Richard Church, who eluded police for more than three years until he was captured in Salt Lake City, pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering his former girlfriend's parents and was sentenced to life in prison.
Church's capture at a Crossroads Plaza eatery last November ended a flight that crisscrossed the western United States.Under an agreement with prosecutors, Church, 23, pleaded guilty to two counts each of first-degree murder and attempted murder and one of home invasion. McHenry County Circuit Judge Henry Cowlin sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
By reversing the innocent pleas he entered in December, Church avoided a possible death sentence had he been found guilty by a jury.
"I believe that the majority, at least that of the victims and family members, agree with us that is the appropriate disposition of his case," McHenry County State's Attorney Thomas Baker said after the sentencing.
Church bludgeoned Raymond and Ruth Ann Ritter to death in August 1988 after their daughter Colleen broke off a long relationship with him.
Colleen and her brother, Matthew, were stabbed and beaten.
"I feel so bad for the other (Church) family," said Mel Ritter, Raymond's brother. "But they still have the option of going and seeing their son. I cannot go and see my brother."
Colleen Ritter saw Church in person for the first time in nearly four years Thursday as she attended the court hearing. She refused comment as she walked out of the courtroom flanked by two other women.
Previously, Colleen Ritter had said the only justice for Church would be death. Baker said she had agreed with the plea agreement.
Church escaped after the killings and crisscrossed the western half of the nation. He eluded capture despite thousands of "wanted" posters circulated at law agencies across the country and the publicity the killings received on several TV crime shows.
He was captured in Salt Lake City last November after detective Craig Park recognized Church working at Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que using the name Danny Lee Carson.
Soon after his arrest, Church's father, Eugene, called his son "an average, normal teenage boy - a good boy."
Church's parents both said they saw no signs of stress in their son during August 1988 - either from his breakup with his girlfriend or from their own divorce, which was pending at the time of the slayings.
Church had been a star quarterback on Woodstock's Marian Central Catholic High School football team in the late 1980s and was a freshman at Northern Illinois University at the time of the slayings.
The slayings shocked this small northern Illinois town of about 14,000, where many people knew the victims and Church's family.
"Certainly, this has been felt throughout the community, particularly in the city of Woodstock," Baker said. "It has been difficult knowing that these are all good people within the community."
Police said Church took his pickup truck across the border to Wisconsin, returned to Illinois briefly, then drove across the nation to reside in Los Angeles.
His truck was spotted abandoned in a West Hollywood parking lot, but police believe he had already moved on to Nevada. He spent several months in Utah before he was captured.