OREGON, Ill. — Steve Gecan emerged from the VFW post and eased his 88-year-old frame into his pickup. He still remembers the murders — and all the theories.
"Everybody had an idea" about who killed two people on a lovers lane here in 1948, said Gecan, who joined a state police search party for three days after the slayings. "Nothing was ever proven."
A few hours before Gecan's stop at the VFW, a Whiteside County judge delivered the latest twist in a controversial effort to solve the shocking crime. He tossed a lawsuit that claimed authorities engaged in conspiracy and civil rights violations while covering up the real killer's identity.
That killer, the lawsuit theorizes, was a now-deceased deputy sheriff.
"That was a story too," Gecan said of the theory. But he didn't want to talk about it. He turned the key in the ignition of the red truck and drove off.
The man behind that theory and the lawsuit is Mike Arians, a former Oregon mayor who runs a restaurant he says may be haunted by the ghost of one of the victims.
His legal effort is perhaps Arians' most strident and vocal stance in a 13-year odyssey to make someone accountable for the mystery, a pursuit that has drawn detractors and supporters in something of a race against time. As the years pass, the once-scandalous case fades from the collective memory of this scenic Rock River community about 100 miles west of Chicago.
In his ruling, Judge Stanley Steines said Whiteside County was an improper venue for Arians' complaint. The central action of the lawsuit — the murders of Mary Jane Reed and Navy veteran Stanley Skridla — occurred in neighboring Ogle County, the judge said.
That is Arians' next stop, he said, adding that he plans to streamline the complaint before filing it in Ogle.
"There's no such term as 'defeat' in our book," he said outside the courthouse after the Sept. 18 ruling. Reed's lone surviving sibling, Warren, stood next to him.
"We know we're right," Arians said.
The 20-minute hearing in a drab gray courtroom was perhaps noteworthy more for what was not discussed about the lawsuit than for what was. For the first time, Arians named a former Ogle County sheriff in a formal legal document as a cover-up conspirator.
Arians' complaint says Melvin Messer, sheriff from 1990 to 2006, told Arians of "widespread and common knowledge that the … deputy allegedly committed these crimes," but that Messer directed Arians to "keep that information hushed because there were still too many people alive it could hurt."
The suit also alleges that the Ogle County sheriff's file on the case is missing numerous original documents collected for the personal file of a retired sheriff, that the county has been reluctant to turn over X-rays of Reed's body and some remains after the body was exhumed in 2005 and that 13 minutes of audio are missing from the videotape review of the body at the exhumation.
"If we thought that we were chasing butterflies in the wind here or something," Arians said, "we would have given this up a long time ago. But we're going to call those people … no matter how long it takes, to be accountable for their inactions and indiscretions and this huge cover-up."
Messer, now a County Board member, said: "Mr. Arians is full of it. He's a jerk."
Messer called the allegation that he made the incriminating statements "bull." He did acknowledge turning over the sheriff's file to Arians and a man who was trying to produce a movie about the crime, a project that fizzled.
The movie is Arians' real motive, Messer said. "He's trying to make money," he said.
That's an allegation Arians, 63, has faced since he started looking into the case shortly after being elected mayor in 1999, and one that he dismisses by laughing about how much money and time he says he has spent — at least $50,000 and perhaps thousands of hours. He also said that his restaurant suffers and that he lost his re-election bid. Thirteen years of work wouldn't appear to be a winning strategy for a lucrative payoff, he said.
Arians became intrigued by the case after reading articles published around the 50th anniversary of the crime, he said. When he became mayor of Oregon, population 4,000, people told him that a now-deceased sheriff's deputy killed both lovers and that Arians should look into the case, he said.
A former insurance fraud investigator and Kane County Board member who produced and directed dinner theater, Arians followed their suggestion. He said he was alarmed to find many people claiming that the deputy sheriff, who died in the 1980s, killed the couple.
Arians began to view the case, he said, as "a horrible injustice."
Mary Jane Reed, 17, was a switchboard operator born and raised in Oregon. Stanley Skridla, 28, was a telephone company lineman from Rockford.
After finishing her shift on June 25, 1948, Reed went to several nightspots with Skridla before the couple ended up in Skridla's Buick on County Farm Road on the outskirts of Oregon. Police and coroner reports indicate that one or two people approached, pulled Skridla from the car and shot him several times.
A motorist found Skridla's body the next day, but Reed was missing, prompting a frenzied search. It ended June 29, when a trucker found her body, shot once in the head, in a roadside ditch about two miles north of where Skridla was found.
Already intense news coverage exploded, with the story on front pages in Chicago newspapers for days. Local law enforcement was overwhelmed, reportedly questioning 50 or more people but failing to make an arrest.
News coverage faded, and leads dried up. The case grew cold. No one was arrested; no charges were filed.
Suspicion of the deputy sheriff arose in large part because those familiar with the case said he had an affair with Reed. When she ended it a few days before the murders, he reportedly slapped her in public, investigators said. Arians' theory is that the jealous officer killed the two lovers.
But no direct evidence exists. The Tribune is not naming the deputy because he was never charged.
Those who knew the officer, including Messer, say he would never have done it.
"He didn't kill anybody," Messer said, adding that decades of "baloney" have led people to make accusations based on "little tidbits."
"Somebody says something," Messer said, "so it automatically becomes fact."
Ghosts in the Roadhouse
By 2003, Arians had focused on exhuming Reed's body and obtained Warren Reed's support. Since then, Arians has stirred action on the case and sought help from the known and unknown.
The exhumation was followed by an Ogle County sheriff's investigation that ended with authorities pointing to two now-deceased brothers intent on robbing Skridla as the likely killers.
But investigators declined to identify the brothers, and the sheriff's report from the review said the original investigation was influenced by "political, as well as social connections." Evidence was lost, destroyed, undocumented and not passed on to future sheriff's administrations, the report stated.
Finally, the report concluded, the original investigation "was corrupt and mishandled from the start."
About two years later, a forensic anthropologist revealed another shocker: The skull in Reed's casket did not belong to the skeletal remains.
And then there are the ghosts.
Over the years, Arians has contended that Reed's ghost inhabits his Roadhouse restaurant from time to time. He had erected a shrine of sorts to her in a balcony and has held seances to reach her, but he avoids talking about that.
Instead, he continues to press the case. In 2009, Arians asked the U.S. attorney for help. Nothing happened. Arians offered a $25,000 reward for Reed's skull in 2010. Last year, his attorney sent a letter to Ogle County demanding $1.5 million, alleging the county impeded justice for Warren Reed. In November, Arians filed the Whiteside County lawsuit.
He pursues this effort — "a lot of people like to use the word 'obsession,'" he once said — driven in part by what he considers authorities' view that Reed was "disposable." He's also motivated by a promise he made to Warren Reed to get closure.
"The guy's going to be 70 years old," Arians said. "His mother and father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles have been tortured, and their lives have been changed, by this murder."
Beyond saying that he, too, seeks closure, Warren Reed declines to comment.
Killer 'long gone'
On the afternoon of Steines' decision, Roger Hosier, 80, finished building a ramp for his wife in their Oregon home. He said he remembered the shock that coursed through town over the murders and remembered his parents discussing the case.
"I wish he'd just leave it alone," Hosier said of Arians. He worries that a court case could cost taxpayers a great deal of money.
"Besides that, the person who did it is probably long gone anyway," Hosier said. "They're not going to be able to do anything to them."
At the VFW post, Mike Dvorak was smoking a cigarette on the stoop. He said he likes Arians, who has helped Dvorak's gourmet food sales business, and voted for him. But Dvorak said solving the case or getting a settlement for Warren Reed is highly unlikely.
Too many people with knowledge have died, he said, and Arians has suffered.
"To each his own beliefs, I guess," said Dvorak, 66. "But it's digging up a can of worms. How much more can you pursue it to find out the answers?"