SPRINGFIELD — After 58 1/2 years in prison, the Starved Rock murderer is going free.
Chester Weger, 80, will be discharged soon now that the Illinois Prisoner Review Board has approved his request for parole. Thursday morning, the board voted 9 to 4 in favor of release.
Weger has to remain in custody for 90 days in the Illinois prison system to make sure he's not a risk factor to the public, according to the vote. Weger needed eight of today’s 13 votes to go free. Two board members were absent.
With double-murderer Henry Hillenbrand cut loose earlier this year, the parole board has now released two multiple murderers from LaSalle County in the same year.
Weger was sentenced to life in prison for the 1960 bludgeoning death of Lillian Oetting in a canyon at Starved Rock State Park. He also confessed to killing Oetting’s two companions.
Weger was not present at Thursday’s hearing, but told the parole board his confession was coerced and still maintains his innocence.
Weger stood for parole many times over the years without getting a single vote in favor of release. That changed abruptly in 2011, several months after Weger marked 50 years behind bars, when the board voted 8-5 against release. In each year since Weger has collected at least some votes favoring release and came closest in 2017 and 2018, when the board split 7-7.
The board had 13 members present Thursday morning, but despite having two members absent, Weger needed a majority eight votes for his release, which he received nine.
Showing in support of Weger were at least four members of his family. Those present at the hearing against Weger’s release included LaSalle County State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly and Diane Oetting, granddaughter of victim Lillian Oetting.
The board also met briefly in closed session to discuss Weger’s juvenile record, an issue that past boards had considered behind closed doors before denying his parole.
Thursday’s hearing rattled nerves among prosecutors and the survivors because a series of springtime events suggested the scales might finally tip in Weger’s favor.
Weger turned 80 in March, strengthening the case he no longer represents a physical threat to society. Hillenbrand was paroled in April, leaving Weger supporters hopeful for a similar result. In May, a key voice in opposition was lost when Weger prosecutor Anthony Raccuglia died.
Oetting and companions Frances Murphy and Mildred Lindquist were found bludgeoned in a canyon at Starved Rock State Park in early 1960. The case confounded investigators until the cords used to the bind the women’s hands was identified as kitchen twine that matched a spool in the kitchen at Starved Rock Lodge.
That discovery turned the spotlight to Weger, a dishwasher with a criminal record as a juvenile and who had been identified as the assailant in a recent sexual assault. Weger eventually confessed to bludgeoning the three women — he was convicted only for Oetting's death — and told authorities he was trying to rob the women. Weger later recanted the confession.
Recanted or not, Weger was convicted following a lengthy jury trial, after which jurors declined to hand down a death sentence and instead opted for life in prison.
The case has been hotly debated ever since, with alternate theories abounding even as Raccuglia and others attached to the case insisted Weger's recanted confession remains credible. (Raccuglia had, however, disclosed in 2002 that he didn't believe Weger robbed the women but in fact tried to sexually assault them.)
Weger has spent the past six decades trying to overturn his conviction and sentence, most notably in 2004 when he petitioned the court for DNA analysis. The petition was eventually withdrawn when analysts determined the physical evidence was too old and degraded, having not been stored by contemporary protocols, to be of any use.