A man who killed six people in Illinois nine years ago is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to murdering an Arkansas couple who were staying at a hotel in Festus, Mo.
Relatives of the couple are unhappy about the plea because it would remove the possibility of the death penalty in the case.
Tom and Jill Estes, both 54, of Sherwood, Ark., were staying at the Comfort Inn in Festus in June 2008 because it allowed dogs. They were in town for a graduation party in St. Louis. The Jennings High School sweethearts were the last of Nicholas Sheley’s victims — eight in all, police said.
Sheley had already killed a 93-year-old man in his hometown of Sterling, Ill.; four people including a 2-year-old in Rock Falls, Ill.; and a 65-year-old man in Galesburg, Ill., when he happened upon the couple at the Festus hotel.
After beating the Esteses to death, police say Sheley loaded their bodies into a pickup belonging to his Galesburg victim and dumped the couple behind a gas station a short distance away. Hotel guests called police after finding the couple’s dogs covered in blood and roaming the parking lot. Deputies followed a 1.5-mile trail of blood to the gas station.
Sheley is serving life sentences for the six slayings in Illinois. Illinois prosecutors dropped their pursuit of the death penalty for Sheley after former Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in 2011.
Prosecutors in Jefferson County filed notice on June 8, 2015, of their intent to press for Sheley’s execution if he was convicted of murdering the Esteses.
Assistant Jefferson County Prosecutor Steve Jerrell declined to comment Monday about why prosecutors had offered Sheley a plea, saying he could not comment until after today’s hearing.
The move angered Patrick Steed, whose wife, Jaime Steed, 39, is the Esteses’ daughter.
Steed said his family has not spoken to the media about the murders, because they did not want any attention. But he said he felt compelled to speak out this week to let the public know his family and those of the Illinois victims are disappointed that Missouri prosecutors are no longer seeking the death penalty against Sheley.
Relatives of the Illinois victims could not be reached for comment Monday.
“All of the families wanted to see the death penalty,” Steed said. “We feel like our voice wasn’t really considered. We feel marginalized.”
Steed said prosecutors told him about three weeks ago that the death penalty was off the table because prosecutors feared technicalities related to Sheley’s extradition to Missouri from Illinois, as well as a child pornography conviction of a former deputy who handled evidence at the murder scene, could jeopardize the case.
Steed said his family would not have cared if those issues derailed the case. They know Sheley is going to spend the rest of his life in prison even if he gets away with the murders of Tom and Jill Estes.
“We’d rather risk a not-guilty verdict and know we tried rather than, ‘We’re not going to try and there’s nothing you can do to change our minds about it,’” Steed said. “How can you get closure knowing this guy is still alive? There’s no remorse, no regret, no feeling of punishment. His life is probably better now than it was on the outside.
“I don’t want to go to my grave with the thought that he’s still alive living off my tax dollars. We’re paying to feed this guy so he can bulk up, have better health care, dental, free meals. Why? There is no justice in that situation for us.”
Prosecutors say the string of drug- and alcohol-induced killings began June 26, 2008, in Sheley’s hometown of Sterling, Ill., where the body of farmer Russell Reed, 93, was found in the trunk of his car.
Four days later, the bodies of Tom and Jill Estes were found behind a gas station in Festus. Less than two hours later, the body of Ronald Randall of Galesburg, Ill., was found behind a grocery there.
Also that day, the bodies of Kenneth Ulve, 25, Brock Branson, 29, Branson’s fiancée Kilynna Blake, 20, and her 2-year-old son, Dayan Blake, were found inside a Rock Falls apartment in northwestern Illinois. They had all been bludgeoned to death with a hammer.
After a nationwide manhunt, Sheley was arrested July 1, 2008, outside Bindy’s bar on Nameoki Road in Granite City. Patrons recognized him from the media coverage.
In April 2009, Sheley attacked jail guards at the Knox County jail in Galesburg, and was sentenced to seven years in prison for the attack.
Prosecutors in Illinois alleged in 2013 that Sheley’s rampage was prompted by his belief that one of his victims, Brock Branson, was having an affair with his wife. Another witness told police Sheley and Branson had argued about drugs. Police believe the Esteses and Randall were random victims. Sheley’s wife later testified that Reed once let her and her husband take scrap metal from his property to use toward paying for their wedding, according to the Quad City Times.
Sheley has been awaiting trial at the Jefferson County Jail in Hillsboro since February 2015.