Bank Robbery Suspects Released: exculpatory evidence frees the Sornbergers after 3 months in jail

by Mike Kroll

At a hastily-arranged hearing before Circuit Court Judge Stephen Mathers Tuesday afternoon, Knox County State's Attorney Paul Mangieri moved for and received the dismissal of all bank robbery charges against Scott and Teresa Sornberger of Knoxville. The couple had been arrested shortly after the January robbery of the Knoxville branch of First Midwest Bank and held in the Knox County Jail until their release this week.

Scott left the Knox County Courthouse a vindicated and free man. His wife Teresa was also released, but only after pleading guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice for falsely confessing to investigators that the pair had indeed robbed the Knoxville Bank.

An interesting collection of new evidence recently emerged that all but rules out the possibility that the Sornbergers were indeed the Knoxville bank robbers. This data includes an FBI photo analysis conducted at the behest of Mangieri that found irreconcilable differences between images of the Knoxville bank robber and police photos of Scott Sornberger. That was presented to Mathers Tuesday. Additional evidence supporting the Sornberger's innocence was also uncovered by Galesburg private investigator Steve Johnson following a tip from State Representative Don Moffitt.

It now appears highly likely that the Knoxville bank was robbed by a man currently suspected in upwards of 16 similar robberies across Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. According to Johnson, this man bears an uncanny resemblance to Scott Sornberger and it was this resemblance, combined with the occurrence of another bank robbery in Homer (near Champaign), that prompted Moffitt's brief involvement.

The Illinois legislature was still in session in March when Moffitt was watching a morning Springfield TV newscast. That newscast featured a story about the Homer bank robbery and brief footage taken from that bank's surveillance cameras. Sornberger was being held in the Knox County jail at the time of this robbery and therefore had, what Moffitt called, ''the best kind of alibi possible.''

''When I saw the television story I thought it was follow-up coverage of the Knoxville bank robbery,'' explained Moffitt. ''My family and I have attended the First United Methodist Church in Knoxville for a good number of years and so have Scott and Teresa Sornberger. While I do not know Scott well, I am sufficiently well acquainted with him to recognize his image and the pictures from the Homer bank robbery looked an awful lot like him. When I realized that this was of another bank robbery that took place while Scott was in jail under circumstances very similar to the Knoxville robbery, I thought it was very curious indeed.''

Moffitt contacted his pastor and mentioned seeing the television news coverage of the Homer bank robbery. The pastor, in turn, contacted Scott's parents with the information. When Scott's father, Ron Sornberger, passed the news on to Scott's attorney, Knox County Public Defender Jim Harrell, it was still just an interesting coincidence.

That all changed when Scott's mother traveled to Champaign and researched back issues of the local newspapers. She found news coverage and photos of the Homer robbery suspect that she copied and brought back to Harrell. Harrell turned this information over to private investigator Johnson.

''As I began looking into the Homer robbery the similarities with the Knoxville robbery were astounding,'' said Johnson. ''Not only did the robber look like Scott in the pictures, the physical descriptions from witnesses and the robber's M.O. were nearly identical between the two robberies. I took a series of photos taken from the Knoxville robbery bank cameras along with shots of Scott and traveled to Homer.''

When Johnson arrived in Homer, he met first with the bank president. ''I showed him photos from the bank cameras first and he recognized the robber right off. He told me that he thought it was the same man who had recently robbed his bank but he also admitted that his view of the robber was not nearly as close as that of the two tellers on duty at the time. He allowed me to meet with the tellers and show them the bank camera photos from Knoxville. Both of the tellers immediately recognized the robber as the same one that had robbed their bank and none of the three felt that my pictures of Scott were a match. A teller commented to me that Scott and the robber might have been brothers but they weren't the same person.''

When Johnson returned to Galesburg and presented this new evidence to local authorities, the FBI began to compare the video from Knoxville with that taken from a number of similar bank robberies across the region. According to Johnson this tactic had never before occurred to the FBI agent in charge of the Knoxville case, ''but this was his very first bank robbery investigation.'' Soon FBI officials had matched a series of 16 bank robberies, including a good number that occurred while Sornberger was in the Knox County Jail.

While none of this evidence was presented in court Tuesday, it certainly factored into Mangieri's decision to drop the bank robbery charges against the Sornbergers. His own effort to bolster the state's case against the couple led Mangieri to send copies of the Knoxville bank videotape along with photographs of Scott Sornberger to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va. for detailed analysis. FBI experts there determined that they could not be the same person.

But this evidence wasn't all that would prove embarrassing to local law enforcement authorities.

The investigation had immediately focused on the Sornbergers and both Scott and Teresa were questioned by police officers from Knoxville, the Knox County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and the City of Galesburg. Although the bank robbery took place outside of Galesburg's jurisdiction, Knoxville Police Chief Rick Pecsi invited participation and assistance from the Galesburg Police Department to augment his small department's limited resources. All four agencies were actively involved in the investigation.

During the robbery itself, a man closely matching Scott Sornberger's physical description approached a bank teller at the First Midwest Bank. The robber quietly handed the teller a bag and a note demanding cash while discreetly displaying a pistol tucked into his belt. In a matter of moments the teller filled the bag with cash and the robber left the bank. As is typically the case, the entire incident was captured in grainy video images by the bank's video surveillance cameras. It was the camera image that initially led authorities to question the Sornbergers.

Knoxville is a small town and the robber's image bore a remarkable similarity to Scott. On January 13th, Teresa was picked up at Scott's parent's home in Knoxville. According to Teresa's attorney, Julie Baldwin, she was taken to the Public Safety Building in Galesburg for questioning by Galesburg Police Department detectives Dennis Sheppard and Tony Riley. Baldwin explained Tuesday night that ''The two detectives sat Teresa at a table and threw still photographs taken from the video surveillance tapes on the table. They said, 'We know Scott did this robbery and these photos prove it so we will be arresting him shortly.' When Teresa protested Scott's innocence and told them that they were home together at the time of the robbery, Sheppard and Riley got sore.''

Baldwin and Teresa Sornberger's account of just what took place next has been the subject of legal debate in Knox County Circuit Court. According to Baldwin, Sheppard intimidated or coerced Teresa into confessing the couple's involvement in the robbery: ''Sheppard said to Teresa, 'Do I have to call DCFS to take your kid away from you to get you to cooperate?' The detectives were very convincing and Teresa feared that she would lose her child despite her innocence. She gave a relatively brief confession implicating both herself and Scott but it was under duress; the threat of DCFS action is what Illinois law considers 'improper influence.' Almost immediately after making this false confession, Teresa attempted to rescind it.''

The two police officers denied the use of coercion or threats during a hearing held in March where Baldwin had moved to have the confession suppressed. Judge Mathers also presided at that hearing and ruled that the confession was admissible while simultaneously cautioning the detectives of the legal limitations of invoking DCFS actions during an interrogation. Until Tuesday afternoon's dismissal, the couple had been scheduled to stand trial on May 22nd.

An interesting aspect of this case concerns Teresa Sornberger's guilty plea to obstruction of justice. Clearly if the FBI analysis is to be believed, that confession must have been false and Scott has maintained his innocence from the beginning. While knowingly making false statements to the police is clearly obstruction of justice, why would you file such a charge under these circumstances?

According to Baldwin, Mangieri refused to drop the obstruction charges and made dismissal of the bank robbery charges contingent on that plea. ''I believed in the motion I filed and I believed in my client,'' stated Baldwin. ''If she and Scott were innocent -- as everyone now accepts -- why else would she make the false confession except under duress? The insistence on Teresa's pleading guilty to the obstruction charge was the State's Attorney's way of extracting a pound of flesh from two innocent people who were at the center of a case that embarrassingly collapsed around him.''

''We all want the guilty to be caught and brought to justice for their crimes,'' commented Moffitt. ''But our system is based on the presumption of innocence even when we as individuals sometimes lose sight of that principle. It is very important that innocent men not be wrongly imprisoned and I only hope that the FBI catches up with the real robber of the Knoxville bank.''

Perhaps Johnson sums this case up best when he observes that ''most of the time you are never really sure whether a guy you help get off really committed the crime or not. In this case I am absolutely convinced of the innocence of the Sornbergers. What we have is a case of mistaken identity that almost went tragically wrong. These two people have already paid dearly for a crime everyone now acknowledges they had no part in.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 10, 2000

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