Sauk Valley Media, Dee Duffy, Lee County’s Freedom of Information Act officer, said the county had turned in the denial of the financial records to the attorney general’s office for a determination “whether further inquiry is warranted.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rogina said in November that his office hadn’t received any such request for a determination from Dixon’s office.

Sauk Valley Media eventually obtained the travel documents from the county clerk’s office, which is the custodian for all county financial records.

The bill

Here are the costs for Lee County authorities' September 2011 trip to Hawaii, which was part of the investigation into the 1983 death of Gary D. Dawson:

Airfare: $2,794.50

Hotel: $1,619.35

Rental car: $310.52

Travel insurance: $286.90

Baggage fees: $75.00

TOTAL: $5,086.27

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