‘The Murders at Starved Rock’ Is Compelling Yet Annoyingly Incomplete

Courtesy of HBO

The Murders at Starved Rock, a three-part documentary series, chronicles one of the most divisive murder cases in Illinois Valley history.

On March 16, 1960, the bodies of three women from Riverside, Illinois (a suburban village near Chicago) were discovered in St. Louis Canyon, a canyon with a breathtaking waterfall — one of the many wonders at Starved Rock State Park. Located about ninety miles southwest of Chicago, LaSalle County is rural and violent crime was unheard of. Until that day. The women — Frances Murphy, 47; Mildred Lindquist, 50; and Lillian Oetting, 50 — were bludgeoned to death.

Chester Weger, a dishwasher at the Starved Rock Lodge, was later arrested. After an extended interrogation, he confessed to the crime (days later, Weger recanted after claiming he had made the confession under duress from authorities). The grand jury indicted him for all three murders as well as for a rape and robbery at Matthiessen State Park he had been suspected of that took place in the months prior to the murders. In the end, the state only chose to try him for the murder of Lillian Oetting.

Weger was found guilty and sentenced him to a term of life imprisonment, rejecting the state’s request for the death penalty. Having professed his innocence for the entirety of his prison sentence, Weger was finally granted parole on November 21, 2019 and released the following February — having been at one time the longest serving inmate incarcerated by the State of Illinois in addition to being the third longest in state history before being released.

Director Jody McVeigh-Schultz, past Emmy nominee for his editing work on HBO’s McMillion$ and Comedy Central’s Drunk History, skillfully helps piece together a complicated story involving a fractured community, possibly corrupt law enforcement, and multiple suspects. The concept for the documentary first got started in the early 2000s by David Raccuglia. His unfinished documentary serves as a supplement to the new entry. Raccuglia is the son of Anthony Raccuglia, a former assistant LaSalle County State’s Attorney who was one of the prosecutors on the Weger case.

Going forward, it’s about to get even more interesting. LaSalle County Judge Michael C. Jansz ruled in October that hair, string, and cigarette butts from the crime scene can, at long last, be tested for DNA. The cliffhanger ending announcing this development was ridiculous, though. Raccuglia has been working on this subject since 2004/2005, but he couldn’t have waited a few more months for the DNA to come back to give a more decisive ending? I understand it builds more suspense to release the documentary before results are in, but still… It was very unfulfilling to end it on that note.

I give The Murders at Starved Rock three out of five stars.

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