Two men have been charged separately in a pair of high-profile Lake County murder cases that previously focused on other suspects until doubts were raised by DNA evidence, authorities said Tuesday.
Jorge Torrez, 23, has been charged in the 2005 slayings of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and Krystal Tobias, 9, the Lake County state's attorney's office said. Torrez, who's incarcerated in Virginia, faces 18 counts of first-degree murder.
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Laura's father, Jerry Hobbs III, originally was charged with killing the girls in a Zion park and spent about five years in the Lake County jail awaiting trial. Hobbs, now living in Texas, was released in August 2010 after DNA evidence connected Torrez to the scene. He could not be reached for comment.
In addition, Hezekiah D. Whitfield, 42, of Chicago has been charged in the 1994 murder in Waukegan of Fred Reckling. Six counts of first-degree murder have been leveled against Whitfield, prosecutors said.
James Edwards, 63, was sent to prison in 1996 after he was convicted of beating Reckling to death, based on a signed confession.
Whitfield and Torrez were indicted by a grand jury May 2. Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Scheller, chief of the office's criminal division, said the charges in both cases were deliberately publicized together Tuesday.
Bringing the killers of the three victims to justice has been "a large priority for me," said Scheller, who took over the criminal division in February after the departure of the Michael Mermel.
Mermel gained notoriety for his role in the cases involving Hobbs and Edwards, as well as others tied to DNA evidence. It's important for the right people to be charged in cases, Scheller said.
"We should be spending our resources making sure we have the right people," he said.
Attorney Kathleen Zellner, who represents Hobbs and Edwards in federal lawsuits against Lake County authorities, said prosecutors deserve credit for charging Torrez and Whitfield.
"They're definitely cleaning things up," Zellner said of Lake County prosecutors. "It is very encouraging."
Physical evidence tied Torrez to the crime scene, Scheller said, without elaborating. On Tuesday, Torrez was served with an arrest warrant in the killings of the girls.
On May 8, 2005, Hobbs discovered the bodies of his daughter and her friend in the Zion park. They had been stabbed to death.
Police said Hobbs confessed to the crimes in the early morning hours of May 10, 2005. However, Hobbs began denying any involvement in the acts within hours of his confession.
Authorities said Torrez is in custody in a Virginia prison where he's serving five consecutive life sentences plus 168 years for rape, robbery and abduction. He also faces a federal charge of first-degree murder.
Meanwhile, a post-conviction hearing in Edwards' case is set for May 25 in Lake County court.
Edwards remains in Menard Correctional Center in downstate Chester, convicted in unrelated crimes. That includes a 1996 armed robbery for which Edwards was jailed when he was charged in the Reckling murder.
"Mr. Edwards is not getting out of prison," Scheller said.
Attorney Paul DeLuca, who represents Edwards, said while his client won't go free even though Whitfield is now accused of killing Reckling, it raises more questions about why Illinois courts are reluctant to allow expert testimony about false confessions.
"I think this is another false confession for the false confession doubters," DeLuca said.
Whitfield was 25 at the time of Reckling's slaying, Scheller said. DNA from blood left at the crime scene in Reckling's Grand Appliance store matched Whitfield's, as did blood found in the victim's car, which was discovered 12 blocks from where he lived, according to Scheller.
An arrest warrant for Whitfield was issued shortly after he was indicted, and authorities have been searching for him since then, Scheller said. He was seized Tuesday morning by U.S. marshals as he exited his home in Chicago, Scheller said.
Whitfield's DNA was tested within the last year, Scheller said. He declined to say how Whitfield became a suspect in the case, but that he made no statements to police after his arrest.
Bail for Whitfield was set at $3 million during a hearing Tuesday. He remains in the Lake County jail.