DIXON – It's almost as if Steven Watts' arrest never happened.
The Lee County Court has no publicly available record that Watts, 56, of Berryville, Ark., was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on Feb. 28. That's because the court sealed all the records.
When the state's attorney's office sought an arrest warrant for Watts, it also requested a court order sealing the case, State's Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said Tuesday. Officials wanted the records sealed, she said, to avoid alerting two other suspects.
Associate Judge Jacquelyn Ackert granted the request.
After Watts was arrested in Arkansas, though, Sheriff John Varga issued a news release to Arkansas media, which went against the plan to keep the case under wraps, Sacco-Miller said.
"The cat was not let out of the bag by me or my office. I'm trying to protect the investigation," said Sacco-Miller, Lee County's top prosecutor. "They [other suspects] are out there. The press release in Arkansas didn't help. Now, we're scrambling to fix it."
Varga, in response, said the release "is out there, and we're dealing with it."
Watts is charged in the 1983 death of Gary D. Dawson of Peoria. Authorities say Dawson died of blunt-force trauma to the head and that his battered body was found in a hog pen in rural Franklin Grove on Aug. 28, 1983.
Officials at the time said Dawson was beaten in Peoria County, although they did not know where he actually died.
Varga said last week that all the players in the case had drug connections.
Sacco-Miller said the other two suspects are believed to be in the general area, which includes Peoria.
News of Watts' arrest made it to Peoria, so the suspects were probably "sweating bullets," she said.
Two weeks ago, Sauk Valley Media obtained records related to an obstruction-of-justice case against Watts from the 1980s associated with Dawson's murder. Hours later, those records, too, were sealed.
Watts pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in January 1987 and was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months of probation.
The sealing of records for someone who is already arrested and charged is unusual.
Lee County Circuit Clerk Denise McCaffrey-Ehrmann, who is the custodian of court records, said she couldn't recall another time when the court sealed documents in such a situation.
Public Defender Bob Thompson, who is representing Watts, said he hadn't seen such an order before.
"It's obvious they want to keep the co-defendants from recognizing this," he said. "They would have to know by now."
Watts' preliminary hearing is set for today, although it could be waived.