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.

'Horrible injustice'

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.