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HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED? – The Story Of Cleve Heidelberg, Jr. By Andy Hale

On May 26, 1970, a horrible crime took place. Peoria County Sheriff Sergeant Raymond Espinoza was shot and killed when he responded to an armed robbery call at the Bellevue Drive- In movie theater.

cleve-heidelbergCleve Heidelberg was arrested a few hours later when he went to retrieve his car that he lent to an acquaintance. Cleve didn’t know his car was used to commit the robbery at the Bellevue Drive-In or that a police officer had been killed. Cleve was thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten, and taken to the hospital for stitches over his left eye. He was sent to the Peoria County Jail where he was placed in a lineup. Despite his obvious injuries, one of the witnesses from the Drive-In couldn’t identify Cleve. The other identified two different men.

Days later, a Peoria County Sheriff’s Officer listened in on Cleve’s confidential conversation with his public defender. This officer wrote a police report documenting his illegal surveillance. This report was not shown to Cleve prior to his trial, probably because it would have helped his case. Cleve’s attorneys recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request that discovered the report.

As far as the strength of the case, there was no physical evidence linking Cleve to the crime other than the use of his car by the real killer. Plus, the police had other evidence that supported Cleve’s innocence. For example, Cleve was wearing a blue shirt and gray jacket when arrested, but the initial police radio calls said the killer was wearing a yellow shirt and brown jacket.

The killer crashed Cleve’s car at the intersection of Blaine & Butler and then fled on foot. The police chased but couldn’t catch the killer. Cleve did not show up at the scene until almost thirty minutes later, where the acquaintance told him he could get his car. The police sent numerous pieces of evidence found in the car to the FBI for fingerprint testing, but no fingerprint reports were ever produced prior to trial, despite Cleve’s repeated requests.

Here’s the most startling fact: After Cleve was convicted by an all-white jury, but before he was sentenced, another man came forward and confessed to the murder. That man had borrowed Cleve’s car from the acquaintance that night and used that car to commit the botched robbery. The acquaintance confirms that account. Police ignored the real killer’s confession and Cleve was sentenced to 99 to 175 years in prison.

Cleve was 27 years old at the time of his arrest. He is 73 years old today and remains incarcerated at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. State’s Attorney Jerry Brady refused to re-open the case. However, Judge Albert Purham, Jr. recently granted a motion asking for a special prosecutor to review Cleve’s case. Many, including a retired Peoria police detective, are hopeful that justice will finally prevail for Cleve Heidelberg after almost half a century behind bars.

Andy Hale is an attorney and documentary filmmaker based in Chicago.