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10/29/87 the People of the State of v. Sharon Nieto

October 29, 1987





515 N.E.2d 376, 162 Ill. App. 3d 437, 113 Ill. Dec. 567 1987.IL.1608

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. Harold L. Jensen, Judge, presiding.


PRESIDING JUSTICE SPITZ delivered the opinion of the court. McCULLOUGH and KNECHT, JJ., concur.


On August 28, 1986, an indictment was filed charging Sharon Darlene Nieto with both the knowing and the intentional shooting death of Johnny Lee Willis which occurred on April 6, 1977, nine years earlier. Lee Albert Vine was also indicted with Nieto. Defendant Vine filed a motion for severance alleging the likelihood that he and Nieto would assert antagonistic defenses. Vine pleaded guilty to one count of murder on December 11, 1986, and was immediately sentenced to 24 years' imprisonment in the Department of Corrections.

On December 15, 1986, a jury trial commenced in Nieto's murder case. Previous co-defendant Vine was one of the principal witnesses to testify against Nieto. Vine testified that he, along with Robert Fertner, had killed Johnny Lee Willis by shooting him in the back of the head. At the time of the killing, Vine was a medical service specialist at Chanute Air Force Base. Vine testified that Fertner, his roommate, who was also in the service, rode with Vine in Vine's pickup truck south of Rantoul to rendezvous with a car driven by Nieto in which Willis was a passenger. Vine stated that he had previously agreed to kill Willis with Fertner and with Nieto, who was also in the Air Force.

Vine further testified that he had first met Nieto as a patient in the base hospital, and that he met her again through a friend of Fertner's, who knew that Nieto had "boyfriend problems" and wanted them resolved. Vine could not recall with specificity how long before the shooting he and Nieto made their agreement. According to Vine's testimony, it could have been "days or weeks." He testified that he asked if Nieto wanted Willis dead, and that she said yes.

Vine stated that he, alone, planned the killing and all the details of how it would occur. He had never met Willis before the night of the shooting. He testified that he had told Nieto to drive Willis to a predesignated location near Rantoul, and that Nieto complied with this order. According to Vine's testimony, he and Fertner waited along the way on a side road north of Route 136 near a bridge. Vine testified that when Nieto drove by, he and Fertner crossed Route 136 and followed her out into the country. Vine testified that he had attached a revolving red light to his truck so that Nieto would stop her car.

Once the car had stopped, Vine testified that while armed with his shotgun, he approached Willis and said, "Look who we have here." Simulating police action, Vine ordered Willis out of the car and told him to put his hands on the roof of the car to be searched. Vine testified that he then told him to lie down on the ground. When Willis complied, Vine shot him in the head. Vine testified that after shooting Willis, he told Nieto to go home, she left, and he and Fertner returned to his truck and drove away.

Vine further testified that he believed he had been paid approximately $100 or $150 for his agreement to kill Willis, but that he could not recall the exact amount or even if that money had been paid, because Fertner handled that part. He recalled that he and Fertner had been promised $200 each by Nieto, but he could not remember if either ever received the rest of the money because he "wasn't interested in it." Vine testified that his motivation for the killing was not really money. His motivation for killing Willis was an Air Force inspired "us versus them" mentality combined with a desire to test his own emotional resolve.

Vine testified that he recalled seeing Nieto twice after the shooting, once when she was a patient in the hospital and once when he bought used furniture from her. Vine could not identify Nieto in court at her trial.

Vine further testified to the terms of his guilty plea agreement. He pleaded guilty to the offense of the murder of Johnny Lee Willis and was sentenced to a term of 24 years' imprisonment in the Department of Corrections.

Under questioning by the defense, Vine stated that in the trailer he shared with Fertner he kept the shotgun used in the murder, a couple of rifles, and a few handguns. Vine testified that Fertner owned a double-barreled shotgun, a .22, a high-powered rifle, and some handguns, and that on the night of the murder, Fertner was armed with his loaded double-barreled shotgun and .44 magnum. Vine testified that he had observed Fertner playing violent fantasy "soldier of fortune" games three or four times a week, in which he would shoot an unloaded gun or wave a bayonet at imaginary enemies in the trailer.

Further cross-examination of Vine revealed that he had been questioned by the police within days of the shooting. The police read Vine his rights, told him that they wanted to discuss the victim's death, and then asked Vine why he had killed Willis. Vine said his voice cracked, and he denied the accusation. Vine refused to take a polygraph examination. He said he had no idea why he had been investigated in connection with Willis' murder at that time. Vine was not questioned again about the killing until nine years later, when he was arrested in Ohio. Arresting Officer Fletcher asked him if he knew "Sharon," and Vine replied in the negative. After being transferred to Champaign and before pleading guilty to murder, Vine read police reports which included Fertner's statements that implicated Nieto. Vine acknowledged that if he had not testified against Nieto, he would not have been able to secure his plea agreement.

Robert Fertner also testified for the State concerning the events on the night in question. At that time, he was a medic at the Chanute Air Force Base hospital and lived with Lee Vine off base in a mobile home. He testified that he accompanied Lee Vine when Vine killed Johnny Lee Willis on a country road outside of Rantoul. His testimony was similar to Vine's about the details of the killing, but Fertner added that Vine used a spotlight in addition to the flashing red light to get Nieto to stop her car. Fertner testified that he left Vine's truck while Vine posed as a police officer, and that Nieto was "half in" and "half out" of her car when Vine made Willis lie down on the road and shot him. Fertner testified that he was armed that night with a loaded military revolver.

Fertner was able to identify Nieto in court at the trial. He testified that he had met Nieto shortly before the killing and she had discussed with him her problems with Willis. According to Fertner's testimony, Nieto said she wanted Willis out of her life, Vine asked her if she wanted him dead, and Nieto responded affirmatively. Fertner testified that he had never met Willis before the shooting. A few days before the shooting, Fertner thought Nieto agreed to pay $200 for the killing.

Fertner testified that after the incident, he went into shock and kept repeating "is he," referring to the death of Willis. Fertner said he participated in the shooting of Willis because of Fertner's strong friendship with Vine, his mentor, to whom Fertner was a "naive" and "faithful sidekick." Fertner testified that he was also on antituberculin medications on the night of the ...

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