Calling him an "extraordinarily violent and dangerous person," a Lake County judge sentenced Hezekiah Whitfield to life in prison for murdering a 71-year-old Waukegan store owner in 1994.
But the Chicago man was not in the courtroom when Judge Mark Levitt handed down the sentence in the murder of Fred Reckling of Waukegan at his Grand Appliance store. Levitt excused Whitfield from the hearing earlier Tuesday after he exercised his right to not appear at his own sentencing.
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"The only appropriate sentence for him is natural life in prison without the possibility of parole," Levitt said.
Whitfield, 44, will make one last appearance before Levitt on Aug. 19. Levitt said the meeting will be to inform Whitfield of his right to appeal the April verdict and the sentence.
"The judge was absolutely correct in his ruling," said Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim after the hearing. "Asking for a life sentence is something we don't do lightly, but it's absolutely warranted in this case."
A jury convicted Whitfield of murder in April for using a cloth-wrapped gun to bludgeon Reckling to death during an armed robbery Dec. 8, 1994.
Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Scheller said Whitfield entered and confronted Reckling in the Grand Appliance store on Grand Avenue at closing time. The two struggled near the front of the store, Scheller said, but the fatal blow took place near a row of refrigerators deeper inside the building after Reckling tried to get away.
After the attack, Whitfield stole cash from the store, and Reckling's wallet and car keys, then drove the victim's car to Chicago where he abandoned it.
Police initially zeroed in on James Edwards, now 66, and charged him with killing Reckling. However, despite being convicted of murdering Reckling in 1996, DNA evidence cleared Edwards of the crime in 2012.
The same DNA evidence obtained from the vehicle and the store matched Whitfield's, and was the primary evidence prosecutors used to convict him.
Edwards remains in prison for an unrelated armed robbery conviction.
Whitfield was not in the courtroom when defense attorney Gillian Gosch said he "maintains his innocence" and was requesting the minimum sentence allowed by law.
However, one of Reckling's daughters and two of his grandchildren testified during the sentencing hearing to push for the maximum sentence for Whitfield.
All three described Reckling as a caring person, an avid Cubs fan, and someone who would do anything for his children and grandchildren.
Reckling was a gentle man and a gentleman," daughter Kristine Clemens said through tears. "Parents give you a foundation, and when that's gone, it's not easy."