ROCK FALLS – Around 11 p.m. on June 28, 2008, Brock Branson, Kilynna Blake, her son, Dayan, and Kenneth Ulve were ambushed and brutally murdered in their Rock Falls apartment, beaten repeatedly with a hammer.
Nicholas Sheley was the one who delivered those blows, a Rock Island County jury decided Thursday.
Ulve was killed first, and then Sheley waited until Branson and the Blakes got home before ambushing them in their hallway. Kilynna Blake's cry of "Oh god, don't! Stop!" ultimately was silenced by Sheley.
The 12-person jury deliberated for almost 4 hours before reaching a guilty verdict against the Sterling man. Judge Jeffrey O'Connor set Sheley's sentencing for Aug. 11.
It is the third time Sheley has been found guilty of murder in what prosecutors say was a drug- and alcohol-induced killing spree that resulted in eight deaths in late June 2008.
After the state rested its case Thursday, defense attorney Jeremy Karlin called no witnesses. And, as in his previous trials, Sheley did not testify in his own defense, which is his right.
Sheley, 34, also is accused of killing an Arkansas couple in Festus, Missouri, and already is serving two life sentences for murder in the death of Ronald Randall in Galesburg and the killing of Russell Reed, 93, in Sterling.
Evidence showed Sheley had been all over the northwestern corner of the state on the day he killed the four people in Rock Falls. His morning began in Rock Island, where he'd smashed a brick through someone's car window and then fell asleep in the back seat.
He was awakened by the car's owner and chased out of it, over a hill and across the street, where he broke into a business, Illinois Oil Products, stole a pair of shorts and a work shirt with "A.J." on the breast, and left his jeans on a desk.
That was how Assistant Attorney General Steve Nate began his hour-long closing statement at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the eighth day of Sheley's trial.
"Nearly 6 years ago, events were set in motion right here in Rock Island that led to the brutal murder of four innocent people," Nate said. "By midnight of the 28th, Kilynna Blake, Dayan Blake, Brock Branson, and Kenneth Ulve were all dead, their heads crushed by repeated blows.
"Nicholas Sheley did this. Nicholas Sheley is the one responsible for these murders. Nicholas Sheley killed Brock. He killed Ki. He killed Dayan. And he killed Kenny."
DNA analysts throughout the past 2 weeks have testified that Sheley's DNA was found on a blue work shirt with "A.J." on the breast, a pair of shorts, and two Newport brand cigarettes, all of which were found in the Rock Falls apartment where the murders occurred. They have testified that his DNA was found all over the blue truck he stole after killing Randall earlier in the evening. They have testified that Sheley's DNA also was found on the clothing he stole from the Rock Falls apartment and was seen wearing in St. Louis and in Festus.
His victims' DNA was found on that clothing, too, spattered with blood and recovered by investigators from a dumpster at a Festus gas station.
When Sheley finally was arrested by Granite City police July 1, officers found a sleeve of developed film, a disposable camera, a pack of cigarettes, and sunglasses – stolen from Branson after his death.
The negatives were printed, and those photos, shown to the jury this morning, showed a smiling Sheley, wearing Branson's clothing, touring around downtown St. Louis, at the Arch, on the street, and on a bench in a park next to a red bicycle.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is Nicholas Sheley," Nate said, showing the jury the picture of Sheley smiling next to the bicycle. "That’s him down in St. Louis after he brutally murdered those four people in Rock Falls. When you look at this photo, you can see that he doesn’t have a care in the world. He's having a great time enjoying himself down in St. Louis on vacation."
Autopsies of the victims' bodies later showed that there were 11 blows to Ulve's head. Seven to Branson's. Kilynna Blake had six, and her 2-year-old son Dayan had four.
“When you hit a person over and over with a hammer ... you can have only one intent, and that is to kill them,” Nate told the jury before they went into deliberations. "You now have the opportunity to send the defendant a message. Send him a message that Brock Branson, Kilynna Blake, Dayan Blake and Kenneth Ulve, they mattered. They were people of this world that deserved the chance to live this life and fulfill their dreams."
As the jury exited the room after delivering the verdict, the victims' families stood, tearfully embracing and breathing sighs of relief.
When Sheley was led out of the room, a cry erupted from Jodi Fitzgerald, Branson's sister: "I hope you rot in hell, Nick Sheley!"
Outside the courtroom, victims' family members embraced, crossing family lines to comfort and congratulate one another on finally getting some closure.
"We've all become so close," Fitzgerald says. "Through this whole situation, we have this great bond. We've connected through text messages, Facebook; it's been absolutely amazing."
"It's closure, but it's really not, since it's been so long," said Connie Branson, Brock's mother.
Dallas Branson, Brock's father, embraced Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward outside the courtroom.
"You're a good man," Elward said. "You're a good man. Brock would be proud of you."
"I feel that justice was finally served," Whiteside County State's Attorney Trish Joyce said, standing outside of the Rock Island County Justice Center. "Although it was delayed, it has finally arrived. I feel such a sense of relief for the Branson, Blake and Ulve family members and also the ones that have gone before them, such as the Reed family, the Randall family, and soon to come, the Estes family."
Sheley has now been convicted of six of the eight murders that prosecutors originally accused him of.
He will next head to trial in Missouri for the deaths of the Estes couple.