LINCOLN -- Russell Smrekar, who was described as one of Logan County's most notorious killers and who recently confessed to killing two more people missing since the 1970s, has died in prison, Lincoln police announced Friday.
The Lincoln Police Department was notified Thursday that Smrekar, who apparently killed three people because they witnessed him stealing and a fourth because she saw him kill one of the other three, died at Menard Correctional Center due to a medical condition. He was 56.
Smrekar was sentenced in 1977 to 300 years in prison for gunning down Lincoln grocery store clerk Jay Fry and his pregnant wife, Robin, on Oct. 9, 1976.
In deteriorating health last month, Smrekar confessed to killing Ruth Martin of Lincoln, who disappeared in June 1976, and Lincoln College student Michael Mansfield of Rolling Meadows, who disappeared in December 1975, police said. He was a suspect in their disappearances all along but their bodies were never found, police said.
"The family of Ruth Martin have been apprised of every step of the investigation," said Paul Adams, detective/sergeant in the Lincoln police criminal investigation division, in a prepared statement. "Smrekar's confession and details of what happened has brought peace to the family of Ruth Martin."
Jay Fry had witnessed Smrekar, then 21, stealing steaks at Kroger, and his wife saw Smrekar kill Fry, authorities said. Martin also was a witness in the shoplifting case.
Mansfield disappeared six days before he was set to testify in another criminal case in which Smrekar was accused of burglarizing a dorm room.
Last month, Smrekar discussed the Martin and Mansfield cases in interviews with Lincoln and Rolling Meadows police detectives.
Smrekar admitted to burying Martin under Interstate 55, which was under construction at the time, on the night after she disappeared in June 1976, police said. Smrekar then dropped the a 51-year-old real estate agent's car off at Holiday Inn in Bloomington before heading to his home in Joliet, police said.
He was brought to Lincoln earlier this month to help locate Martin's gravesite.
"Due to the time that has elapsed since the murder and the fact that the burial took place at night, Smrekar was unable to give detectives a precise location of the body of Ruth Martin," Adams said.
In March 2006, ground-search radar and cadaver dogs were used to search sites in Lincoln for her body.