Constable: Who killed the Rouse parents? Mystery and the wait for justice 40 years ago

It was a dark and stormy night that left the village of Libertyville awash in shock, fear and the mystery of how millionaire couple Bruce and Darlene Rouse were savagely slaughtered in their bed on June 6, 1980.

“With the way the bodies had been treated — brutally — it must have been a crime of hate,” Lake County Sheriff Tom Brown proclaimed that morning as police searched for clues in the rambling 13-room house with hidden passages, an indoor pool and a bucolic 7½-acre estate the Rouses shared with their three children north of Libertyville.

A 16-gauge shotgun blast blew off the top of the 38-year-old mother's head as she slept. The killer held the gun close enough to leave powder marks on her cheek. Bruce Rouse, 44, a businessman who owned several gas stations, had his lower jaw blown away by a second shotgun blast and was bludgeoned with the butt of the gun before he was killed by five knife wounds to his heart.

The couple's son, Billy, 15, and daughter, Robin, 16, told police they had slept through the pounding thunderstorms that night and heard nothing out of the ordinary. Son Kurt, 20, living in an outbuilding powered by an extension cord from the house, also reported nothing unusual.

The children, guided by relatives, lawyered up almost immediately. They stopped talking to police and refused to take lie detector tests or testify before a grand jury.

So the speculation began. People wondered if the children knew something, or whether the sons, whose drug and alcohol abuse led to clashes with their parents, had been involved in the slayings.

Even the house, dubbed Murder Mansion, Hell House and other names in various TV shows about the crimes, couldn't recover. It was purchased in 1981 by a strip-club owner with mob ties who turned it into an illegal casino where an independent bookie was beaten to death and stuffed into a car trunk. Fire destroyed the house in 2002.

The Rouse children scattered, but they remained the subject of rumors.

“With his shaggy hair and faraway eyes, Kurt had a certain air of Manson family about him,” writer Dominick Dunne said when his TV crime series, “Power, Privilege, and Justice,” took on the Rouse murders. Living under that cloud, Kurt took his estimated $600,000 inheritance, moved to California and forged a new life.

Robin began therapy in an attempt to cope with the murders, but she died at 19 in 1983 when she lost control of her car while driving alone on a wet Wisconsin road and hit a utility pole.

Billy was the only one with answers, and he kept them to himself for 15 years.

“For a small community like Libertyville, it was a big deal,” remembers Lake County First Assistant State's Attorney Jeffrey Pavletic, who grew up in Libertyville but was attending the University of Dallas when the crime occurred. “Little did I realize all those years later when the case had been solved, I'd be prosecuting the murder.”

Billy Rouse became the focus of Chuck Fagan, then a detective with the Lake County sheriff's department. “The day they had the funerals, I started on that case,” says Fagan, who spent three days going over “every inch, every passage” of the Rouse house and found clues such as vomit in a trash can and fecal matter in the boy's underwear.

Weeks later, the teen reached out to police. “The first thing he wanted to see were photos of the murder scene,” remembers Fagan, who provided large color photos of the grisly remains of Billy's mother. “I did it for shock value, and there was none.”

Instead, Billy matter-of-factly told Fagan his mother's purse was missing from the bedroom.

“He was just a real cold kid with a lot of hate inside for his mother,” Fagan says. The parents showered the kids with money, fancy cars, horses and other trappings. “The kids had everything, but they had nothing.”

Fagan worked on other crimes and was promoted to undersheriff, “but I always had his mug shot in my folder,” he says of Billy's picture. Whenever Rouse had interactions with police because of public drunkenness or other minor infractions, Fagan chatted him up, building an uncanny, almost friendly relationship with his suspect. When Billy Rouse moved to Florida, Fagan used his police connections to monitor his scrapes with the law.

Rouse used his inheritance to buy a home in Key West, but he couldn't stop his life from spiraling out of control. He got married and fathered two sons before his wife divorced him. He couldn't pay the taxes and lost his house. He lived as a drifter, always in trouble with alcohol, drugs and petty crimes. In 1984, while living in a transient hotel, Rouse went to jail for 60 days after he disrupted a chess game and stabbed a man. Rouse was living in a ramshackle houseboat with no doors when he was arrested in a 1995 bank robbery case.

A commander with the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, Fagan teamed with Cpl. Michael Blazincic and state's attorney's investigator David Ostertag to visit Rouse in a Florida lock-up. As Rouse talked about his sad life, Fagan sensed he wanted to talk about his parents. “It's time to put the demons to bed,” Fagan told Rouse.

“When he was ready to spill, he spilled it, and Chuck was the person he talked to,” Pavletic says.

Fagan had the foresight to videotape Rouse's confession on Oct. 13, 1995, years before that became common, and the result was chilling.

Rouse and his mom fought constantly about drug and alcohol use and about how he was stupid and would never amount to anything, Rouse told Fagan. The boy drank a couple of beers and bought some weed and mushrooms before he came home that night and was confronted by his mom, who threatened to send him to military school.

“I decided I was going to get rid of her,” Rouse said, adding that he didn't plan to kill his father. The boy grabbed a knife but worried stabbing might be too slow. He went upstairs and cleaned his shotgun before opting for his dad's semi-automatic shotgun.

“If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it,” Billy Rouse told himself as he sat outside his parents' room for 10 minutes before going in and moving to his mom's side of the bed.

“I took the 16-gauge and put it up to her head and the trigger went off. I don't remember pulling it, but the trigger went off,” Rouse told Fagan.

“Well, my dad sat up real quick, looked at me and the trigger went off again. It wasn't that good of a shot, just grazed him more or less, and he fell back on the bed,” Rouse says. His dad was alive even though the gunshot ripped off his lower jaw, so Rouse struck his father with the butt of the gun.

“I don't know how many times I hit him. That didn't work,” said Rouse, who fractured his father's skull before he went to the kitchen to fetch a knife. “I didn't want him in (expletive) misery, so I got out the (expletive) knife and stabbed him until he stopped moving.”

Rouse, washing the blood off his arms and hair in the utility room, thought, “I've got to make it look like somebody else did it.” He opened drawers in his parents' bedroom and grabbed some of his mom's jewelry and her purse to make it look like a robbery. His sister, coming home later from a high school dance at Lake Forest Academy, went to bed, while Billy Rouse gathered up the evidence and left.

“I got in the car and drove around,” he said. Figuring that fleeing would “make me look really guilty,” Rouse drove to the Route 60 bridge over the Des Plaines River. There was no traffic in the pouring rain, so he made three trips to throw everything in the river before he returned home.

Four months later, a surveyor wading into the river during a road-widening project stumbled upon guns and a garbage bag of items that included a purse and wallet with a driver's license.

“He rubs the mud away and he sees the license and sees the name Darlene Rouse,” Pavletic says.

Billy Rouse didn't testify during his trial, but his attorneys raised the specter that his brother was the killer. Pavletic and Assistant State's Attorney Claudia Kasten insisted Kurt had nothing to do with the murders and that Billy never shared information with either sibling.

“I never told nobody. If I had told anybody anything about it, it had to have been in a drunken stupor, which ain't unusual for me to be in a drunken stupor,” Billy Rouse told Fagan during his confession. “That's the only way I could deal with it, and it has eaten me up for 15 years.”

Fagan asked another question. “Are you sorry your parents are dead?”

“Yes and no,” Rouse replied. No, he said, because all “I had to deal with then was gone.” Yes, he said, because it really messed up his sister.

Robin Rouse was her daddy's girl. Billy Rouse recalled one time during his childhood when his father ignored him to read to Robin. “I wanted his attention, so I set his bed on fire,” Rouse recalled. His father responded by hanging him from a hook on the wall.

“He was yelling at me. That's the only attention I ever got from him,” Rouse says. “I felt like an outcast because I could never do anything right.”

When Fagan loaded Rouse into a car heading for the flight back to Illinois to face charges, “Billy asked, 'Could I drive?'” says Fagan, who declined. “He knew what the score was. He was done.”

A 1996 jury deliberated eight hours before finding Rouse guilty of the murders. At least half the jurors attended his sentencing.

“You did the most hateful, most shockingly evil thing, devoid of all mercy and compassion,” Lake County Associate Judge Victoria Rossetti said in frustration that, because of the law at the time of the murders, she could not sentence Rouse to life in prison. She ordered him to serve consecutive maximum 40-year sentences. Rouse, who is held at Pontiac Correctional Center, is scheduled to be released on Sept. 13, 2038, shortly before his 74th birthday.

Pleased with the verdict, Pavletic points to a comment from the late Daily Herald reporter Tony Gordon, who covered the case for decades. “There is no victory in anything like that,” Gordon said. “There is only justice.”

With three members of the family dead, another in prison and their home burned, all that misery, sorrow and horror is reduced to memories.

“I drive by it every day,” says Pavletic, who lives in Libertyville. “It's just a field.”

On the day Kurt, Robin and Billy Rouse attended their parents' funeral, Lake County sheriff's detective Chuck Fagan started investigating the heinous crime. Sixteen years later, Fagan took Billy Rouse's confession of how he killed the couple. DAILY HERALD FILE
Only 15 when he killed his parents in a notorious Libertyville crime in 1980, William "Billy" Rouse was convicted of their murders in 1996. He is projected to finish his sentence in 2038, shortly before his 74th birthday. Courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections
A shirtless Billy Rouse, 15, sits outside his family home on June 6, 1980, while police investigate the savage slayings of his parents in their bedroom. Sixteen years later, he would confess and be convicted of their murders. DAILY HERALD FILE
Lake County First Assistant State's Attorney Jeffrey Pavletic led the prosecution's case that solved a notorious murder in his hometown. Pool photo by Thomas Delany Jr./Sun-Times Media
A detective whose years of work finally resulted in a murder conviction in the infamous 1980 slaying of a wealthy Libertyville couple, Chuck Fagan retired as undersheriff for the Lake County sheriff's department in 2011. Courtesy of Lake County sheriff's department
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