‘This is my closure’: Charges dropped in 1972 Naperville cold case following suspect’s death

More than half a century after her 15-year-old sister, Julie Ann Hanson, was found stabbed to death in a Naperville cornfield, Jill Steininger still has questions about what happened.

But Steininger says she believes Naperville police found the man responsible for her younger sister’s murder, even though she will never hear a jury verdict.

Steininger was just 17 when Julie was found dead near 87th Street and Modaff Road on July 8, 1972, a day after she had gone missing.

A coroner’s report indicated the Naperville North High School student had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 36 times.

It took nearly 50 years, but police were able to use DNA evidence to link Barry Whelpley, who was living in Minnesota at the time of his arrest in 2021, to the crime.

On Wednesday, the case against Whelpley, which included murder and criminal sexual assault charges, was dropped. Whelpley, 79, was pronounced dead Feb. 9 at a Joliet hospital after being found unresponsive at the jail.

“This is my closure,” Steininger, of Aurora, said outside the Will County courthouse Wednesday.

She says she still wonders what happened that fateful day.

“You always want to know why and what happened that made that person do that crime to somebody that you love,” said Steininger, who previously declined media interview requests.

Julie Ann Hanson

For years, she worried that the person who killed her sister was still free. When she got the news that police arrested Whelpley and had a DNA match, those fears lifted, she said.

“I didn’t have to look over my shoulder anymore,” she said.

The day she learned of Whelpley’s death, she and her husband, Robert, drove to the Naperville cemetery where Julie is buried. A Naperville sergeant who has worked the case for years met them there and stayed as they laid flowers on the grave and told Julie that her killer was dead.

She still thinks of her sister, a woman she described as “funny and smart,” and what her life would have been like.

“It’s sad,” she said, noting her sister never got to meet her nieces and nephews. “There’s probably a space here in life now that she didn’t get to fill.”

Steininger lauded the Naperville Police Department’s effort and unwavering dedication to her sister’s case. She noted that police carried Julie’s picture with them when they traveled to Minnesota to arrest Whelpley.

“They were just always there and always working it,” Steininger said of Naperville police.

“They were invested,” her husband, Robert, added.

Defense attorney Terry Ekl said he hoped Julie Hanson’s surviving family “gets closure” and added that Naperville police should be commended for their dedication to the case.

“Although I disagree with some of their tactics, I think they should be applauded for their diligence in staying on the case,” Ekl said.

Attorneys will be back in court on March 20 to settle some final issues, including a request from Whelpley’s family that items taken during his arrest be returned to the family.

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