NIU student’s family rips plea deal because killer “will walk someday free”
BY DAN ROZEK AND JANET LUNDQUIST Staff Reporters April 3, 2013 11:08AM
Updated: May 5, 2013 2:51PM
Toni Keller’s parents viciously blasted the last-minute plea deal that imposed a 37-year prison term on the man who killed their daughter because it means William Curl “will walk someday free.”
But DeKalb County’s top prosecutor fended off the blistering criticism of the agreement, calling it a “just result” for the 2010 slaying of the Northern Illinois University freshman.
The decades-long prison term will keep 36-year-old Curl behind bars until he’s too old to be a threat while also avoiding a potentially risky trial, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack said.
“We think it’s a just result, we think it’s consistent with what we’ve seen in this county in previous cases,” Schmack said Wednesday following Curl’s guilty plea and sentencing. “We think we have served the public, and we have served Toni by bringing her murderer to justice.”
But the agreement that abruptly surfaced just days before the DeKalb man was to stand trial for Keller’s murder outraged the victim’s family, angered Schmack’s predecessor, and even upset Curl’s own sister.
Keller’s parents weren’t in court Wednesday when Curl pleaded guilty — but in a Facebook posting they ripped Schmack for agreeing to a prison term Curl can survive. He likely will be released when he is 71, officials said.
“So he will walk someday free,” Diane Keller wrote in the posting. “ You just wanted to save your reputation, get out of office, you sicken me.”
She contrasted the move by prosecutors with the actions of her 18-year-old daughter, who fought Curl so strongly before her death that police later found six-inch-long scratches on his chest.
“Toni scratched the hell out of his chest fighting to save herself,” her mother wrote. “You people are a disgrace to the city of DeKalb.”
Curl faced a 20- to 60-year prison term if he had been convicted of killing and raping Keller, then burning her body in a DeKalb Park. A judge possibly even could have imposed a life sentence, if Curl had been convicted of all the charges, his attorney said.
Curl still “maintains his innocence,” but agreed to plead guilty to murdering the Plainfield woman to avoid a lengthier sentence if he had been convicted, DeKalb County Public Defender Thomas McCulloch said.
“If you roll the dice, you’re taking a chance on whatever the judge finally decides,” McCulloch said later outside the courtroom.
The outgoing Keller — an aspiring artist — vanished on Oct. 14, 2010 after telling friends she planned to visit Prairie Park, authorities have said.
She never returned, but her charred remains were found in the park two days later. Her body had been so thoroughly burned that it took DNA testing of a bone fragment to confirm her identity, assistant state’s attorney Stephanie Klein said during Curl’s sentencing hearing.
Several personal items found near her remains — including buttons from her jeans and eyelets from her shoes, as well as a fragment from her drawing board — also were identified by investigators.
Curl was arrested days later and charged with her death, after giving police several different statements about his contact with Keller.
He ultimately claimed that Keller died when she struck her head after suffering an apparent seizure during a sexual encounter in a secluded area of the park, Klein said. Curl told police he panicked after Keller’s death and burned her body.
The circumstances of her death would have made the case “challenging” to prosecute because there is no murder weapon, eyewitness or confession, Schmack said, explaining in part why he agreed to the plea deal.
“It was not a case that was so extraordinarily strong that we could simply reject any offer to plead guilty and take the risk he would be found not guilty,” Schmack said.
Schmack’s predecessor, who initially charged Curl, took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the plea agreement while saying the evidence against Curl was “overwhelming.”
“I think it’s outrageous to know that some point in the future Mr. Curl has the opportunity to complete his prison term and actually be a free man again,” said former State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, who narrowly lost the office to Schmack last fall.
Schmack wouldn’t comment on Campbell’s attack.
He acknowledged having limited contact with Keller’s family before agreeing to the plea deal, but said the timing was rushed because of Curl’s approaching April 15 trial.
Serious discussions about a plea deal began only last Thursday with Curl and his attorney, Schmack said. His staff left a telephone message for the Kellers that night, but he acknowledged no one talked to them about the proposed agreement until Monday.
Sometimes, he said, prosecutors are obligated to accept a plea agreement even if a victim’s family doesn’t agree.
“Our first obligation is to obtain a guilty plea. We obtained that,” Schmack added.
Curl’s hearing was interrupted briefly when his sister, Moira, began yelling from the courtroom gallery for her brother not to accept the plea deal.
“Billy, don’t take it, they’re railroading you,” she yelled, before being pulled out of the courtroom by deputies.
Curl himself stood quietly in orange jail fatigues, his hands cuffed to his waist, during the brief hearing before Judge Robbin Stuckert.
“Are you entering your plea voluntarily?” Stuckert asked at one point.
“Ah, yes,” Curl replied softly.
Curl made the final decision to accept the plea deal, his attorney said.
“He seemed at peace with it,” McCulloch said. “He was ready to get going,”
Though Keller’s relatives were upset about the short notice of the plea agreement, they simply have trouble accepting that under its terms Curl likely will walk out of prison alive, family spokeswoman Mary Tarling said.
“It’s just the concept that he could be released. When people say it’s going to be 37 years until he’s released, the only thing I hear is ‘until he’s released,’” said Tarling,