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Feb. 11, 2013
In 1997, Ted Kuhl was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for murdering his girl friend, Janet Nivinski, in Loves Park, Illinois. Reporter Harriet Ford presents the case for his innocence.
by Harriet Ford
Just after midnight on December 6, 1996, Janet Nivinski, a 28-year-old, blue-eyed blonde, was murdered beside her car in the parking lot of a strip mall in Loves Park, Illinois, a small township located outside Rockford, Illinois in Winnebago County. The bullet that killed her was fired assassination style, six inches from her head.
During the last week of Janet’s life, she had been investigating a discrepancy at Amcore Bank, where she was responsible for transferring large sums of money overseas. She spoke to a male friend about it. She was disturbed and said, “I can’t say what it is right now, but something is not right at the bank.” A bank employee was fired that week. Police interviewed him and dismissed him as a suspect.
An unknown man also stalked Janet a few weeks before her death. A neighbor woman became suspicious and jotted down the license number of his car, but this number was lost –one of several pieces of possible evidence to be misplaced.
Janet and her best friend Christa Peterson were planning to fly to California together in January. Janet’s boyfriend, 48-year-old Ted Kuhl, surprised the two women with plane tickets, which he had purchased for them, possibly as an early Christmas gift.
Earlier on Janet’s last day, Ted took her shopping for a Christmas tree at a lot owned by his friend, Dan Johnson. The pair spent over an hour picking out just the right tree. Dan said they were having an enjoyable and affectionate time together. Ted purchased the tree for Janet and she took it home to decorate
Ted went to deliver a gift to Janet’s mother, Sandy Ostrander, but she was not home.
Later that evening, Janet met Ted and a group of seven friends including Dan Johnson, Ricky Mueller, and Christa Peterson met at the Backyard Bar and Grill for a late supper. Located in the Loves Park Meadowmart strip mall, the bar stayed open past midnight because, according to the bar tender, everyone was having an enjoyable time, laughing and bantering with him as well as each other.
The only member of the group who seemed a little out of sorts was Christa. She did not like what she considered flirtatious behavior toward her from Ricky Mueller, a married man whose wife was not present.
At a previous social gathering, Janet also had voiced concern about Mueller, telling a friend, Carol Brannon: “Rick gives me the creeps. I don’t trust him. He told Ted that women are like a raccoon scratching in the garbage can. You shoot ‘em and they just keep coming back. That remark was meant for me.”
The Stalker in the Bomber Jacket
Outside in the strip mall parking lot, a man in a leather bomber jacket and ball cap kept pacing around the perimeter. Two security guards grew suspicious and asked him what he was doing. The unknown man snarled a few curse words. Then he said, “I’m waiting for someone inside.”
The temperature was 28 degrees, yet the man continued to walk the parking lot for more than an hour instead of entering a place of business. He made a call from a payphone to young woman who is the daughter of a gang member. After midnight, the guards went home. The strip mall parking lot lights blipped out. The stalker was veiled in darkness.
Many vehicles were still parked in the area because the Game Place was just closing. Around 1:18 a.m., Ted and Janet decided to leave the Backyard Bar and Grill. Other people left also. Ted walked out with Janet and Christa. Ricky Mueller, a longtime friend of Ted’s, headed for his car parked near Ted’s pickup at the far north end of the lot and some distance away.
Ted and Janet stopped at Christa’s car and said their goodnights. Christa began scraping ice from her frosted windshields. Walking five or six stalls farther on, Ted kissed Janet goodnight beside her car.
At 1:26 a.m. Ted turned to walk away. He heard Janet scream. He heard four to five shots ring out and zing past his head. He began running in a zigzag pattern as if dodging bullets, according to a shopkeeper who heard a bullet strike his storefront window and looked out.
Ricky panicked, gunned his van, and sped away from the scene. Several blocks away, he used his cell phone to call 911. In a panicky voice, he reported someone had just been gunned down, and he provided a description of a suspect in a leather bomber jacket, baseball cap, and tan pants. This is the same description later furnished by two additional witnesses, the security guards, who saw a man walking in the area just prior to Janet’s murder.
Stopping to grab Christa, who was trying to crawl under her car, Ted rushed her back inside the restaurant and shouted, “Someone just shot my girl!”
Dan Johnson ran outside with Ted. They found Janet lying in a pool of blood, clearly beyond help. The bullet from a .357 Magnum entered her head on the right temple area and exploded in her brain.
Loves Park Police arrived within three minutes. During those three minutes, Ted ran from vehicle to vehicle pounding on windshields and demanding, “Who did this?” Dan remained with him.
Loves Park Chief of Police Darryl Lindberg arrived and said he didn’t like Ted’s angry behavior. He asked an officer to seat Ted in the back of a squad car. He also said, “You’d better check his vehicle for a gun.”
The Bearded, Barefoot Man
An excited witness at the crime scene pointed to a vehicle and said, “There he goes!” For no other reason than he apparently saw a guy jump inside and gun the engine. An officer made a traffic stop and conducted a “field interview.” He found the bearded driver, barefoot and bare-chested despite the sub-freezing temperature outside. Giving his name as Darrel D. Weichert, the driver was allowed to leave the scene, based solely on his denial of any involvement. Weichert was not asked to step out of the car. The officer did not check for bloody shoes or shirt. He apparently regretted this.
A short time later, the same officer (apparently realizing he had made a serious mistake) knocked at Weichert’s door in Loves Park, and the man appeared without the beard. He did not shave it off, because according to coworkers, he had never worn a beard. His story was that he had been out doing drugs and removed his shoes so he wouldn’t wake his wife. Police evidently believed it. Could he have been the unknown man walking the lot in the bomber jacket? Street gang members were known to wear that style of jacket.
WROK Radio man Fred Speer arrived to photograph the body. He said the area was so dark he had to turn headlights on from five feet away in order to see Janet’s corpse.
Officers drove Ted and Christa to the station to take their statements.
From blocks away, Ricky phoned the Backyard Bar and Grill to ask if Ted had been shot. Then he drove to the police station and gave Ted a consoling hug. Police took his statement also.
Christa and Ted gave short simple statements to Loves Park police and were allowed to go home. Their vehicles were kept overnight inside the yellow crime-scene ribbon.
The next day, Ricky Mueller arrived at Ted’s house and asked Ted to go skeet shooting with him.
Also the next day, police and fire department members scoured the crime scene area, the garbage cans, and the entire roof of the strip mall. No gun was ever found.
Zeroing in on Ted
First believing the murder was a gang-related shooting, police continued to press Ricky, Ted and Christa for more details. They were stymied by the fact there was no apparent motive for the murder.
It is apparent from the chronology of these reports that Ricky began to fear he would be accused. He eventually turned suspicion toward Janet’s boyfriend and lover, Ted.
It is a staple of police investigation to take a hard, close look at the people closest to a murder victim, such as a spouse or lover. Ted fit the bill.
By all accounts, Janet and Ted lived together off and on for two to three years. Janet told Christa that she would set ultimatums: “If you don’t want a child by November (Dec. etc.), I’m moving out.” After it became apparent to her that Ted, the father of a college-age son, did not want more children she moved out a final time. Nonetheless, the couple still enjoyed a close personal relationship. They continued to see each other socially, and on occasion, intimately. In fact, a pregnancy exam was actually part of the forensics report. Janet was not pregnant.
The second area of potential conflict was Janet's request to Ted to have her name taken off the mortgage on the house they had purchased while living together. There was no indication in any of the statements that this conflict was more than a verbal request by Janet.
The money Janet loaned Ted for the down payment of his house had already been repaid months earlier. Thus, there did not appear to be any friction over money aspects of the house.
There was later a mention by Janet’s mother Sandy Ostrander (only after Ted became a suspect) suggesting that Ted and Christa might possibly be seeing each other.
Christa’s night at Ted’s
Christa was Janet’s close friend since grade school. The 28-year-old single mother was emotionally shattered by Janet’s murder. She felt surrounded by violence. Just 12 weeks earlier, her ex-boyfriend had been gunned down during a drug-related incident. Now Janet’s bloodied body lay on the tarmac. She reasoned, “What if the killer saw me and might be coming after me too?”
Christa’s children had stayed with their father that weekend. She did not want to go home alone to an empty house. She asked Ted if she could sleep on his sofa until morning.
That innocent request led investigators to conclude that Ted and Christa were having an affair – a manufactured motive for the crime-of-passion theory. They could find no other motive. Both Ted’s and Janet’s close personal acquaintances and family members later stated to me and to investigators that they knew this alleged affair never happened.
A co-worker with Ricky Mueller also knew Ted, Janet, and Christa on a social basis. He spoke to me much later after the trial to say he drove past Ted’s home every night on his way home from work. He never saw Christa’s car there—only Janet’s car.
Ricky, Ted, and Janet were interrogated on several occasions during the remainder of December.
On December 18, Ricky’s 10th contact with police, he was taken to Reid and Associates for a polygraph examination. He failed all questions regarding his supposed knowledge that Ted was the shooter.
After failing his polygraph test, Ricky’s nervous state increased, and he changed his story again, eventually 16 times in the records and even more times to friends. Ricky began to claim he had furnished false statements to police in order to protect himself from Ted and indicated he feared Ted would also shoot him.
Once Ricky was willing to say he saw Ted with the gun, Illinois State Police persuaded him to make a pretext call to Johnstone Supply (heating and air conditioning) where Ted worked, to get Ted to implicate himself. They recorded the call and listened in.
In the call, Ricky says in a very nervous voice, “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I need to know what to do to protect you and me. Why’d you do it Ted?”
Calmly, Ted answers Ricky, “Come on buddy. I was there. If you really believe I shot Janet, where’s the gun?”
Significantly, Christa Peterson’s and Ricky’s first statements matched before he began to change his story.
Christa saw Ted running from an unknown man firing at him. She tried to crawl under her car and Ted grabbed her and ran with her to the restaurant. At least three additional witnesses, identified by private investigator Joe Lamb, reported seeing a shooter simultaneously while Ted was fleeing.
In an attempt to get additional information, police began to accuse Christa of lying. Still she refused to verify several police scenarios in which they suggested to her that Ted was the gunman. They said they had photos and evidence to prove that she was lying. They also said Ted had confessed to shooting Janet. Even with that revelation, her story remained consistent. She kept asking what possible motive could Ted have to shoot Janet.
It is apparent from police reports that police hoped to break Christa’s story. They continued to press her concerning Ted's actions, implying that she was not telling the truth and was withholding information. This is documented in several parts of the report as "Christa became defensive."
On January 8, 1997, Christa took a polygraph test and passed it. The examiner said she was truthful in her statements.
Shocked that his best friend would accuse him, Ted suggested that he and Ricky meet at the Illinois State Police headquarters, where he expected to confront his accuser and go home. He reasoned correctly that they had no evidence against him.
His employers urged him to have a lawyer present, but Ted foolishly believed he did not need an attorney: “I knew I was not guilty. I did not want to appear guilty by asking for a lawyer. I also believed police would do their job. They would find the killer.”
It was Ted’s suggestion to confront Ricky at the police station instead of running and hiding, as a guilty person would do. He showed up after a full day’s work and underwent a brutal 14-hour interrogation throughout the night, during which he was shouted at, accused of lying, given coffee but refused permission to go to the restroom.
State law dictates that in the course of an investigation, a suspect must be informed of his legal rights.
It is clear that by the December 19 interview, police believed Ted was the offender and had begun to focus on him to the exclusion of all other possible offenders.
Theoretically, the rights advisement should have been initiated once incriminating statements were obtained and additional such statements were being sought.
In some jurisdictions, when incriminating statements are obtained from an interviewee, without benefit of a rights advisement, a "cleansing statement" is required prior to continuing the interview.
A cleansing statement essentially is a clear advisement by police, basically stating that even though incriminating statements were made without benefit of rights advisement, the interviewee has no obligation to continue with the interview.
A legal expert needs to evaluate whether Ted's rights were violated at this time.
Interrogators began suggesting differing scenarios of the crime, and as the night progressed, a wearied Ted began to change his story. Eventually, they promised him that he could leave if he signed a statement written by them, in which they claimed Janet “pulled a gun and Ted wrested it away from her. During the struggle, the gun accidentally fired.”
Actually Janet died with a shot glass in one hand and car keys in the other. It is evident that she did not have a gun.
Exhausted and believing the scenario impossible, Ted foolishly signed it.
Ted later said, “I was broken. I was in shock. I was shaking so badly I had to pull over and stop my truck in order to gain some composure. I also knew it was an impossible scenario. From where I stood with my back turned, I would have had to be left-handed and a contortionist to shoot Janet in the right temple, and I believed the police would realize that when they checked the facts. But they stopped checking the facts when they got that document—which was never a confession to premeditated homicide—signed.”
From that point on throughout the remainder of the investigation, police made no effort to corroborate any of the statements made by Ted or Christa.
Loves Park Police also ignored investigating other possible suspects. Private investigator Joe Lamb examined surveillance video film from that night and traced license plates to members of a violent street gang, the Satan’s Disciples, known for drive-by shootings in Rockford. Loves Park police had originally believed the crime to be a drive-by shooting. Another car in the lot belonged to a driver who actually had a murder conviction on his record. This information was withheld from the jury.
No Forensic Evidence
From the Crime Lab’s reports covering the forensic examination of the physical evidence, there was no physical or forensic evidence that linked Ted to the shooting.
The bullet fragments recovered from Janet and from the Game Place should have been compared on the Integrated Ballistics Identification System through the state crime lab to determine if the weapon used in this homicide was ever used in another violent crime. If it were used after this incident, then it would be very strong evidence that another person was the actual killer.
Police believed the multiple gunshots reported by Ted, Christa and other witnesses were a result of echoes within the parking lot. However, there was nothing to indicate any efforts were made to verify this fact.
At the time of the investigation into Janet’s murder, I was a newspaper reporter for the Rockford Labor News. I found a bullet hole in a utility pole near Christa’s car, indicating that shots were fired in her direction, but police also ignored this. They claimed it could have been there for some time. The bullet hole indentation strongly supports Ted’s and Christa’s statements that the gunman fired at them after he shot Janet. This refutes the theory of Ted being the shooter. “Why would he run dodging bullets fired by himself?" I asked. I could find no police report of gunfire at Meadowmart Mall in previous months.
Inconsistencies at the Trial
In 1997, Ted Kuhl was sentenced to 40 years without any forensic evidence, no gun ever found, no motive ever substantiated, and a single eyewitness who changed his story 16 times as a matter of court record.
Several inconsistencies worked against Ted at the trial, many of them related only indirectly to the actual homicide investigation.
Ted Kuhl was 48 at the time, 20 years older than Janet. The age difference worked against him in the trial. A Rockford attorney later said, “Juries typically do not like cradle-robber boyfriends, such as Ted was portrayed.”
Too Dark to See
Ricky testified he could see Ted from 50-feet away aiming a gun. This is highly unlikely. WROK radio news reporter, Fred Speer, who photographed the crime scene, said it was so dark he had to turn the headlights on to see the body from even five feet away.
I visited the parking lot at 1:26 a.m. (the time of the shooting) on a December night and stood approximately where Ricky said he was. I do not believe Mueller saw what he described unless he was much closer than he claimed to be.
Too Far Away
Fifty feet from the victim is also inconsistent with Forensic Doctor Larry Blum’s autopsy report. Stippling around the wound indicated the gunman fired from as close as six inches. That is consistent with what Christa saw before she dropped to the pavement to hide. She described the gunman standing in front of Janet. Janet screamed and turned her head toward Ted, so the bullet entered her right temple.
Christa also saw Ted begin to run under gunfire.
At least three other witnesses at the scene saw the gunman and Ted simultaneously, but they could not agree on the description so their testimonies were laughed out of court.
The Wrong Color
Ricky Mueller also stated in court that Ted’s ball cap was white. In fact Ted wore a green ball cap that night. His attorney had the cap in the courtroom, but failed to call the discrepancy to the attention of the jury.
The funeral dress
Even though her story remained completely consistent, prosecutors treated Christa as a hostile witness, quickly identifying her as the “other woman.” They pointed out that she spent the night with Ted after Janet’s murder. They also suggested he bought the blue dress for Christa, which she wore to Janet’s funeral. Christa had a Visa receipt to prove she purchased the dress—not Ted—however this was not noted in court.
Not Enough Emotion
Ted’s calm demeanor worked against him at the trial. Janet’s mother, Sandy Ostrander, initially described Ted to me as “charming.” Sandy had been the one to introduce Ted to her daughter at a pizza bar in Loves Park.
Once police began to suspect him, she turned bitterly against Ted because, “He didn’t even cry at her funeral. Is that the way a man acts who is supposed to love Janet with all his heart?” The jury appeared to be suspicious of Ted’s lack of visible emotion.
Ted’s brother Monty Kuhl spoke with me. He said that both he and Ted were never outwardly emotional. They did not openly weep at their own mother’s funeral. Ted’s grief was very private, however Monty saw Ted’s tears during times they were together shortly after Janet’s death.
The Viet Nam Lie
Janet’s mother did not begin to suspect Ted until police began to listen to Ricky’s accusations. That’s when she accused Ted of being a pathological liar and pointed to a lie he admittedly told—that he had served in Viet Nam and saved other soldiers but could not save Janet.
This lie actually damned Ted in court, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the murder investigation. Assistant State’s Attorney Weber used the Viet Nam lie to persuade the jury. He thundered, “Ted Kuhl lied from the beginning of this investigation and innocent men do not lie!”
Twenty years earlier, Ted had claimed he served in Viet Nam to impress a boss, and later to impress Janet’s pro-military father. Joe Lamb later mused, “Ted had told the Viet Nam lie for 20 years and he never killed anybody. If everyone who ever told a lie is guilty of murder, the prisons couldn’t hold them all.”
Missing From Police Reports
Unfortunately, Loves Park Police did not write in their reports that no gun was found in Ted’s or Christa’s vehicles. This worked against Ted at trial. The glaring omission from the reports prevented defense attorney Albert Altamore from having the grounds to argue that no gun was in the vehicles. Altamore was widely known as a DUI defense attorney at that time.
The omission also allowed Assistant State’s Attorney Glen Weber to create doubt in the minds of the jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, you know the gun had to be there.”
Both Christa’s and Ted’s vehicles were left inside the yellow crime-scene ribbon and driven the next day by an officer, who would have seen a gun if it had been lying on the floorboard or seat. But this was not permitted in court simply because it was not in the police reports.
I also had a statement directly from Loves Park Police Chief Lindberg that the vehicles were searched, but this was not admissible at trial.
Defense attorney Albert Altamore was never informed that Ricky Mueller had recanted a statement in which he claimed to hear Ted say he was planning to kill Janet. In a lost post-conviction relief appeal, defense Attorney Dan Cain asked, “How can anyone flip flop on such a damning statement? How can anyone forget that?”
At the appeal, Cain called the prosecutor to the stand. Attorney Mark Karner admitted withholding this information from the jury. Also present at the appeal, Ricky admitted he did not recall Ted ever threatening to kill Janet. He did not make eye contact with Ted, and kept his head down.
In spite of this, Chief Judge Michael Morrison denied Ted’s appeal. “The evidence shows that Janet was shot from very close, and by your own admission you had walked only three or four steps,” said Morrison. The judge ignored all the witness statements that a second man stood in front of Janet.
Cain later stated, “Any good trial lawyer knows that he could have turned the verdict on this point alone.”
Did political motivation play a part?
Both Loves Park Chief of Police Darryl Lindberg and the aspiring young assistant state’s attorney, Glenn Weber, were campaigning for career moves—Lindberg for mayor of Loves Park, and Weber for a judgeship. Without implying intentional wrongdoing on their parts, I view both of these two as strongly motivated to bring the murder case to a quick close.
All criminal justice professionals are motivated, and rightly so, to convict the guilty as well as to protect the innocent; however not to the extent that they overlook other strong possibilities in a murder case and bend the facts to fit their theory. Clearly, that is what happened. Investigators left so many other avenues unexplored, once they decided to prosecute Ted Kuhl.
Defense investigator Joe Lamb believed the killing might have been a case of mistaken identity. Janet had a twin sister involved with a man known to associate closely with the Hell’s Angels gang. Lamb also believed the man in ball cap and bomber jacket, who was seen circling the parking lot, was the real killer. Lamb may have been able to prove it if he had lived just one more day. He had identified a gay male exotic dancer, who had moved to Chicago, as one of the men in the parking lot on the night of Janet’s murder. Lamb had scheduled an interview with the dancer, however Lamb died in his sleep of a heart attack the night before. That dancer’s name was buried with him, to my knowledge.
Significantly, I received correspondence from the leader of the Satan’s Disciples street gang, Johnny White, convicted two years after Janet’s death for the 1998 drive-by shooting death of Rockford woman, Paula Proper. Johnny White strongly implied that Ted is not the killer. His specific words included, “It was a very dark night in the parking lot (the night of Janet’s death). He also drew an outline of a hand on the paper and wrote across it, “The hand of the true killer.”
His letter drew my attention, because Satan’s Disciples were known to be at the crime scene on the night of the murder, documented by Joe Lamb. Loves Park police never questioned these gang members, though it is well known to police that gang members do commit drive-by shootings in order to move up in the gang.
Six video surveillance cameras, which actually may have filmed the shooting that night, went missing. Police somehow lost this potentially crucial evidence, and it has never turned up. Post conviction relief Attorney Cain asked, “Doesn’t that raise a red flag in any thinking person’s mind?”
Cain prepared seven significant issues for a second post-conviction relief appeal.These issues were never heard, due to a missed filing deadline by a matter of hours. At least one of these issues included the highly suspicious driver, Darrel D. Weichert, stopped by police, who was not wearing shoes or shirt, and had on a fake beard. It was 28 degrees that night. Why no shirt and no shoes and a fake beard on a freezing night just moments after a fatal shooting?
The barefoot man, Darrel Weichert, has a link to the victim's family. He was living with a Darla Fawcett at the time. Her relationship to Gary Fawcett is uncertain, as the family refuses to speak to me, however Janet's twin sister was living with Gary Fawcett and they had a two-year-old child. If Fawcett was not an actual member of the Hell’s Angels, he did have a key to their club building, according to Dan Johnson. Janet's twin and Gary Fawcett were said to be heavy drug users and Janet had been threatening to remove their child. Was that a motive for murder? People who knew and feared Fawcett said he was certainly capable of violence.
Other people have contacted me at the newspaper office since Ted’s conviction, one of them a woman, returning from a late shift. She said she saw a man running through her yard behind the Meadowmart shopping mall minutes after the shooting. According to her, the man carried a gun.
That gunman was not Ted Kuhl, (as police later suggested to me) because Ted was seated in the Loves Park squad car at the time. He never left the crime scene.
Ted was never alone in the parking lot. Where and when could he have hidden a gun in front of numerous witnesses at the scene?
The answer is, he could not.
Joe Lamb documented the time of gunfire from video surveillance cameras, which show a bullet striking a storefront glass. Ted had only 12 seconds to hide a gun, which nobody ever found. Lamb also conducted his own ballistics test and confirmed to himself that more than one shot was fired from where Janet’s body dropped. These shots were fired toward Ted and Christa.
No history of angry outbursts
I spent hours talking with Ted’s family and friends. All of them, including a next-door neighbor who has known him from childhood, his former wife of 18 years, Diana, and his son Jason, say Ted never had a single incident of violent behavior. In short, he was mild mannered and not given to outbursts of temper.
Ted was a Boy Scout leader, a hard working middle-class citizen and a law-abiding man with no previous criminal history. His employers, Albert and Roseanne Kunze at Johnstone Supply, were adamant that Ted did not kill Janet.
Psychologists say it is highly unlikely that a mentally stable man would suddenly exhibit a violent, murderous psychotic fugue immediately after kissing his girlfriend goodnight. Yet that is what police say happened—that he walked three or four steps, turned, and shot her without provocation or motive.
The Case for Ted Kuhl’s Innocence
Ted’s employers were so shocked at Ted’s arrest that they hired a pair of top-notch private investigators to look for the real killer.
A highly respected forensics scientist, Arthur Chancellor, was employed as an investigative consultant. He examined police reports and witness statements.
In his professional analysis, Arthur Chancellor states: “Minor personal conflicts between Ted and Janet were not violent or long lasting. Such personal problems or conflicts that evolve into motives for a homicide have traditionally come to the attention of family and friends over a period of time. If this were the case, it would be consistent and expected that family and friends would be able to identify specific times and events in the recent past when heated arguments, accusations, or even physical assaults occurred (as in the case of Howard Purcell who was known to attack his wife more than once before he was convicted of murdering her in Rockford's staircase-killer case). No family member or close friend ever identified such conflicts.”
Ted’s college-age son, Jason Kuhl, had in fact, just days before the homicide, spent Thanksgiving with Ted and Janet at Ted’s place. He said the three of them had truly enjoyable time together. He would have known had there been any animosity or friction between them.
In the words of Chancellor: “There is not enough evidence to convict Ted Kuhl of premeditated murder. I find no logical motive. I do not see any evidence of where the gun came from or where it went afterwards.
“I am struck by the dichotomy presented by police of Ted, ‘the intelligent murderer’ who is able to conceal a weapon all evening and then dispose of it in 12 seconds in front of witnesses. But at the same time, Ted stupidly picks a public place when he could easily have lured Janet to a private location and shot her without any witnesses.”
Chancellor also pointed to Ricky’s behavior immediately after the shooting as inconsistent with the behavior of someone in deadly fear of another. “Would Ricky hug Ted at the station and then ask Ted to go skeet shooting the next day if he honestly believed Ted was trying to shoot him or harm his family? Absolutely not.”
“I do not believe this was a crime of sudden passion. There are just too many inconsistencies. Christa, Ricky, and two additional witnesses (names withheld from reporters but furnished to Chancellor) observed the gunman who matched the description of the man in the bomber jacket waiting for someone inside.
“The last official contact available for my review is Christa's grand jury testimony. Transcripts document possible government misconduct, in that while they were waiting to testify, Christa and Ricky were placed in the same waiting room where Rick openly discussed his proposed testimony. Ricky specifically said he was going to testify that he actually saw Ted shoot Janet (something he later denied).
“Ricky’s startling claim coupled with Christa’s prior knowledge of Ted's so-called confession (which the police had told her during interviews) may have been an attempt to induce her to change her testimony or to be uncertain as to what exactly she observed that evening. However she remained steadfast, even though police repeatedly told her she was in denial and that her mind had blocked out painful details.”
After the trial, Christa actually went to a hypnotherapist to find out if she had indeed blocked details from her mind. She told the same consistent story under hypnosis—that she saw Ted run when an unknown gunman fired at Janet.
The Man in the Bomber Jacket
In Chancellor’s analysis of the crime, he states: “I see the time and location of the homicide as very inopportune.
“Waiting until Ted and Janet parted, appearing out of the dark, firing without leaving Janet a chance to defend herself, then shooting other rounds at the potential witnesses while leaving the scene, having a planned escape route and getting away unobserved—these are marks of premeditation. This is all consistent when the unknown man in the bomber jacket walking the lot is substituted as the gunman.
“None of it makes sense when Ted is considered the suspect. The most important aspect of the police interrogation is the fact that neither Ted’s oral admissions nor final written statement make any sense when compared to other evidence documented in this case. There is a legal maxim that roughly states a man cannot be convicted based on his confession alone. Yet in this case, it appears the only real evidence police have is what they were able to obtain through questionable interrogation techniques. That evidence basically consists of Ted’s and Ricky’s statements.”
Joe Lamb’s investigation led him to identify people associated with violent street gangs overlooked by the investigators. He believed one of them killed Janet. Lamb was not certain of the motive, but he believed the street gang certainly had stronger reasons for killing Janet than Ted Kuhl, who had none.
Ted Kuhl remains in prison – convicted in 1997. His son, friends, and loyal employers continue to visit him. I made a visit to his prison only once, where I heard his story and was satisfied that he told the truth.
Ted has lost every appeal. He recently asked for a clemency hearing, which also was denied. He writes to me occasionally. He has indicated that he could plead guilty, ask for mercy, and perhaps be released, but that outcome is uncertain. His former employers, Albert and Roseanne Kunze, spent thousands of dollars in the hopes of overturning his conviction. They hired Joe Lamb and Arthur Chancellor at their own expense. Both highly respected investigators arrived at the same conclusion independently, that Ted is not guilty.
Ricky Mueller and his wife were later divorced. Mrs. Mueller absolutely refused to speak with me about the case. Her demeanor and bearing indicated she was terrified.
I have heard rumors from the streets suggesting that Ricky actually was threatened by street gang members and forced to say his best friend pulled the trigger. There is no way to prove this is true, but I would consider it more believable than Ricky’s story of fearing that his best friend would kill him for no reason.
I once interviewed a Loves Park bar bouncer known as Big Tiny, who had information linking a drive-by homicide with the Satan’s Disciples, (the leader of which wrote to me hinting he knew the real killer). Big Tiny has since died.
Janet’s mother, Sandy Ostrander, died of cancer a few years after Ted went to prison.
Ricky Mueller moved out of town and took a job in Freeport, Illinois. A former co-worker called the news office years after Ted’s conviction to say Ricky once tried to sell him a supposedly “hot” gun during the time of the investigation. This co-worker has since moved to Wisconsin.
Both Joe Lamb and I spent hours talking with Christa Peterson. She remained tormented by Ted’s conviction and the suggestion that she was having an affair with him. Her reasoning was: “Janet was like a sister to me. She slipped Christmas gifts under my tree so my kids would have surprises. We were going to California together. So even if it was true, and Ted had these two women who are still great friends, why would he need to kill one of us?”
Christa eventually moved out of town. I have no information on her whereabouts.
The young assistant state’s attorney and trial prosecutor, Glen Weber, lost his bid for a judgeship. He took a position in Jo Daviess County in northwest Illinois as state’s attorney. He was later dismissed due to allegations of official misconduct. I have a copy of the official document. A Rockford policewoman once said to me that Weber tried to coax her to lie on the stand. That officer has since died of cancer.
Weber was welcomed back to the Rockford court system and later worked for a respected legal firm in Rockford.
Chief of Police Darryl Lindberg was soon elected mayor of Loves Park where he has enjoyed a long career.
Illinois has a history of wrongful convictions. In January of 2003, then-Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row prisoners, calling the system “terribly flawed” after 13 death row inmates were exonerated by DNA evidence. That number grew to 151 nationwide while I was working on the Ted Kuhl case.
Since then, wrongful convictions have continued to be overturned by DNA evidence. Sadly, there was no DNA evidence in the Janet Nivinski homicide. Ted has very few options left. He will serve his 40 years if additional evidence does not exonerate him at some point in the future.
My book, Shadow in the Rain, a fictionalized re-telling of Ted’s story is available on Amazon.com.
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