The Murders at Starved Rock: will we ever know who killed three women in 1960?

Chester Weger was convicted for the murders of three women in an Illinois state park but he insists on his innocence. In the decades since, a town has been split on what they think really happened

A small-town man, perhaps wrongfully accused. A confession squeezed out of him by an overzealous police department more concerned with tying a ribbon on their case than anything else. A prison sentence served in defiance, as he maintains his innocence over a course of decades. A reconsideration of the facts, exposing the fault lines in the case against him.

With the true crime genre fast approaching the saturation point, this has all come to sound more than a little familiar. And Jody McVeigh-Schultz, director of the new HBO miniseries The Murders at Starved Rock, has seen it all. He knows that simply rehashing the plot beats of Making a Murderer won’t cut it anymore, but he also knows that this savviness can instead be used as a jumping-off point. His new three-episode, two-night event posits the concept of a true crime miniseries for an age it already dominates, in which the parties involved have the amateur-sleuth instincts bred by years of poring over real-life mysteries. The people of La Salle county, Illinois, have spent their lives putting themselves in the shoes of those investigating their homespun tragedy, and now it’s our turn to do the same to them.

“We were definitely aware of the [true crime boom],” McVeigh-Schultz tells the Guardian via Zoom. “In true crime right now, you almost have to acknowledge within your own story what’s happening in the genre, with this glut. We had a story that was full of people who were obsessed with this true crime case themselves, and so we were showing how this town and the mythology built by all these DIY detectives could affect the story. One of the interesting things that struck me was how the truth evolves over sixty years. People’s memories evolve, and you end up with mythology and truth competing. The subtext of the piece is that we’re trying to get at who determines what the communal truth is. There are a bunch of different people in this story trying to do just that, to be the arbiters of the truth.”

The subject of all this consternation is the fate of one Chester Weger, fingered for the 1960 slayings of three middle-aged women in the Starved Rock State Park. Despite somewhat wobbly evidence against him, law enforcement convinced the stunned Weger that it would be in his best interest to plead guilty as his one shot of avoiding the death penalty. Weger acquiesced, only to recant his statement days later in hopes of pursuing his case, at which time he was too late. The verdict was promptly delivered, but the lingering question of what really happened that night continued to perplex and fascinate this pocket of small-town America. The populace was divided between opposing factions equally convinced of their own rightness, with some insisting that justice had been served while others sift through the details in search of a deeper revelation. “So many people in town had a story that they said could prove innocence or guilt, and you have to follow every thread to prove or disprove them, one by one,” McVeigh-Schultz says.

One such armchair inspector is David Raccuglia, who has a closer link to these events than most. As the son of prosecutor Anthony Raccuglia, the man who put Weger away for life, David spent his entire life in the shadow of this controversy. He set out to make a documentary about his perspective years ago, and the footage he never ended up using now forms the basis of the miniseries completing his work. McVeigh-Schultz’s crew rejoins Raccuglia and allows him to take the wheel, following as he examines the timeline and pushes for advances in DNA sampling to sway the parole board at Weger’s prison.

Starved Rock State Park in The Murders at Starved Rock

“One of the things we realized in the making of this, where a lot of the big decisions are made in the edit room, was that we wanted to tell the story of David’s journey,” McVeigh-Schultz explains. “It starts in his childhood, when he sees Chester Weger as the boogeyman. But throughout the early 2000s when he was making his film, which ended up unfinished until we picked it back up, we go through his process of meeting everyone from the prosecution side and seeing the complete opposite side that he’s never heard before. Then we jump ahead to the point at which we joined the process, and cover the modern court case that took shape … His father really was his hero, and then he spent some time questioning that, probing the holes in this case, and that’s a fraught thing.”

Even-keeled and cautiously inquisitive, Raccuglia gains a foil in one of the more reckless self-fashioned gumshoes, an eccentric character named David Marsh. As the head of the Committee to Free Chester Weger, he’s taken it upon himself to do the vital job of ferreting out what really took place on that fateful night, but his methods lack the ethical rigor required to get results. Prone to leaving lengthy voicemails chockablock with verbal harassment in the middle of the night, dismissed by many as a particularly driven kook, he illustrates the hazard of citizen police work. For the purposes of this miniseries, however, he could also be a valuable source of information. It was McVeigh-Schultz’s task to find the nugget of solid intel wedged in Marsh’s flawed process.

“I’d heard he’s dangerous. I’d heard, uh, other things, about what time of the day is best to talk with him,” he says. “But he was a genuinely nice person, interesting to talk to, incredibly intelligent. As you learned his version of the story, it took an hour or two, but you start to realize, ‘Oh, not only do you believe in these things that are quite irrational, you connect conspiracies to this larger worldview without skepticism whenever you get the chance.’ The town is really divided on this; they’re having restraining orders, things like that. But you also have to not discount everything a person has to say in an interview, just because some of their ideas are off-base.”

Chester Weger in The Murders at Starved Rock
Chester Weger in The Murders at Starved Rock. Photograph: HBO

McVeigh-Schultz and Raccuglia both strive to exercise more circumspection and care in their judgments. Though the director concedes that “it’s very hard not to make conclusions,” he also knows full well that there are rules he must adhere to, and for good reason. The hasty overeagerness to reach a solution was what got Weger locked up in the first place; that quality would have no place in a legitimate effort to reverse that decision. Though viewers at home might binge the latest true crime fad in the same way that they watch Wheel of Fortune, yelling instruction at the contestants onscreen, the stakes could not be farther from one another. This is a man’s life we’re talking about, not a game, and it deserves to be treated accordingly. The welfare of the accused must always take precedence over the impulse to prove one’s cleverness and get to the answer first.

“The one thing that I was thinking as I approached this was, I should be mindful that the amount of things I don’t know is much larger than the amount of things I think I know,” McVeigh-Schultz says. “There’s a sense, and maybe people are subverting this, that the people who become obsessed with a case and take on the home-detective position can come in and provide some clarity or fresh eyes. A lot of people are taken by that idea, of ‘wait, maybe I can solve this!’ David sort of became aware that whenever you’re dealing with true crime, there’s almost a hero complex in this desire to be the first one who breaks it. That can be extremely problematic.”

  • The Murders at Starved Rock starts on HBO on 14 December with a UK date to be announced


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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