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People v. Hale

December 14, 2001


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Edwards County. No. 98-CF-13 Honorable Terry H. Gamber, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


The evidence presented in this case told the chilling tale of an April Fools' Day killing spree that began in parts of rural Indiana and ended in the darkness of a cemetery on the outskirts of Albion, Illinois. When Steve Hale and Chalk Wessell, a deadly duo, failed in their effort to make David Chalcraft their fifth murder victim of the day, Chalcraft was able to alert the authorities, focus an ongoing search, and enable the police to hunt them down.

The State was spared the task of bringing Wessell to justice. As the search party closed in, they heard a series of gunshots. When they found Wessell, he had a bullet lodged in his brain. Three misfortunate souls in Indiana, and one in Illinois, expired from the same condition that day.

Steve Hale faced a capital murder prosecution. This is the story that unfolded during the course of his trial.

The day was April 1, 1998. Hale and Wessell were in western Indiana when David Chalcraft left his Albion, Illinois, farmhouse and drove the country mile to where his parents lived. David shared an evening meal with his mom and dad. It might easily have been their last supper together.

While David enjoyed his mother's home cooking, Hale and Wessell enjoyed a mix of methamphetamine and cocaine. Their drug-induced pleasure had no conscience. They roamed the Indiana territory just east of the Wabash River, leaving a trail of human remains in their wake.

David completed his evening visit and prepared to return home. But as he exited the front door, an old friend passed by. Larry Sams decided to stop and share a few moments with his old buddy. It proved to be a fatal decision.

The spring foliage on the trees had not yet filled to a point that prevented David from seeing his own house from his parents' front porch. As he and Larry stood there chatting, David noticed a mysterious green car enter his driveway. Its occupants seemed to be inspecting David's home, his barn, and the surrounding grounds. David decided to investigate. He asked Larry if he would mind coming along to lend support. Larry gladly obliged. The two companions got into David's pickup truck and drove off to confront the two silhouettes in the green car that continued to troll the grounds next to David's house.

The green Chevrolet Camaro in David's driveway was the property of Pam Cook. But she was not in it. About the same time that David had started to dine with his folks, Pam had attended to a knock at her front door. When she greeted the stranger standing outside, he answered with the barrel of a pistol and a demand for her Camaro. After she readily surrendered her keys, she received an unkind bullet to the brain. Pam had died on her front porch a few hours earlier.

David and Larry were about to meet her killers, who were looking to trade one stolen vehicle for another.

Pam Cook was the third Indiana resident to have the misfortune of running into Hale and Wessell that day. Jeremiah Miller and Marlin Knepp each had their brief encounter with them. They, too, died from gunshot wounds to the head.

About 7 p.m. that same evening, while Indiana authorities continued to discover dead bodies, Hale and Wessell crossed the Wabash River into Illinois. They pulled into a Casey's General Store in Albion, Illinois. Wessell aroused the manager's suspicion by purchasing such sundry items as duct tape, leather gloves, a pair of pliers, and a set of screwdrivers. Thinking that Wessell was up to no good, the manager instructed a co-worker to get the license number of the green Camaro resting on the parking lot. Wessell saw what was happening. He threw a large amount of money onto the counter, told the cashier to keep the change, and rushed out of the store and into the car. He drove away in a hasty fashion.

The encounter was reported to the Albion police, who traced the car to the reported murder of Pam Cook in Indiana. Illinois State Police officers were summoned to the Albion area, where a massive manhunt got under way.

Hale and Wessell, worried that the store manager would report their license number to the police, decided to ditch Pam Cook's Camaro. They drove into the countryside in search of a different vehicle. Their search led them up David Chalcraft's driveway. Having discovered that Chalcraft's farm offered no vehicle to steal, Hale and Wessell decided to leave. As they drove down the long and narrow driveway, intent on finding another ride elsewhere, their search for another vehicle ended. David and Larry arrived in David's pickup truck.

The pickup and Camaro converged to a stop, five feet apart and squarely facing each other. There was nowhere for either vehicle to go. The two vehicles met at a point where the driveway rested atop a steep embankment, effectively blocking both vehicles from further movement.

Hale and Wessell had precisely what they wanted, a vehicle to replace the one that law enforcement officers would now be looking for. Their method of vehicular hijacking spelled imminent danger for David and Larry.

It was dark. David left his truck running and his headlights on as he exited his pickup. The Camaro's headlights were off, enabling David to see the two occupants inside. David approached the driver, intent on finding out his purpose for being there. He was about to find out, without inquiry. Wessell sat in the driver's seat armed and ready for the kill. The driver's door opened.

As David leaned forward to ask Hale and Wessell about their presence on his farm, Wessell thrust his weapon in the direction of David's head. David flinched from what he thought was an effort to hit him. Wessell shot him at point-blank range. Because of his reaction, David was spared a bullet to the head. The bullet passed through his neck instead. Fortunately, Wessell, now experienced at the effect of point-blank head ...

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