On October 18, 1955 a salesman had stopped at a Chicago-area nature preserve in order to have some lunch outside. What he found there was more than he had bargained for. In a ditch off the side of the path at the preserve were three bodies. All three had been young boys and all three had been stripped naked.
The salesman alerted authorities. Meanwhile, a local reporter had been listening into the police radio frequencies. Before the police had even arrived, crews from Chicago’s WGN television network had arrived on the scene. The graphic footage was broadcasted, to the horror of viewers, statewide.
The bodies had been left for hours as curious onlookers, investigators, photographers and media crews moved, poked and prodded the bodies as if they were some sort of macabre display. The bodies were quickly identified as three local boys who had been reported missing just two days prior – 14-year-old Robert Peterson, 13-year-old John Schuessler, and his 11-year-old brother Anton Schuessler.
The boys had went into town to catch a movie. Witnesses say after the matinee showing of Disney’s “African Lion,” the boys had made their way over to the bowling alley. Where they went from there, no one knows for certain. It’s suspected that the boys had attempted to hitchhike home.
The case made national headlines for months after the discovery of the bodies. Even the national coverage of the murders wasn’t enough for the case to gain any traction and it wasn’t long before the case went cold. It wouldn’t be until 40 years later, in the summer of 1994, that police would find a suspect.
Police were investigating the unrelated 1977 case of missing candy heiress and equestrian Helen Vorhees Brach and some suspected horse slayings when tips led them to the home of Kenneth Hanson.
Hanson was reported to have been nervous about the investigation and had asked neighbors if police had been watching his home. With the law hot on Hanson’s trail, Hanson prepared a suitcase in the event that he had to skip town, but the wheels of justice turned more rapidly that he suspected and Hanson was formally arrested in connection to the arson of a horse stable in 1972. Later that day he would be formally brought up on other charges. Murder.
It was during Hanson’s trial that prosecutors alleged that Hanson had picked up the boys as they were hitchhiking home and brought them back to the stable he had worked for at the time. There he raped at least one of the boys, strangled all three and then discarded them in the nearby nature preserve.
The prosecution’s case rested heavily upon the testimony of Roger Spry, who worked with Hanson at the stables. Spry was only 15-years-old at the time, but claims that not only did Hanson sexually abuse him, but at some point Hanson had admitted to the killings.
According to Spry, Hanson told him that the first boys’ murder was an accident. He had been molesting two of the boys when the third boy walked up on the act. He grabbed the boy by the throat and strangled him. Spry claimed that Hanson had then told him that he had no other choice but to kill the two others.
Three other witnesses also claimed that Hanson had confessed to the murders, but there was no physical evidence to link Hanson to the crime or evidence that the boys had been sexually assaulted. Hanson claimed he was on his honeymoon the day the boys had disappeared and denied having any involvement in the murders.
Unfortunately for Hanson’s defense, after 40 years there was no way to confirm the exact dates of Hanson’s alleged honeymoon and his alibi was seen as questionable by the jury. It also didn’t help that in spite of the lack of evidence to suggest that the boys had been molested or raped in any way, the judge presiding over the case allowed the prosecution to bring up Hanson’s “deviant lifestyle” and homosexual tendencies.
The defense had one last trick up their sleeve. During the time of the boys’ murder serial killer John Wayne Gacy had already been living in the area. The defense suggested that these boys may have been the first killings of one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, though Gacy would have only been 13-years-old at the time. The jury didn’t buy it.
Hanson was found guilty and sentenced him to 200 to 300 years in prison. After the trial a woman approached the judge and stated that her former husband was the real murderer. He had confessed the crime to her in 1956 and she left him shortly thereafter, which was later corroborated by witnesses of her own.
In May of 2000 Hanson’s case was overturned. The judge ruled that bringing up Hanson’s lifestyle choices and the prosecution’s statements about Hanson regularly cruising the streets searching for young boys should never have been heard by the jury.
Two years later, Hanson would be retried for the murders. This time he would be allowed to present evidence to the jury that someone else had also confessed to the murders. Again, in spite of the overwhelming lack of evidence except for several people who claimed Hanson had confessed to the murders, Hanson was sentenced to 200 years in prison.
In 2007 Hanson died in prison of natural causes. His appeal was still active at the time of his death.
Some say that the case died with Hanson. Though the prosecution maintains that the evidence against Hanson was more complex than what Hanson’s appeals lawyers claim, others aren’t as certain that the evidence against him was enough to send a man to prison for the rest of his natural life.