CHICAGO (AP) – It was a heinous crime: a businessman seized from his eastern Illinois home, buried alive in a plywood box in the woods outside Kankakee and left to suffocate when a crude breathing tube failed before a ransom could be paid.
Nearly three decades later, one of two people imprisoned for life in the killing of Stephen Small is making a bid for freedom.
Nancy Rish says she was trapped in an abusive relationship with the small-time cocaine dealer who plotted the botched kidnapping of the 40-year-old scion of a wealthy family that owned newspapers and broadcast stations. She says she knew nothing of what he was up to on that night in September 1987 and was threatened at gunpoint for demanding an explanation as he forced her into the role of unwitting accomplice – details that never came out in her trial.
“She was convicted because she was his girlfriend,” said attorney Margaret Byrne, who began assembling a clemency bid this year after hearing of Rish’s story from another prisoner. “To read the (trial) transcript is so painful, because there isn’t any direct evidence against her. ... It’s strictly circumstantial evidence based on her being associated with him.”
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board will hear the petition Tuesday in Chicago and could vote in a matter of weeks.
The petition accuses prosecutors of misstating facts and other misconduct and cites egregious missteps by Rish’s own lawyers. The attorney she first contacted after her arrest failed to disclose he was a friend of the Small family and allowed days of police questioning in which Rish made false and inconsistent statements that were used against her in court.
The petition also includes affidavits from Daniel Edwards, who, having abandoned his own appeals, states that he alone committed the crime and actively concealed his plans from Rish, even as he built the coffin-like box in their garage.
If clemency is recommended, Gov. Pat Quinn would have no deadline for a decision. It was not clear whether representatives of the Small family will attend the hearing, as they could not be reached for comment.
Small was a great-grandson of Len Small, Illinois’ governor in the 1920s.
Edwards says he lured Small from his home with a phone call in which he identified himself as a police officer and told Small there had been a break-in at a property he owned. Edwards abducted him at gunpoint and they drove off in Small’s car to a remote site.
There, Edwards put Small in the box with water, candy bars and a light and buried him under several feet of sand with a pipe running to the surface. Edwards recorded a message from Small asking his wife to deliver $1 million to his kidnapper with the plea “It’s no joke. I’m inside ... a box. Grave.” Edwards played the recording into the phone during ransom calls.
Edwards says in his affidavit he had Rish drop him off and pick him up at several points as he carried out the plot. But he says he refused to answer her questions about what he was doing.
“I committed this crime completely on my own,” he states in the affidavit, maintaining he never intended to kill Small. “... If I had had someone helping me, I would not have needed to put Mr. Small in the box.”
A medical examiner determined Small likely died after three or four hours because the pipe did not provide sufficient oxygen.
At her trial, prosecutors painted Rish as a “gold digger” and said she had made the first call to the Small house, even though Small’s son, who first picked up the phone, testified it was a man’s voice.
Rish’s trial attorneys, however, failed to lodge an objection. They also instructed her not to testify about her conversations with Edwards, including her repeated demands to know what was going on and his violent refusals. According to the clemency petition, Edwards showed her a gun and threatened to kill her, her 9-year-old son and himself.
“My heart aches for the grief that Stephen Small’s death has brought to the Small family,” Rish says in a written statement accompanying her petition.
Rish’s sister, Lori Guimond, will be among those speaking to the Review Board.
“She’s a courageous girl,” she said. “The loss of family, the loss of being there for her son. That’s the greatest loss.”