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updated: 11/6/2017 4:32 PM

Peoria man pleads not guilty in Lisle cold-case slaying

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  • Thomas Spear

    Thomas Spear

 
 

A 43-year-old Peoria man pleaded not guilty Monday to first-degree murder in the death of a Lisle woman more than two decades ago.

Thomas Spear, a pizza chef, was charged last month in the August 1994 death of Illa Venard in her second-floor condominium on Walnut Creek Lane.

Spear also pleaded not guilty to forgery charges.

He is being held on $3 million bail in the DuPage County jail.

Spear recently admitted to the burglary that authorities say led to Venard's death. The admission came more than 20 years after a witness first came forward to identify him as a suspect, prosecutors said.

Venard, a widow who lived alone, was found dead shortly before midnight on Aug. 4, 1994, by her son, Keith, and his now ex-wife.

An autopsy conducted at the time was unable to determine her cause of death.

Venard's decomposing body was found partially under a chair with her thumbnail broken and rings missing from her fingers, Assistant State's Attorney Kristin Johnston said last month. Her apartment appeared to have been ransacked. A TV Guide, open to three days earlier, rested on a nearby table.

Investigators were stymied by her death until Aug. 2, 1997, when a former neighbor of Venard's implicated Spear.

The woman told police Spear visited her and her boyfriend shortly before the slaying. Johnston said the woman told police Venard walked through the condo's pool area where the three were sitting and Spear noticed the jewelry she was wearing and asked where she lived.

A short time later, Spear again met with the woman and her boyfriend, showed them four checks taken from Venard's purse, and asked them to go with him to cash them, Johnston said.

She said Spear cashed each of the checks for $300 and shared the money with the woman and her boyfriend. The three then went shopping.

Over the next 20 years, Spear was convicted of multiple burglaries and criminal trespass to vehicle charges. He also was convicted twice of driving with a suspended license and a 2015 DUI.

Prosecutors said Lisle police reopened the cold case earlier this year and tracked Spear to Peoria, where he confessed on Sept. 28. He initially was charged with four counts of forgery and four counts of issuing or delivering a forged document in connection with the stolen checks.

Spear told police during the interview that he used a "rope and a grappling hook" to reach Venard's second-story balcony.

As he entered the sliding glass door, he told police, Venard approached him. He grabbed her by the neck and shoved her to the floor, Johnston said.

Venard became unconscious, Johnston said, and Spear attempted CPR to revive her. When that failed, Johnston said, he put the chair over her "so he didn't have to look at her."

After Spear's confession, a medical examiner reopened the file and determined the cause of death to be cardiac arrhythmia caused by being startled by an intruder. The examiner could not rule out strangulation.

Spear's next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 18.

• Daily Herald staff writer Justin Kmitch contributed to this report.

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