BLOOMINGTON — Bob McElvaney remembers a night four decades ago when his late father, Bernard, a former Bloomington police chief, came home with FBI agent Art Woods.
They opened a couple of beers and talked about how a lead tying Jesse Donald Sumner to the slaying of a Danville man had led them to a landfill near Stanford, where Sumner lived. There, they discovered the man's body in a 55-gallon drum, where it had been for about a year.
"I remember specifically they talked about how they couldn't get the stench out," McElvaney, 57, of Bloomington said after being told of Sumner's death behind bars.
The Illinois Department of Corrections confirmed Wednesday that Sumner, who eventually was convicted of killing four people, including three women from Normal, died of natural causes on Dec. 4 after an extended illness at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He was 68.
Death was likely the only way Sumner would ever have been freed. Sumner's projected release date was October 2065, said Jorge Mendes, chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Over the years, Sumner was denied parole eight times on his latest convictions in the murders of two Illinois State University coeds and a Normal waitress.
"I thought he was dead already," mused McElvaney, whose father died in 1993. "I hadn't heard about him for years."
Sumner was once a notorious figure in McLean County.
The former Stanford man first made headlines in 1964 when he was convicted of slashing the throat of Herschell Williams, 40, of Danville who disappeared while awaiting trial with Sumner in the 1963 holdup of a Bloomington credit union. The robbers had escaped the scene, but a license number on the getaway car led police to Williams.
McElvaney was able to coax Williams to confess. He then named Sumner as his accomplice.
After the pair was allowed to post bond pending trail, only Sumner appeared at scheduled court appearances. A year later, a man in the military returned home, heard about Williams' disappearance and told authorities he helped Sumner dispose of two drums at the landfill.
Sumner was convicted of Williams' murder. But, the conviction was overturned on appeal, leading to a guilty plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Sumner was paroled in 1972, a short prison term for a slaying, Mendes said.
"We didn't hold people as long (as now)," he said.
Dan Leifel, a retired lawyer from Country Insurance & Financial Services, was an assistant state's attorney under the late McLean County State's Attorney Paul Welch when Sumner surfaced again. Circumstantial evidence led investigators to suspect he was connected to the killings of the three women from Normal.
Leifel handled a preliminary hearing that upheld charges against Sumner's mother for concealing evidence in the homicides. She then provided information that led to the grim discovery of a body in the dirt floor of Sumner's garage in Stanford. Two of the others were found in ditches shortly after they disappeared.
Sumner eventually was convicted of murder in the deaths of ISU students Coreen Burchie and Dawn Huwe and waitress Rae Ann Schneider. He was given a 50- to 100 year sentence in one of the slayings and concurrent 100- to 200-year terms in the others.
"He struck me as basically the quintessential loner, a disconnected type," said Leifel. "I'm not sorry to see him go. ?|no love lost there."
Sumner wasn't done. In 1988, he escaped during a routine trip from prison in Joliet to a hearing aid center. He used a homemade gun to take four people hostage and steal a pickup truck.
He was soon captured, charged with armed violence, unlawful use of weapons by a felon and escape and sentenced to an added 30-year term.
His last parole hearing was held in October 2004. The parole board denied his request.
Though inmates have the right to apply for parole every year, in his case the board took the unusual step to tell Sumner not to bother to ask for another hearing for three years, which is the maximum time the board can demand between hearings. When asked why that requirement was imposed, Mendes said the members of the parole board had all read Sumner's criminal history, Mendes said.
"It's an ugly file," he said.