On prison deathbed, convict says he killed Rolling Meadows man
Michael Mansfield, a college student home for Christmas break, left his Rolling Meadows home on New Year's Eve 1975 to visit a friend in nearby Arlington Heights.
But his family and friends never heard from him again, and authorities classified him as missing and presumed dead.
Now more than three decades later, Mansfield's one-time college roommate — already a convicted murderer — confessed to his killing, police announced Friday.
Russell Smrekar, who was serving a 300-year prison sentence for a 1976 double-murder, confessed earlier this month — as he approached his final days with a terminal illness.
Earlier this week, Smrekar, 56, died at the downstate Menard Correctional Center.
Authorities long suspected Smrekar in the death of Mansfield, then 19 and a student at Lincoln College, about 25 miles northeast of Springfield. Mansfield was scheduled to testify against his ex-roommate in a theft case just six days after going missing.
Smrekar, originally from Joliet, was suspected of stealing record albums from a girl's dorm room, and Mansfield was a key witness. But after Mansfield disappeared, the charges against Smrekar were dropped.
Smrekar later was arrested and convicted of the murders of a man and his pregnant wife in Lincoln. The man, Jay Fry, 24, also was scheduled to testify against Smrekar in a theft case — in this one, Smrekar was charged with shoplifting steaks from a Kroger grocery store. Fry and his pregnant wife, Robin, 24, were shot to death in their home.
On Friday, authorities said Smrekar also had confessed to the 1976 killing of Ruth Martin, 51, of Lincoln, who was supposed to testify against Smrekar in the grocery store theft case as well. Smrekar said he buried her late at night under construction taking place on Interstate 55. On the day Martin was reported missing, police found her car at the Holiday Inn in Bloomington with blood stains in the trunk.
Rolling Meadows Police Chief Dave Scanlan said investigators have interviewed Smrekar on and off for about 15 years, but they weren't able to gain any substantial information.
“He told us maybe 12 years ago if he was on his deathbed, he would tell us what happened,” Scanlan said.
While awaiting trial in 1977, Smrekar reportedly boasted to jail mates he murdered Mansfield and Martin.
In a 2006 Daily Herald article on the cold case, police said Smrekar was reluctant to give any information because he still believed there was a chance he could be pardoned for the double-murder conviction.
The Rolling Meadows Police Department's cold case review team had been working with investigators in downstate Lincoln since September in an effort to obtain new information before Smrekar died, police said.
Authorities said they brought Smrekar back to Lincoln in early October to try to locate where Martin's body may be, but he was unable to give a precise location.
Scanlan said Rolling Meadows detectives are following up on new leads as a result of information provided by Smrekar, but they don't have specific details on the location of Mansfield's body.
Mansfield graduated from Rolling Meadows High School in 1974 and was majoring in English communications at Lincoln College. He was known to frequent record stores at Woodfield Shopping Center and in Arlington Heights and Chicago. He had worked at the college radio station and dreamed of a job as a radio station music director, according to published reports at the time.
The Mansfield family has been contacted about progress of case, police said.