Former Iron Range athlete, convicted murderer, freed from prison
Questions remain unanswered, but a man who grew up as a talented student-athlete in the Iron Range town of Buhl -- before becoming a convicted murderer -- has been released from an Illinois prison after serving 17 years of a life sentence.
Gerald "Jerry" Simonson, 66, was freed a week ago. He was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1992 hammer bludgeoning death of 27-year-old Sheryl McLean of Salem, Ill. McLean's nude body was found in a ditch near Simonson's hobby farm in rural Farina, Ill.
In January, the 5th District Appellate Court of Illinois ruled that Simonson had received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial; specifically, his defense attorney didn't call any expert witnesses to rebut the prosecution's witnesses. He was granted a new trial.
Simonson's second trial was scheduled to start in Salem today. Instead, he reached a plea agreement with Marion County state's attorney Matt Wilzbach on Nov. 6. Simonson continues to maintain his innocence, but he entered an Alford plea to first-degree murder. Under an Alford plea, the defendant doesn't admit to committing the crime, but admits that the prosecution probably could prove the charge at trial.
Why would he concede that the prosecution probably could prove he murdered the woman?
"After 17 years of being in prison, an open jail cell was simply too good to pass up," said Marion County public defender Ericka Sanders, the defense attorney handling the latest appeal for Simonson, who couldn't be reached for comment. "Even though we were very confident in our case, without a crystal ball you can't predict what a jury would do."
Sanders said she had expert witnesses lined up to testify in the second trial who could rebut the evidence against her client. "The state's case was like a puzzle where they put all these circumstantial pieces together to try to prove that he did it," she said. "We were able to rebut all those little puzzle pieces."
The autopsy report indicated that the 5-foot-3, 125-pound McLean suffered multiple blows to her head. The cause of death was a cerebral disruption caused by a skull fracture after she was struck by an object with a rounded surface.
In a 2002 letter to the News Tribune, Simonson provided this version of events:
He said McLean, who was a part-time college student who worked in nursing homes and in food service, contacted him because she wanted to talk to someone who knew plastics. Simonson ran his urethane plastic molding business.
Simonson said McLean had an idea about an invention to clean the diapers and clothing of nursing home residents. She also wanted him to take a mold of her feet for a plastic honeycomb-type shoe insert that would provide better cushioning.
When McLean came to Simonson's house, his wife and stepson were visiting relatives in Minnesota. He said he drank beer and vodka with lemon-lime Kool-Aid that night. He made molds of McLean's feet and also of her neck, because she wanted a foam pad made to support the contour of her neck. Simonson said he walked the woman to her car and gave her money for gas because she didn't have money. He was worried she didn't have enough gas to make it home. He went into his garage, was looking under a work bench and "that is the last thing I remembered," he wrote.
Simonson was found by police dazed and lying in a pool of blood in his garage about 200 yards from where the victim lay. McLean's burned-out car was found 3½ miles away. The prosecution contended that McLean spurned Simonson's sexual advance. No evidence of a sexual assault was presented at trial. Simonson claimed he was a victim of the actual murderer. He said he was hit in the head and was unconscious for eight to 10 hours during the time McLean was killed. The lawyer who represented Simonson at trial was later disbarred after stealing $174,000 from a trust he administered for four elderly people.
Prosecutor Wilzbach couldn't be reached for comment, but he issued a news release after the plea agreement was reached. He said that he had met with family members and friends of the victim. The consensus was that another successful prosecution of Simonson would be difficult to obtain. He said it would be difficult to duplicate all of the evidence that had been presented at the first trial. He said Simonson had "an exemplary record" in prison and that he is in poor health. He said that even if Simonson was convicted again he might not receive much more prison time.
"But more significantly," he wrote, "the defense has developed much more evidence and expert opinions to rebut our evidence than was developed and produced in Mr. Simonson's initial trial."
Wilzbach said it was important to Sheryl McLean's family that Simonson be convicted again for her murder, and her relatives signed off on the defendant being able to enter an Alford plea even if it meant that he would be released from prison.
The victim's family couldn't be reached for comment.
Simonson was sentenced on Nov. 6 to 32 years in prison, but because of a law in effect at the time of his 1993 sentencing he received one day credit of good time served for every day of the nearly 17 years that he actually served in prison -- meaning he was given credit for serving nearly 34 years. Consequently, he was released from prison. He must report to a probation officer for three years of supervised release.
Simonson played football, basketball and baseball and ran track in high school at Buhl. He was one of the state's fastest prep runners in 1960 and '61. He graduated from Minnesota State University-Mankato in 1968 with a bachelor of science degree with a major in biology and a minor in English. He worked as a teacher and coach in Minnesota before moving to Farina, Ill., with his wife, Grace.
Public defender Sanders praised Grace Simonson for standing by her husband and championing his innocence during his incarceration. She also credited private investigator Kevin McClain, who worked for 12 years to free Simonson.
"I don't think there was a dry eye in the courtroom," Sanders said of the scene when Simonson learned he would be a free man. "There were onlookers in the courtroom who weren't that familiar with the case, but were touched by it."
The News Tribune interviewed some of Simonson's former coaches, teachers, friends and his Illinois neighbors for a 2002 story. None of them believed that the boy and man that they knew was capable of murder. He was described as "polite, honest, trustworthy, pleasant and a leader."
Sanders said that Gerald and Grace Simonson plan to move back to Minnesota and that he will be able to serve his supervised release here.