MORRISON – The courtroom was silent, almost unnervingly so. It was a hot day outside Monday, but inside it was hot, too, and the air was sticky.
Courtroom B, on the top level of the Whiteside County Courthouse, was packed, each person breathing anxiously, waiting for the punishment that has been 6 long years in coming for Nicholas Sheley. What would be his punishment for taking the lives of four people, without apparent provocation, in a Rock Falls apartment in June 2008?
After the court listened to emotional statements from the victims’ families, they heard the long-awaited sentence for those four brutal murders:
Four life terms, to be served one after the other, and after two earlier life terms imposed for murdering a Sterling man and Galesburg man during a weeklong drug-and-alcohol-fueled killing spree. Sheley was convicted May 29 for the killings in that Rock Falls apartment of Brock Branson, 29, Kilynna Blake, 20, Dayan Blake, 2, and Kenneth Ulve, 25.
Sheley previously received life terms for the deaths of Russell Reed, 93, at his rural Sterling home, and Ronald Randall, 65, in Galesburg.
Next for Sheley will be a trial for the murders of Arkansas couple Tom and Jill Estes. They were killed in Festus, Missouri, while in town for a graduation.
Just after 11 a.m. Monday, State’s Attorney Trish Joyce read two victim-impact statements from members of Kilynna Blake’s family. Then Brock Branson’s sister, Jodi Fitzgerald, took the stand to read hers.
The Branson family turned out in force to hear what likely was Sheley’s final Illinois sentencing. They were a sea of blue and orange, all decked out in Chicago Bears gear in honor of their son’s favorite team.
“On Monday, June 30, 2008, around 4 p.m., I received a phone call from my father while driving home from work,” Fitzgerald said. “Little did I know that phone call would be a call that would change my entire life.”
She went on to recount the struggle to understand Brock’s death, how it has affected her and her family, and importantly, the life of Brock’s daughter.
“He had a huge heart, and because of you, Nick Sheley, your selfish decision in rage and jealousy, I mourn the loss of my own identity,” she said. “I want to be normal again. Not ‘Jodi whose brother was killed by Nick Sheley.’
“I mourn the loss of my parents as I knew them before Brock’s death.”
She looked up occasionally at Sheley, who, as he did during his trial, sat in shackles, staring straight ahead.
Fitzgerald took her seat, and the courtroom filled with a calm silence as Judge Jeffrey O’Connor prepared to read his sentence.
Missouri, where Sheley will next face trial, has the death penalty, but Jefferson County prosecutor Forrest Wegge has declined to say whether he’ll seek it. He must decide before trial begins; there is no timetable for when that might be.
Illinois Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward was among a group of attorneys who met recently with Wegge to discuss the next steps in the case.
“Missouri’s going to seek to have him transferred from the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Elward said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to assist the state of Missouri to get him there.. ...
“We’re getting [Wegge] all the evidence files that we have. It’s relatively straightforward what this defendant did in Missouri, but we want them to have all the information about the Illinois evidence that he brought into Missouri.”
Sheley’s defense attorney, Jeremy Karlin, said he would file an appeal on Sheley’s behalf, but didn’t think he would be involved in future proceedings, including the extradition or the appeal.
It’s an appeal that Elward doesn’t believe holds much weight.
“We’re confident that there’s overwhelming evidence that he got a fair trial, and there’s overwhelming, overwhelming evidence that he’s guilty,” Elward said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any need for us to do anything [in Missouri] besides cheer from the sidelines.”
The Branson group gathered for a picture outside the courthouse before heading to a family lunch nearby.
“It felt good,” Jodi Fitzgerald said about finally getting to read her statement. “It felt so good. I don’t care if he looked at me or what, but at least I did it, and it made me feel good.
“I feel some closure, and it’s time to just be done with this now and just move on just in his memory. We can’t bring him back, so let’s just keep moving forward and stay strong. But at least this isn’t something we have to think about every day.”