1994 murder defendant's defense: You can't wait 20 years to charge him

Updated 8/3/2018 10:47 PM
  • Thomas Spear

    Thomas Spear

Attorneys for a Peoria man, charged last fall in the 1994 murder of a Lisle woman, say all charges should be dismissed as a result of police and prosecutors "abandoning efforts to advance the investigation after September 1997."

Thomas Spear, a pizza chef, was arrested last September and charged with first-degree murder in the August 1994 death of Illa Venard in her second-floor condominium on Walnut Creek Lane. Spear, now 44, is being held on $3 million bail in DuPage County jail.

But his attorneys say the long delay in the investigation, even after authorities received a "tip" that pointed to Spear in 1997, was "unreasonable and unnecessary" and damages his chance for a fair trial.

DuPage County Judge George Bakalis on Friday scheduled a hearing on the motion to dismiss the charges for 10 a.m. on Sept. 7.

Venard, a 71-year-old widow who lived alone, was found dead shortly before midnight 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. After Spear's arrest and 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.

Prosecutors at Spear's bail hearing last fall said Venard's decomposing body was found partially under a chair with her thumbnail broken and rings missing from her fingers. Her apartment appeared to have been ransacked. A TV Guide, open to three days earlier, was on a nearby table.

Investigators were stymied by her death until Aug. 2, 1997, when a former neighbor of Venard's went to the Lisle Police Department and implicated Spear.

Prosecutors told Judge Bakalis last fall they were unable to explain why it took 20 years to charge Spear, who has a lengthy criminal history since Venard's death. Lisle police declined to comment last fall, citing an ongoing investigation, and could not immediately be reached on Friday.

According to the motion filed by Senior Assistant Public Defender Val Pacis, the former neighbor told police Spear visited her and her boyfriend shortly before the slaying. She also told police Venard walked through the condo's pool area where the three were sitting and Spear noticed the jewelry the older woman was wearing and asked where she lived.

A short time later, Spear again met with the neighbor and her boyfriend at a Denny's restaurant, showed them four checks taken from Venard's purse, and asked them to go with him to cash them.

According to the motion, the woman overheard Spear tell her boyfriend that he entered Venard's apartment through the balcony and she had a heart attack while he was there.

Spear, wearing a red and black scarf and sunglasses, 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.

"The state's delay was unreasonable and unnecessary. Law enforcement received a 'lead' or tip in 1997 which named the defendant as someone who may be involved in the victim's death. For nearly 20 years, no investigation continued," Pacis wrote. "Where there is substantial prejudice and unjustified delay, the court must balance the interests of the defendant and public."

Ultimately Lisle police reopened the investigation in February 2017 and, a month later, collected swabs of DNA evidence from utensils Spear used at the Peoria restaurant where he worked and from his car in the restaurant's parking lot.

Because of the delay, Pacis wrote, Spear can no longer rely on testimony from two key witnesses and several of Venard's former neighbors because "memories have faded over the passing of time or some may no longer be available."

He also cannot rely on DNA evidence that would "exculpate" him, she wrote.

Spear's own recollection of the day's events is also "downgraded," leaving him unable to recall an alibi defense, she wrote.

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