Following the bloody trail

download a pdf map of Nicholas Sheley's Trail of Terror

by Mike Kroll


Nicholas Sheley is only 28 years old but he already had a long criminal history prior to his recent arrest for first degree murder, aggravated battery, aggravated vehicular hijacking and theft; and those are just his Knox County charges, many more are pending elsewhere. Law enforcement officials in Whiteside County can recount a criminal career that spans nearly two decades and included felonies while Sheley was still in grade school. In just the last ten years since immediately prior to his 18th birthday Sheley has had numerous and regular run-ins with police, many involving violence or threats of violence, yet he has successfully avoided consequences for most of his actions. His most recent spree was so brutal that he literally left a trail of his victim's blood in his wake.

Today Sheley calls the Knox County Jail home as he sits awaiting trial for Knox County crimes that could earn him a death penalty but that are but the tip of an iceberg representing a multi-state violent spree that left at least eight dead. This current episode in Sheley's colorful life apparently began with the June 14th push-in home invasion of a 90-year old woman in Sterling where allegedly forced the woman to write him checks and stole cash and cigarettes before leaving her alive. Sheley is immediately the prime suspect and a $750,000 warrant is issued June 23 as the manhunt begins.

Family of 93-year old Russell Reed or rural Sterling report him missing at 8am on Thursday, June 26 along with his car. While investigating the Reed home Whiteside County Sheriff's deputies locate a car registered to Sheley parked nearby. By 3pm that afternoon police locate Reed's missing care in a residential driveway in Sterling and find Reed's bludgeoned body in the trunk. That evening an off-duty Rock Falls police office sights Sheley driving a white Lincoln Continental whose owner reports as stolen later that night. Along with the car itself Sheley was also believed to have taken cash and two hand guns. At 9:45 that night the stolen car with Sheley at the wheel is spotted by Dixon Police who unsuccessfully chase the fleeing vehicle until they lose sight of it. The next morning a Dixon resident reports that a red 1999 Jeep Cherokee was stolen from his home and the Lincoln is found abandoned nearby.

Police now believe Sheley drove to Chicago on Friday to sell the guns and other stolen merchandise and purchase drugs but the Whiteside County manhunt was in full steam. The local SWAT team conducted raids on multiple suspected hideouts in the Sterling-Rock Falls area and arrested Sheley's older brother Josh, 31 accused of assisting Sheley dispose of Reed's car by parking at his girlfriend's house where it was discovered. The girlfriend, Jenna Henson will be later arrested for allegedly helping Sheley disposed of blood-soaked clothes he may have worn in the five Saturday night murders.

After purchasing his drugs in Chicago Sheley drove first to Davenport where he telephoned his ex-wife from a rest stop pay phone. Police say Sheley had previously ditched his own cell phone shortly after the Reed homicide so he couldn't be tracked through it. He then drove to Rock Island where he apparently broke into the Illinois Petroleum facility where he stole some clothing and the truck he later drove to Galesburg Saturday night.

Geography brought Sheley to Galesburg on Saturday, June 28 where he is alleged to have accosted Ronald Randall at the Southard's Car Wash on East Main Street at a little after 8pm as Randall was vacuuming the interior of his dark gray 2007 Chevy Silverado pickup truck. Apparently Randall was leaning into the passenger-side door when Sheley is presumed to have attacked him from behind with a still unidentified “blunt object” beating Randall about the head and face. Randall was then carried or dragged to the tailgate of his truck and thrown into the truck bed beneath a tarp.

Earlier reports had Sheley arriving in Galesburg hours before Randall was attacked but police now believe that Sheley arrived in a stolen Illinois Petroleum truck just before 8pm that Saturday and he was gone within the hour. Evidence shows Sheley exiting westbound off I-74 at the Main Street exit. Officials have reason to believe that Sheley cruised at least one other parking lot as he searched for a replacement vehicle before he arrived at the car wash. Randall was already busy at his truck when Sheley arrived well before dark and accosted the 65 year old man in plain sight.

Mere minutes later Sheley is alleged to have driven eastbound on Main Street with Randall in the back of the truck. There is reason to believe that while Randall was mortally injured he was not yet dead when his body was dumped beside the dumpster in back of the East Main Street Hy-Vee. A trail of blood was found leading to and from the Hy-Vee dumpster area. Randall's body was not reported to police until Monday shortly after noon. It had been beside the dumpster approximately 40 hours before police were called are reportedly had been seen by Hy-Vee employees Saturday night who dismissed it as that of a drunk and did not investigate further until Monday.

Witnesses as well as other evidence have Sheley driving Randall's pickup truck into the parking lot of the Hy-Vee gas station at about 8:20 pm Saturday where he parked beside a gas pump and entered the convenience store to purchase cigarettes. Sheley was wearing bloody clothes from the Illinois Petroleum truck and he had visible blood on his face and neck but this apparently did not seem sufficiently suspicious to cause the gas station employees to take special note of the man or vehicle or call police. Again a trail of blood was found tracing the path of the pickup and puddling where it was briefly parked.

When Sheley drove off minutes later he turned eastbound on Main Street presumably to get back on I-74. Later that Saturday night he arrived back in Rock Falls. Police estimates place him there after 10pm.  In Rock Falls he allegedly attacked and beat to death two men (Kenneth Ulve Jr., 25 and Brock Branson, 29) a pregnant woman (Kilynna Blake, 20) and Blake's two-year old son in the apartment shared by the four. Speculation is that Sheley went back to Rock Falls to confront Branson who had previously had a relationship with Sheley's former wife, Holly. Branson met Blake in Utah and brought her and her son back to live with him in Rock Falls.

When Sheley left Rock Falls late Saturday night he was en route to Festus, Mo. Attempting to locate a woman with whom he had conducted a correspondence while in jail but who eventually scorned him. His letters to her as well as the return addresses on her letters to him all had a Festus address. Sheley allegedly spent much of Sunday in an unsuccessful search for this woman as he drove Randall's pickup.

A couple from Arkansas, Tom and Jill Estes (both 54) were also visiting Festus that weekend as they attended a graduation ceremony Sunday afternoon and evening. The couple left the party at around 10:30pm to return to their motel room at the Festus Comfort Inn along with two small dogs. They never made it back to their room that night because they had the misfortune of crossing paths with Sheley in the parking lot late that evening. The couple was brutally beaten in that parking lot and their bodies thrown into the bed of Randall's pickup truck so they could be driven a 1 1/2 miles to be dumped behind a gas station. St. Louis area police officials say they found the bodies by following yet another of Sheley's blood trails from the Comfort Inn parking lot to the Phillip's 66 gas station. The two small dogs were found wandering about the parking lot covered in their masters' blood.

Large amounts of blood were later found on the truck's passenger seat and in the truck bed that officials have positively identified to include that of Randall and Sheley. Other physical evidence, including Sheley's fingerprints, have been processed by forensic technicians in St. Louis where the truck was recovered on the morning of Monday, June 30th. St. Louis police believe Sheley abandoned the Randall truck and stole another vehicle that he used to return to Illinois, but not before he left a bloody trail in St. Louis.

When Randall's family reported him missing Monday they also told Galesburg Police about the On-Star system built into his missing truck and suggested that it could be used to locate him. At that time they did not suspect foul play. On-Star officials were contacted and subsequently were able to direct St. Louis police to the truck there. By the time the truck was located so too had Randall's body.

What is amazing about this case is that the suspect left such a clear and consistent trail of physical evidence at each step along the crime spree. While there are apparently no direct witnesses to any of the killings themselves there is ample evidence connecting Sheley to each and every one of them according to police officials. That is certainly true in the murder of Randall here in Galesburg and why Knox County State's Attorney John Pepmeyer was so quick to press charges against Sheley. Galesburg police and Pepmeyer have already hosted multiple conferences involving police officials and prosecutors from Whiteside County as well as St. Louis, along with Illinois State Police and lawyers from the Illinois Attorney General's office.

On Wednesday Sheley had his second Knox County Circuit Court appearance — before Judge Steven Bordner this time — where he was assigned a public defender until he can retain private counsel. He continues to wait in the Knox County Jail on a $1 million bond. So far the only other murder for which Sheley has been formally charged is that of Reed in Whiteside County but additional murder charges again him are expected in both Whiteside County and Missouri and it has yet to be determined where he should first be tried.

While many members of the press and public have opined that Sheley should first be tried in Whiteside County as Reed was the first victim and five of the eight victims were in that county, experienced lawyers counter that the best strategy is to try Sheley first where they have the most compelling case regardless of the chronology of events.