ROCK ISLAND – Connie Branson was worried.
It was Monday, June 30, 2008, and she hadn't heard from her son Brock for 2 days – not since the Saturday before, when she and her husband, Dallas, had joined Brock, 29; his girlfriend, Kilynna Blake, 20; and Kilynna's 2-year-old son, Dayan, for dinner at their Rock Falls apartment, 1201 Avenue A, apartment 5.
At dinner that night, they watched a movie. They talked. Kilynna cooked.
"It was a fun evening," Connie said Monday afternoon. She was the first witness called by the state to testify in the trial of Nicholas Sheley – the man who prosecutors say killed her son, his girlfriend and her son, and their roommate, Kenneth Ulve, later that Saturday night.
After Connie and Dallas left the apartment, at 9 p.m., Kilynna and Brock went to a neighbor's apartment to borrow a DVD. That's the last time the two were ever seen alive.
The next morning, Sunday, Connie hadn't heard from Brock. That was unusual, so she called him.
"He liked to come over for biscuits and gravy," she said, and so it was odd they hadn't heard from him.
Her call went straight to Brock's voicemail. As did many other calls she placed to him that afternoon and evening.
Monday morning came and went. Still no call from Brock. Her phone calls, still going straight to voicemail.
Brock usually called on his way to work in the morning, Connie said, but that day he didn't.
"I was getting worried, because he hadn't called," she said.
She decided that after work she would swing by the apartment to check on it.
On her way there, though, she drove past a house where Brock and Kenneth were supposed to be putting on a new roof.
The shingles were lying on the ground, untouched – it was clear the men had made no progress.
Then, Connie drove to the apartment.
There she saw that the porch door and screen door were open. Curtains billowed from an open window of their third-floor apartment. Brock's car was there.
She went up to the apartment door and knocked. No answer.
Then, Connie called her husband and asked him to meet her at their Rock Falls home. Dallas did, and together the two drove to the apartment.
"When I arrived there, I looked up on the balcony – it was hot that day – the patio door was open and the screen door was open," said Dallas Branson, the second witness called by the state on Monday. "And the curtains were blowing out the window, and that didn’t look right to me."
He walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. Again, no answer.
He pushed on the door. It gave a little, but there was something in the way – something blocking him from pushing it open all the way. He got it open maybe 4 or 5 inches, he said, when he looked down to figure out what was causing the resistance.
It was a body – that of Kilynna Blake. He could see her head, covered in dry blood. He looked a bit farther, he said, and there was his son, Brock, face-down and unresponsive.
"And then I looked a little bit farther and I seen two little legs," he said – the legs of Kilynna's son, Dayan, sticking into the air.
In a panic, he yelled out to his son, but Brock didn't answer.
Dallas turned around, slamming the door behind him, and raced down the stairs to his wife.
"I said, 'They’re gone. They're all dead. They’re all dead,' and [Connie] wanted to go up there, but I said 'No.'"
Next, he tried to dial 911, but couldn't because he was shaking so badly. It was a neighbor who ended up placing the call.
The timeline of events fit right into the middle of the puzzle that Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward had laid out before the jury during his opening statement Monday afternoon, the story of how, over the course of 7 days, eight people in this state and in Missouri were killed – all, prosecutors say, at the hands of Sheley.
The story is part of what Elward called "a complicated cocktail” of forensic evidence that links Sheley to various crime scenes throughout the state. It started on June 23, 2008, in Sterling with the death of 93-year-old Russell Reed, and ended in Festus, Missouri, on June 29, at a different crime scene where the bodies of Arkansas couple Jill and Tom Estes, both 54, were found behind a gas station trash bin about a mile and a half from the hotel parking lot where they were killed. Evidence of that out-of-state crime, it's been decided, won't be presented to the jury.
The actions that led up to the four Rock Falls deaths started out that same Saturday, June 28, when Connie and Dallas last saw their son. At 8 a.m. that day in Rock Island, the state says, Sheley stole an Illinois Oil Co. truck, a shirt, and a cap – the outfit he wore as he drove the stolen truck to Galesburg that day.
Once in Galesburg, Elward said, Sheley stopped at a gas station, but had only $3 to buy gas.
Video surveillance obtained from the store, and shown to the jury by Elward, shows Sheley leaving the gas station and driving away in the Illinois Oil Co. truck.
Elward said that a little later, Sheley returned to the gas station, this time driving Ronald Randall's truck. The gas station attendant recognized him and noticed blood on his cheek, on his body, and on his hands, and that he had adopted a new flannel shirt, worn on top of the stolen Illinois Oil Co. clothing he'd been wearing earlier. Sheley bought a six-pack of Bud Light, a lighter, and a pack of Newport cigarettes.
Elward said Sheley smoked one of those cigarettes in the Rock Falls apartment around the time he killed the four residents. It was found at the foot of the bed in Brock Branson's bedroom, with Sheley's DNA on it, as were the discarded Illinois Oil Co. clothes bearing DNA from Sheley, from the Rock Falls victims, and from Randall.
That was in the east bedroom. In the apartment's west bedroom, Kenneth Ulve's body was found by investigators in a chair, his head bloodied and slumped to the left.
Kilynna, Brock, and Dayan were found in the apartment's living room hallway.
About 11 p.m. on the Saturday that the four were killed, Elward said, a neighbor heard a loud thud, and someone screaming, "Oh no, stop!"
A little less than an hour after that, Sheley picked up his then-wife, Holly. He was wearing a new set of clothes – a gray Bears shirt that, prosecutors say, he had stolen from Brock Branson's apartment.
The two drove around in the stolen truck for a while before he dropped her off. She noticed the passenger seat was wet. Elward said that was because it was covered in Randall's blood.
That's when Sheley headed to Festus.
Two other witnesses to testify Monday were first responders to the scene and members of the Rock Falls Police Department: Officer James Hollaway and Detective Sgt. Jay Koett.
The two talked about the scene they walked in on, about the hot wind that blew through the apartment, and about the "smell of decay" that permeated the place.
During the course of testimony Monday, Sheley's attorney, Jeremy Karlin, declined to cross-examine any of the witnesses.
In his opening statement, Karlin reminded jurors that they should listen to all of the evidence before deciding Sheley's guilt or innocence.
"The more sensational a crime, the easier it is to obtain a conviction," he said. "What I’m asking you to do is not easier.
"Only at the close of this case ... and only after you deliberate can you start considering those types of conclusions. ... The law will guide you and instruct you to what I believe is the only conclusion in this case, that Mr. Sheley is not guilty of these charges, and that the state has not met its burden of proof."
Sheley, 34, of Sterling is charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder in the the four Rock Falls deaths.
Though a murder weapon was never recovered, autopsy results have indicated that the four were beaten with a hammer.
Elward said Monday that Kenneth suffered 11 blows to the head, Brock suffered seven, Kilynna had six, and her son, Dayan, at least four.
Sheley already is serving two life sentences for the murders of Randall, of Galesburg, and Reed, of Sterling; and is charged in the deaths of the Estes couple found in Festus.
After this trial is completed, Sheley will head to court in Missouri, where he could face the death penalty.
Follow Sauk Valley Media reporter Christi Warren on Twitter for live updates from the courtroom: @SeaWarren.